How government technology leaders can plan during the supply chain crisis

From empty shelves at the local grocery store to an Amazon package that never seems to arrive, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically slowed the global supply chain.

This disruption goes beyond the consumer goods that everyone sees. Today, technology leaders must know that these delays carry over to the information technology hardware solutions and upgrades they rely on for meeting their mission.

To avoid potential problems later, such as end of service life technology being...

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From empty shelves at the local grocery store to an Amazon package that never seems to arrive, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically slowed the global supply chain.

This disruption goes beyond the consumer goods that everyone sees. Today, technology leaders must know that these delays carry over to the information technology hardware solutions and upgrades they rely on for meeting their mission.

To avoid potential problems later, such as end of service life technology being still in use, technology departments must plan for future needs further in advance, something that may be difficult with the federal government’s current IT planning and procurement structure.

Avoiding just-in-time acquisitions

The nature of agency operations creates an environment that hinders acquisition at times. Many technology leaders find themselves only able to adequately plan technology investments for the coming year thanks to changing budgets, shifting priorities based on agency leadership, and more immediate needs consuming resources.

This has created a dynamic called just-in-time acquisitions that act akin to plugging holes with a finger to keep a coming flood at bay. Federal technology leaders have long understood the challenges with this dynamic, and many have expressed a desire to operate with more planning based on a long-term vision. With just-in-time acquisitions a long term view beyond the current fiscal year is challenging to say the least. Only the most pressing investments may be made, unaware of the impact to other areas of the environment.

Under ideal circumstances, agencies should move away from just-in-time acquisitions. The supply chain crisis has exacerbated this need. For instance, agencies without a long-term strategy may find themselves looking to replace broken IT hardware only to find months-long manufacturing delays which may impact the ability to deliver on their mission.

The shortage of microchips has already impacted 169 different agencies, according to Goldman Sachs, with some supply chain experts believing it could take years for supply chains to return to normal. For an agency looking to fill an immediate need, the availability of products may not exist in a convenient time frame.

How to avoid the supply chain crunch

To begin to break the cycle of just-in-time acquisitions, agencies must have a strategic vision for their IT architecture that looks at least three years into the future. Technology leaders should have insight into what technology components in their environment they will request each year, with money to shift as needed. This is especially true for identifying potential pain points before they exist.

To fully understand hardware and software lifecycles within their environment the strategic plan has to occur at the correct management level. That could be a section chief, a GS-15, or even an SES. They will best understand the direct technology requirements that may be lost on C-level leaders or department deputies. Ideally, this person is empowered to make decisions and can claim responsibility for the program’s success.

Government technology leaders want to work on this more extended timeframe, but it may not always be possible. Government technology departments operate under different restraints than their private-sector peers as previously mentioned, and this type of planning may not be realistic.

To combat that challenge, technology leaders can apply several best practices:

  • Leverage a flexible architecture. A more flexible architecture brings simplicity and reduces complexity when an architectual component needs to be replaced. Create a technology structure of open components that can be added and subtracted with increased ease.
  • Focus on maintenance. Upgrades often get overlooked but performing all modifications when available can extend the life of technology components and ensure the environment is operating with the most current features.
  • Improve operational efficiencies. Taking advantage of automation where possible and leveraging newer technologies that require less human intervention can improve the total output.

The path forward

The ongoing supply chain crisis has brought a unique challenge for all organizations. It requires advanced preparation for everything from a government department’s information technology architecture to Saturday night’s dinner.

Government technology leaders must understand that the supply chain issues will not resolve quickly. And even when they do, the former timing structure for purchasing new technology hardware and replacements was tenuous at best. Use this crisis as an opportunity to rethink technology planning and to emphasize to department leadership the importance of a three-year purchasing plan.

Gary Hix is chief technology officer for Hitachi Vantara Federal.

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