Insight by Relativity

IT modernization helps agencies get more out of their data while decreasing spend

Data is the most important resource the federal government has. And the federal government has massive amounts of data at its fingertips. So what’s the bigges...

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Data is the most important resource the federal government has. It’s enabling better decision-making through emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and Internet of Things. And the federal government has massive amounts of data at its fingertips. So what’s the biggest obstacle to putting that data to use? Legacy systems.

Legacy systems lack the ability to manage the scope of data that federal agencies have collected in recent years; they’re also difficult to secure. Finally, the changing nature of the workforce means the skillsets required to maintain these systems is often lacking.

There has been a consistent push for federal agencies to modernize their IT going back to the 1980s with the Paperwork Reduction Act. Yet 80% of federal IT spend still goes to maintaining legacy systems. A lot of that has to do with funding. IT modernization is a big spend, and inconsistencies in budgets from year to year, not to mention the changing priorities of each new administration, has meant that agencies have usually lacked the kind of funding they need to really embark on IT modernization in a meaningful way. But the pandemic changed that.

“The pandemic has given people a unique inflection point to let go of some of the old tools and ways of doing things,” said Doug Cowan, managing director for U.S. Public Sector at Relativity. “I think when faced with a pandemic, with the fact that you’re not going to the office, it created an opportunity to reallocate funds and reprioritize needs. Moving forward, if you look at the most recent executive order, and the funding put into the [Technology Modernization Fund], it gives kind of a rare opportunity to take advantages of spikes in budget which may not have been available to people before when they want to look at moving from one system to another.”

That’s giving agencies the opportunity to build new systems that are intended to leverage the cloud, a key tool for the kind of data operations needed to collect and organize data and drive discovery to determine trends and take action. That allows agencies to better facilitate knowledge management and information sharing, pushing the data to the employees and citizens who need it.

“We’ve all seen some advantages in things like self-service, people being able to make requests and pull data down, rather than having to go to a location you’re able to go to a website for Social Security and check the status of a claim or benefits. Most people prefer that compared to going to the office and standing in line,” Cowan said. “I think the same is true for employees as well. They’re able to understand the tools that are available, how they can use those towards accomplishing their mission, and then maybe even find ways to improve what they’re doing or reuse that data. I think that’s a really important means of attracting and optimizing the workforce.”

The cloud also drives cost savings. It provides agencies the flexibility and speed to not only process their data faster, but scale up and down based on demand. So systems don’t have to be designed to handle periodic spikes in usage, such as tax season for the IRS, and then have that capacity remain unused for the rest of the year. That makes it easier to forecast and budget, as well as simplifying procurements.

Automation of certain processes and workflows through artificial intelligence and machine learning also saves manpower, which can be one of the most costly expenses for agencies. It’s also an opportunity to eliminate tools and efforts that are duplicative, or simply no longer serve the needs of the agency.

“When you modernize, you can start to look at how to redesign your business for the future,” Cowan said. “One of the biggest areas for modernization is how do I start to automate security processes? Things like following recommendations and compliance such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s publication 800-53, [Federal Risk Authorization and Management Program] and [Federal Information Security Modernization Act] for inventory, cataloguing and categorizing your systems and processes, being able to have a better idea of where all your information is and how to act on it.”

One way modernization accomplishes this is by facilitating the e-discovery process. The ability to pull and identify data quickly also allows agencies to create an audit trail of who has access to what data, when, and what they did with it. In addition, agencies can enable geotracking in order to know the physical location of the person accessing that data. All of these are key components of better identity and access management.

“If you think about a specific use case like e-discovery, the way we get information today is changing rapidly. In the past people thought of maybe just email, maybe boxes of data. But now we’re starting to see things like attachments, unstructured data, people are using tools like Slack and Teams and WebEx,” Cowan said. “How do I pull data from each of these different types of sources, do it in a quick way, be able to identify what is the actual data within that, and move that data into response to citizens, response to people within the agencies, so that we can improve those experiences?”

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