“Digital modernization” is a phrase that can conjure excitement, hesitance and confusion, sometimes all at once. Within the federal government, digital modernization can span a range of applications, from automating back-end processes, to implementing data-informed decision making, to adopting low- and no-code platforms. The value of modernization, however, is often clouded by uncertainties about how these changes will affect the workforce and its ability to deliver. This is a major challenge, as modernization is one of the most important ways agencies can accelerate mission outcomes and improve the operations, processes and systems required for mission success. Unfortunately, these benefits are not always clear from the outset, especially when modernization involves significant changes in day-to-day work.
One of the biggest hurdles federal agencies face is apprehension within the staff, stemming from misconceptions about digital modernization and how it can enable mission success. While these myths are pervasive, clear communication from mission, functional and IT leaders can counter them and highlight the value of digital modernization. As part of that communication, leaders must address four key employee concerns.
The automation boogeyman
Federal workers often worry that digital modernization and increasing use of automation will lead to a loss of jobs. Without a clear sense of how automation will take shape in the federal government, these concerns are understandable. But digital modernization is not intended to replace or concentrate jobs; rather, these initiatives strive to make work more efficient and impactful. When appropriately implemented, digital modernization streamlines workflows, automates burdensome processes, and empowers workers to focus on high-value activities that bring more benefit to their agency.
Back-end functions that are ripe for modernization include settlements, clearances, record maintenance, regulatory compliance, accounting, IT services and more. Broader initiatives — like the adoption of low/no-code platforms — can further boost efficiency and be tailored to the specific needs of an agency, without necessarily requiring advanced knowledge of computer systems.
Contrary to employee concerns, digital modernization is actually a means of enhancing their work and relieving them from the burden of outdated processes. Agency leaders should address the uncertainty around automation and communicate the myriad ways in which digital modernization will benefit the entire organization. It is not about job losses or replacement; digital modernization is essential for agencies to thrive in today’s world.
Is this really relevant?
Since digital modernization is often regarded as a technologically-complex undertaking, many workers question its relevance outside IT. This myth also arises from a lack of clarity about what digital modernization entails and how the agency will benefit from it.
Digital modernization is focused on improving mission efficiency and performance, an objective of all federal civilian employees. Between upleveling workflows, reducing unnecessary friction, and re-calibrating an organization around the end user experience, digital modernization touches on (and upgrades) agency work at all levels. In other words, digital modernization is relevant for IT leaders and workers — but also for everyone else.
The importance of these modernization initiatives is underscored by the assessment of federal workers themselves. A recent report from ICF found that 59% of federal employees are concerned digital modernization failure will negatively impact the customer experience. The workforce understands the potential impact of digital modernization on end users, which makes it even more important to clearly explain how these initiatives will affect employees and internal processes. Far from a niche undertaking, digital modernization is an all-of-government effort.
A common misconception about digital modernization is that the costs of overhauling legacy processes outweigh the value of doing so. Digital modernization can revolutionize the way agencies operate and perform their mission. Given the magnitude of the challenge, it makes sense that workers would worry about the potentially exorbitant costs of successful implementation. And in the absence of a clear understanding of how digital modernization will achieve these outcomes, they wonder whether the trade-off is worth it.
The truth is, failing to modernize can generate long-run costs that are far greater than the expense of modernization. Legacy processes cannot keep up with the pace of technology. Over time, they will hold agencies back and lead to suboptimal outcomes, directly impacting the citizens that agencies exist to serve. In turn, these negative effects multiply, leading to government services that are unresponsive and unable to meet the needs of customers and stakeholders. Aging systems also increase cybersecurity risks; as time and money is spent patching legacy technology, potential vulnerabilities can be missed.
Digital modernization demonstrates the wisdom of investing now to save later. For example, moving data and systems to the cloud is a costly endeavor, but it cuts reliance on expensive on-premises infrastructure, while providing a range of benefits like an improved user experience, increased reliability, intuitive navigation of sites and databases, and more efficient workflows. This is just one of many examples that justifies the upfront costs of digital modernization. By improving the ways that agencies operate, the federal government can fulfill its job of providing vital services to citizens, now and in the future.
If it ain’t broke…
Finally, some may point to a long track record of mission success under existing processes and practices and conclude, ‘If it’s not broken, there’s no need to fix it.’ While agencies have been able to perform their mission using long-standing practices, digital modernization is crucial to futureproofing services in an increasingly digital world.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a foundational shift that is incorporating new technologies into everyday life — from vastly-expanded online services, to work-from-home infrastructure, to the growth of the digital world. Agencies must now keep pace with progress or risk falling short of their mission. Maintaining the status quo is appealing, but it simply won’t cut it. Government services cannot risk becoming mired in archaic processes. Digital modernization is crucial to meeting agency missions and serving citizens effectively.
Tying it all together
While these misconceptions regarding digital modernization can be countered and dispelled, doing so requires a unified message from mission, functional and IT leaders. They must clearly communicate the goals and intended outcomes of digital modernization initiatives. As leaders, they must not only guide the organization through these initiatives but also help employees keep aligned and focused along the way.
This job is, in many ways, as challenging as digital modernization itself; it’s also just as important. ICF’s report on federal digital modernization efforts found that 73% of surveyed federal employees think their agency lacks a clear vision for digital modernization, while a whopping 98% said they have concerns about their agency’s ability to execute its digital modernization plans over the next 12 months. There’s much work to be done, but that work is both necessary and worthwhile.
Above all, it’s important to have alignment and clear communication within the agency, reinforcing the message at every opportunity so all employees understand how they fit into the bigger picture. By unifying around what digital modernization is and how it will benefit mission performance, agencies can counter myths, realize digital modernization’s wide-ranging benefits, and position themselves for long-term success.