Five lessons from the pandemic for federal leaders

It is hard to overstate the impact of COVID-19 on our lives this past year and a half. Work, school, doctor visits, shopping, travel, family gatherings and entertainment were all reimagined and redesigned.

The pandemic also accelerated our collective recognition that every business, every government agency, and every organization is truly now a technology organization. Just about everything that could be enabled by technology — even collaboration itself — now is.

So, what have we learned from this experience? And where do those lessons lead us?

New research by Accenture Federal Services suggests that many executives in the federal space view this period as a clear inflection point. Fifty-seven percent of federal executives report that the pace of digital transformation for their organization is accelerating; 97% say the pandemic created an unprecedented stress test for their organization; and 91% report their organization is innovating with urgency.

These survey results and other insights highlighted in our latest annual Federal Technology Vision report corroborate what many of us already sense intuitively. Federal agency leaders are feeling the pressure of this fast-changing world and are racing to keep pace.

Here are five trends we uncovered that agency leaders should keep in mind as they chart their path ahead and prepare for further unexpected disruptions:

Stack strategically

Modernization cannot be thought of as simply migrating workloads from legacy platforms to the cloud. Agencies will need to think about technology differently by making their business and technology strategies inseparable, if not indistinguishable. To accomplish this, the agency’s technology architects can no longer be “supporting cast” — increasingly, they will need to be “center-stage performers” from a strategic perspective. This is because technology today is no longer a one-size-fits-all proposition. The ever-expanding abundance of “as a service” solutions, improvements in technology standards, AI models, as well as cloud services and deployment options make it possible for agencies to design and assemble stacks of technological capabilities customized to their unique missions and business needs.

Agencies will need to think about the long-term impact these choices may have — either limiting or propelling them in the future. Today, these decisions tend to be managed by the CIO and other IT leaders in the agency. But to be successful, the agency’s mission and business leaders will also need to play an active role by learning how emerging technologies can propel the agency’s mission and business operations forward and help to guide related decisions.

A mirrored world

Organizations can now create digital twins that use real-world data to replicate the performance of complex, living systems in a virtual environment to identify potential points of contention, points of failure, early indicators of bottlenecks or subpar performance, vulnerabilities and inefficiencies. This is a powerful capability that organizations will increasingly leverage to deliver enhanced mission performance and end user services.

Many federal agencies, including the Energy Department’s Idaho National Laboratory, the military service branches, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, are using or exploring digital twin technologies to support decision-making across the enterprise for a wide array of use cases.

For example, digital twins can assist with asset optimization, risk awareness and mitigation, productivity enhancements, troubleshooting and diagnostics, and even predictive maintenance and analyses. The Naval Sea Systems Command uses them today to improve efficiency and productivity at its shipyards while many healthcare-focused agencies are actively exploring how digital twins can improve patient diagnosis and treatment.

I, technologist

Technology is becoming more user-friendly and intuitive. We see federal employees of all stripes — not just IT specialists — employing a wide variety of emerging, mostly cloud-based tools to create custom dashboards, run data analytics, launch low-code or no-code applications, and even introduce automation and AI into their workstreams. We are seeing federal employees, for example, deploy robotic process automation (RPA) bots to automate the most routine, time-consuming tasks of their job to free them up to do higher-value work.

As this trend takes hold, we will see more federal employees build on their mission knowledge to select the appropriate technologies and tools to address requirements themselves. This trend will empower employees to operate as IT specialists regardless of their job classification and enable them to take advantage of IT approved self-service tools and solutions.

This trend carries several key implications. For example, IT departments increasingly will no longer be the gatekeepers for all things IT. They must shift into more of a collaborator and enabler role with the mission and business sides of the agency. In addition, it will become incumbent upon agencies to build greater digital fluency across the enterprise through training programs to enable employees to better leverage the available, IT secured, do-it-yourself-type technology tools.

Anywhere, everywhere

When the pandemic hit, businesses and government agencies alike sent their people to work from home and doubled down on technology to keep organizations productive. In fact, 79% of federal executives surveyed agreed that their organization’s employees had just experienced the largest and fastest human behavioral change in their histories as a result. It is increasingly clear that we are moving into a new future where work can be done anywhere and everywhere. It is not just technology that is evolving; it is entire workforces.

Today’s bring your own environment (BYOE) paradigm, bringing entire environments to work, will certainly outlast the pandemic which means organizational leaders will need to reassess the size and purposes of the physical office. In the future, successful organizations will be the ones who put energy into rethinking their workforce model during these times of change.

From me to we

Federal executives learned during the pandemic that the capabilities of their own agencies only stretched so far. Optimal business and mission outcomes require the combined capabilities and expertise of multiple organizations working in collaboration on a basis of trust. Multiparty systems are emerging across many commercial sectors; but many federal agencies also are exploring them as a way to bring greater efficiency, transparency, accountability, security, interoperability and confidence to their transactions and processes.

What these trends all have in common is that they will empower organizations to be more resilient and better positioned for a future defined by a rapid pace of disruption. By stacking strategically, for example, federal agencies can preposition for and optimize their ability to build unique business and mission services. With digital twins, agencies can model an infinite array of scenarios to better prepare for a multitude of future possibilities. And by operating within a wider ecosystem of trusted partners, agencies can apply a broader array of expertise and capabilities to the challenges they encounter.

Federal leaders must keep technology front and center as they position for the future and pivot from a reactive to a proactive posture. COVID-19 certainly won’t be the last major disruption we see — consider, for example, how many Americans were personally affected by the recent cyberattack on the Colonial Oil pipeline in the eastern U.S.

But it does illustrate how federal agencies must take steps now to become masters of change to achieve mission success.

Kyle Michl is the chief innovation officer at Accenture Federal Services.

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