OPM, VA recount digital transformation hits and misses

The road to federal digital transformation is paved with more than good intentions.

Siloed teams, inefficient legacy systems, massive amounts of data and unique customer needs await any agency embarking on the journey. Some organizations such as the Office of Personnel Management, Department of Veterans Affairs and Customs and Border Protection have made notable progress in their digital transformation efforts by tackling these challenges head on.

CBP’s Chief Information Officer Sonny Bhagowalia said the agency has automated more than 45 IT workflows in the last 12 months, cut labor hours by the thousands, and using single platforms for a streamlined, more efficient user experience around everyday tasks like procurement or technical assistance. Here he is addressing a virtual summit on digital transformation for fed and industry leaders last week:

“But the success is not about technology or the technical acumen of our teams. We have embedded our agents and officers who make sure that the type of stuff that we’re delivering and type of stuff that we’re making is really delivering the value and reducing complexity, so that they can do their jobs better,” he said during a web event hosted by FCW on Wednesday.

OPM is preparing to deploy a new human capital dashboard in phases within the next three to five months. Jason Barke, acting principal deputy associate director for its Employee Services, said staff are currently loading the platform, running usability and security testing to ensure data is sharable. After that, OPM will give limited access to agencies before making data publicly available — although the public-facing version will not be as complete as the internal government-use data which Barke said will require two-factor authentication to access.

“It’s been in the works, from idea to where we are now, probably about 18 months,” he said. “We continue to refine, and we’ve continued to do some usability as we’ve gone out and shared it with different agencies. We’ve gotten good feedback when they say ‘we should add this, we should add this.’ And so we’ve gotten to a pretty good spot right now where we feel a phase one kind of deployment is about where we’re going to be at.”

Barke works in the human capital side of OPM and collaborated with the data office to filter requests from agencies about what information should go into the dashboard. The goal is to make the platform as user-friendly as possible so that no one would need a coding background to access it. “Building the plane as we fly it” made it clearer to OPM what variables they desired in the dashboard, he said.

VA wary of losing key knowledge along the way

Few federal agencies undergo digital transformation on as large a scale as VA. It’s the largest health care integrated network, the largest civilian department, the largest federal IT organization and the largest national cemetery administrator in the country.

Daniel McCune, acting associate deputy assistant secretary for enterprise program management in VA’s Office of Information and Technology, said digital transformation for his agency is akin to steering a ship: “It takes a while for that ship to start moving … once that ship starts to turn, it turns and it’s really hard to stop.”

Some mistakes VA has made in its digital transformation journey included a fractured budget, using inappropriate metrics and siloed teams that did not align with business customers. He said much of the knowledge gained from customer discussions is lost when the development team passes an architectural design to the operations side, and it takes a while to recover all the background knowledge when teams reorganize frequently.

“The development team designs and builds a product that’s full of fault lines and defects and deficiencies. And they want to throw it over the wall as quick as they can, because they know it’s going to blow up,” he said, equating that product to a grenade. “On the operation side, we have kind of these T-rex arms, we don’t want to accept the product, no amount of documentation [or] design reviews makes you comfortable, that you really truly understand where all those fault lines are.”

To fix this, VA switched from “project” teams to “product” teams, who are responsible for that product from beginning to end, McCune said. An example is the G.I. Bill, which now uses eight teams on a single product line overseen by a product line manager.

In addition, McCune said VA wants to outsource commodity work to vendors and use a low-code/no-code platform for more tailored, in-house software. After comparing the traditional model with low-code/no-code, VA found that the latter model enabled the agency to spend about 80% of time and resources on delivering value and about 20% on non-value-added work such as hosting, security and Section 508 compliance — rather than the other way around.

As he closed his remarks, McCune warned that failure is inevitable in the pursuit of digital transformation, but fail quickly and cheaply.

“I’ve read all the DevOps books I can get my hands on. I’ve had a lot of consultants talk to me about how to do digital transformation. But ultimately, you have to create your own playbook and chart your own path because it has to make sense for your organization,” he said.

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