IT Modernization is a long game

Those working in government service are all too familiar with the policy shifts that come with each new administration. Such shifts often result in a redirection of priorities and investment. It’s understandably fitting that the course of federal efforts reflects the will of the people who elected their leaders.

However, there are some initiatives critical enough to national safety and well-being that they must transcend ideology and politics for the good of the country, regardless of who is in office. For example, the FBI director serves a 10-year term, and the Social Security Commissioner serves a five-year term. Technology modernization rises to that level of importance.

IT innovation undertaken in four-year increments is not sufficient or efficient. Technology simply changes too fast, so benefitting from advanced capabilities requires staying more current. At the same time, underlying IT infrastructure and architecture needs to be both enduring and flexible to sustain a long-term vision while adapting to what’s new. It’s a balancing act.

Proactively embracing technology advances early, and with a longer term outlook, will help the federal government drive innovation that yields tangible budget savings while improving operational efficiency and citizen outcomes. Here are a few considerations:

Use cloud migrations for efficiency and innovation

Contrary to popular belief, “the cloud” does not equal modernization; transferring workloads or applications to the cloud doesn’t make a process de-cluttered or better organized. At its basic level, moving to the cloud is renting space. Just as a rail car sitting in a yard is not on a progressively moving train, a workflow sitting in a cloud does not mean automatic innovation. Moving to the cloud does create an opportunity to revisit existing workflows, processes and rules that would make a cloud transition part of a true modernization effort.

It requires some planning, but like moving house, why pay to relocate the clutter? IT teams will be well served to conduct a pre-analysis of how workflows can be aligned, automated and innovated to take advantage of other resources that will be available once in the cloud environment.

For example, the workflow for a citizen applying for Social Security benefits might be streamlined from Social Security Administration staff performing many manual data capture steps to automatically scanning and attaching taxpayer-provided images to the taxpayer’s account. Similarly, data on stock trades that stock brokers digitally provide to the IRS could be automatically associated to a taxpayer’s account instead of the taxpayer providing the data manually.

Increase flexibility and incident readiness

Regular incremental modernization can also be the first step to better incident readiness. General modernization solutions are by their nature more flexible and can be redeployed more easily to accommodate the unexpected. For example, it could be imprudent to stockpile face masks because they might not be helpful in the next health crisis. But what is prudent is to increase overall readiness to address whatever that need will be. That depends on maintaining a modernized IT inventory that can be turned up to address the needs of the day, not turned on for the first time in a hurry. Network bandwidth consumption is a useful example. The government will experience known consumption peaks (i.e., at tax filing time) as well as unexpected peaks (i.e., the pandemic-driven remote work surge); but agencies shouldn’t have to buy for the peak and stay there. A better option is to apply technical solutions that can automatically analyze consumption patterns from broadband provider data, outline various kinds of surges, and moderate capacity usage accordingly.

Adjust budgeting practices

Of course, agencies’ ability to modernize is constrained by the government’s approach to capital planning, appropriations and purchasing. Operations and maintenance vs. capital expenditure budgeting overlooks an accurate cost-benefit analysis. If technology is still viable, it’s kept―regardless of the overhead. But the cost of new technology has come down so dramatically that the payback curve is much steeper than even a few years back. For some technologies it’s as little as one year.

Consequently, the cost of maintaining older technologies is now often higher than simply adopting newer ones. Agencies also experience lost opportunity cost, increased cybersecurity risk from running older, more vulnerable systems, and suppressed workforce skillset advancement.

There is an opportunity for government to shift the focus of appropriations and budgeting toward retiring technology at the end of its cost effectiveness. Baking in the progression through mechanisms like multi-year planning or multi-year funding would allow momentum to be sustained, whenever in an administration’s tenure a modernization initiative begins.

Modernization protects national security and well-being

Continuity of technology that underpins virtually everything the government does is crucial to protecting our American way of life. It’s not a point-in-time event. Instead, it should be a process that’s continually measured and accounted for to understand where new technologies need to be implemented more effectively.

Dave Turner is President and CEO for Hitachi Vantara Federal.