Modernizing government IT for a new world of citizen demands

There have been several recent examples of IT infrastructure struggling to meet demand, leading to widespread system failure.

There have been several recent examples of IT infrastructure struggling to meet demand, leading to widespread system failure. These challenges often serve as an alarm for businesses and entities with aging technology — and it’s even more pressing for the public sector.

For decades, federal agencies have had a mixed track record when it comes to modernization. Government infrastructure has traditionally relied on a patchwork of systems, installed at various times, that weren’t inherently designed to work together. Without the funding, time or approval to conduct full assessments of what is and isn’t working, adoption of system-wide, interconnected solutions is often rare.

Today, the world is radically interlinked, ever-changing and rapidly evolving alongside constant technical innovation. The pace of change in AI, automation and cybersecurity, combined with increased consumer expectations, has created new pressures for the federal government, and, too often, governments’ technology infrastructure is not able to cope with the demand.

As technology rapidly evolves around them, people continue to expect more out of everyday interactions — including those with government services. When implemented properly, a strong interconnected IT infrastructure not only simplifies internal operations, but it sets the stage for great experiences. Governments must adopt this thinking, positioning them to treat the citizen experience in the same way that leading brands treat their customers.

What’s holding back government IT back

As someone who has both worked for the federal government and helped government agencies transform their operations, I’ve observed the many challenges agencies face from multiple angles. Here are a few things I’ve seen the most often.

First, federal systems and data are extremely fragmented. While individual agencies may successfully implement a new program, most struggle to build services that cut across programs and agencies. For example, in the U.S., there are dozens of loan programs across multiple government agencies. These programs are rarely connected on the backend, meaning that if someone wants to apply for more than one type of loan, they need to re-enter their information separately for each application. That’s far from a great user experience. Why not use the information from one application to populate as much information as possible on the next application?

Second, federal IT infrastructure continues to show its age. Many systems are decades old. They’re exposed to an increasing number of security vulnerabilities, and it will be challenging to do work in a zero trust environment. Further, government systems are often unable to deal with exponentially increasing demands from citizens. As proof, just look at the challenges people experienced applying for unemployment insurance during the pandemic.

A third major factor is the limited budget. Each year, the federal government spends upwards of $100 billion on IT and cyber-related investments, according to the Government Accountability Office. Around 80% of that spend goes to maintain existing infrastructure. This means there is very little budget left for implementing innovative new programs and services that could help better meet citizens’ needs. Simply put: few agencies have the room in their budgets to make the big infrastructure overhauls required to build the modern, responsive systems citizens expect and deserve.

The solution: A more cohesive approach to governmental services

Ultimately, solving the fundamental problems facing the federal government’s IT infrastructure requires a shift in how government views citizens: Rather than think of them as a user of a single agency or program, they must be seen as customers of the entire federal government. A true cohesive platform approach.

When agencies view the challenge with that mindset, everything else falls into place. Just as today’s consumers expect seamless always-on services from technology and financial services companies, they also expect great experiences from their interactions with the government. That means being able to go to a local store to access a government service, instead of having to make it all the way to a government office. Everything is seamless and interconnected. Delivering on these rising consumer expectations requires an innovative approach to integrating federal data and managing our systems. Agencies and programs can no longer operate as silos. Working together as one cohesive unit that includes data-sharing and automation must become the norm.

A new era for government infrastructure

In an era of major natural disasters, economic recessions and one-in-a-generation pandemics, bad digital experiences aren’t merely an inconvenience – they can be a matter of life and death. In this environment, speed, responsiveness and resilience are top-tier concerns.

Despite the challenges we face today, we have a new opportunity: Let’s build a new, top-down national digital strategy that will put the federal government in a much stronger position to respond to the evolving needs of our country and its citizens.


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