Maintaining momentum: 3 strategies to avoid digital modernization stall-outs

Federal agencies are starting to reap the benefits of digital modernization, resulting in stronger digital solutions, increased efficiency, and future-proofed s...

Federal agencies are starting to reap the benefits of digital modernization, resulting in stronger digital solutions, increased efficiency, and future-proofed systems. While these are significant strides, there are several key areas where agencies still have room to improve.

Despite significant progress in the past year, agencies still have a long way to go to meet digital modernization goals, according to 70% of federal workers. Pitfalls loom that can slow or stall out these efforts, placing any modernization headway in jeopardy. To combat these hurdles, agency leaders must focus on key areas: earning worker buy-in, establishing strong communication across the organization, and upskilling staff. Doing so can mean the difference between a cohesive agency making continuous modernization progress and one stuck trying to get modernization efforts off the ground.

We’re all in this together: Earning worker buy-in

Digital modernization is gaining momentum across federal agencies, with an overwhelming 87% of workers supportive of efforts. This is a momentous achievement for federal agencies, which have historically been slower to modernize than other industries, in part due to deeply entrenched legacy systems and workflows. An agency culture that views change positively and has opportunity for growth is essential to successful digital modernization, as these efforts often lead to an overhaul of the previous status quo. Despite encouraging views towards digital modernization efforts, 33% of federal workers cite resistance to change as a main reason why modernization efforts fail. For mission leaders, this means there is still work to be done.

Clearly communicating and implementing a “Crawl, Walk, Run” approach to digital modernization will help staff who are apprehensive towards new ways of working. This approach helps mission leaders build a sturdy foundation and gain steady employee buy-in as they implement modernization efforts, instead of racing through lofty goals. Ultimately, this ‘long-term’ approach will meet staff where they are and notch quick modernization wins, demonstrating its benefits in digestible ways.

Talk the talk: Establish frequent and focused communication

Soliciting staff buy-in is a byproduct of effective and frequent communication. In fact, 45% of federal workers cite consistent communication from leadership about agency modernization plans as the most impactful way to address resistance to change. Despite this, only 40% of federal IT workers believe their agency continuously communicates modernization steps. This is a crucial shortcoming, as poor communication can undercut workers’ engagement in digital modernization efforts and contribute to overarching resistance.

Ongoing communication is pivotal to successful modernization because it fosters agency-wide engagement, across all levels, and leads to greater alignment with long-term goals. As agency leaders expand modernization efforts, they must ensure they’re communicating the smaller steps and wins. Not only will this help workers track current initiatives, but an informed workforce will be more likely to weigh in on the efforts when they feel invested in the long-term outcomes. From meetings targeted toward soliciting feedback, to regular correspondence on development and progress toward organizational goals, agency leaders must create a consistent cadence of communication around digital modernization efforts and create opportunities for workers to share feedback.

Putting people first: Prioritizing upskilling

When it comes to stalled efforts, staffing is another common culprit. More than a third of federal workers cite a lack of technically-skilled staff as a key reason digital modernization efforts fail. Transitioning from legacy systems, migrating to the cloud, and automating processes are modernization initiatives that can yield great benefits, but require adept skill sets from workers. A sweeping 94% of federal IT workers cite staffing challenges at their agency, an issue that’s compounded by the technical nature of these modernization efforts. Specifically, workers say limited knowledge of digital solutions and a lack of adequate time to learn new skills are problems that often go unaddressed.

Digital modernization efforts offer an opportunity to transform both an organization and the skills of its workers. The technical skills learned through modernization upskilling are crucial to ultimately accelerating agency outcomes by designing nimble products designed with the end-user in mind. By investing in upskilling efforts and providing adequate time for staff to complete training, staff will not only be more effective team members that build better products, but they will also have a future-proofed set of skills that help support long-term modernization efforts.

Maintaining the digital modernization journey

Mission leaders and employees alike should celebrate the progress that has been made toward digital modernization goals while acknowledging how to maintain this momentum. Gaining staff buy-in, prioritizing communication, and upskilling staff ensures agencies can keep modernization efforts on track and set themselves up for long term success.

In the end, agency leaders should view these common difficulties and supporting best practices as opportunities to further cement digital modernization progress. After all, digital modernization should be viewed as a journey, not an overnight transformation, and these best practices will help agencies continue to steer their organizations in the right direction.

Kyle Tuberson is chief technology officer at ICF.


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