Agencies still hesitant to transform into ‘digitally mature’ operations

Agencies have generally been slow or hesitant to transform themselves into fully functioning digital service operations, according to a recent series of reports on the topic from public and private sector organizations.

Six out of 25 agencies have set up agreements with the Office of Management and Budget to establish digital service teams, the Government Accountability Office said. Two more agencies, the Small Business Administration and Education Department, are expected to set up teams with the U.S. Digital Service by the end of the fiscal year.

According to a new report from Unisys, 69 percent of agencies have started or expressed interest in adopting general digital government practices, while 31 percent say they’re skeptical to embrace those initiatives.

Roughly 42 percent of agencies are considered “digitally mature,” Unisys found in a survey of federal business and technology decision-makers. Yet 44 percent of agencies say they aren’t yet seeing concrete benefits from their initial efforts to move toward a digital enterprise.

GAO said it heard similar complaints from the federal managers it spoke to, and Congress expressed comparable concerns at a June hearing on the U.S. Digital Service and 18F.

The hesitancy or sluggish response from agencies comes down to two things: culture and governance, said Margie Graves, acting deputy federal chief information officer for OMB, during an 1105 Media digital services panel discussion in Washington on Sept. 15.

The first step is to create an environment where agency developers can be successful,” she said.

Graves said she experienced this firsthand during her tenure at the Homeland Security Department. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services put its DevOps team together on one floor so that its employees and testers could work out problems simultaneously.

Most agencies could use a boost when it comes to agile and incremental digital development, GAO also found. Of the software development projects GAO reviewed at seven different departments, half of them reported functional delivery every six months.

But GAO’s findings didn’t match up with what the agencies reported on the IT Dashboard. GAO attributed those discrepancies to a lack of clear guidance from OMB about the types of projects where incremental development practices applied.

Next, the agency needs to build the governance structure to support an eventual cultural shift.

“Pull together your CFO, your CIO, your CPO and your CHCO and you say, ‘This is what you’re trying to accomplish,'”Graves said. “‘We may not measure it in the fashion that you have been used to seeing it in the past, but if we don’t use that measure, here’s the measure we’d like to use, and how can we make you comfortable with that? What are your equities in it, so you can be our partner in this change?’ That is the cultural change that we’re talking about.”

Once an agency builds those relationships, it can tell the department’s inspector general and other oversight organizations how it plans to measure success, and those entities can hold the agency accountable to those metrics, Graves said.

But such governance and culture change could use more clarification from OMB, GAO said, specifically about the role agency CIOs should play and how they should communicate with digital service teams.

“USDS policy does not describe the expected relationship between CIOs and these teams,” GAO said. “Until OMB updates its policy and ensures that the responsibilities between the CIOs and digital services teams are clearly defined, it is unclear whether CIOs will be able to fulfill their statutory responsibilities with respect to IT management of projects undertaken by the digital service teams.”

Most agencies who have charters with the U.S. Digital Service or 18F are very or moderately satisfied with the work they’ve received in return, GAO found.

But as Graves acknowledged, agencies need buy-in and involvement from all of their top leaders, including the CIO.

“That’s the way you make the cultural change, but it is not overnight,” she said. “This has to be organic and it has to grow up from the ground swell. Then you absolutely have to see the successes of the delivery, as well as the successes in the oversight, in order to make that change.”

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