Looking back at many of the government IT systems developed over the last 50 years reveals some of the leading innovations of that era. The Social Security and Medicare systems that helped millions of Americans determine eligibility and receive benefits were the among most complex and leading-edge IT systems of the times. Yet while these solutions performed well in the past, maintenance and updates have been deferred for too long and many systems now urgently need modernization.
While private-sector companies have leapt ahead in innovation by adopting agile models to smaller scoped sprints and modules, public sector organizations are often using legacy software systems that no longer serve their constituents effectively. Additionally, government is still trying to do "big bang" large-scale IT projects. Among these massive projects, failure is very common and often is a source of hesitation for agencies considering an IT investment. In a recent CHAOS Report, the Standish Group noted that many larger-scale projects never return value to an organization. Only 6% of such projects were successful, compared to 61% of small projects.
A number of pressures are converging to bring the issue of modernization to the forefront.
- Increasing expectations from citizens: In today’s digital society, citizens have come to expect the same high levels of service and responsiveness from the government that they do from Amazon or Uber without paying a premium.
- Shorter technology lifespans: Where agencies once expected systems to last decades, today a five-year-old mobile phone seems antique.
- More security threats: Security threats to government systems are accelerating as well, and agencies must harden legacy systems that provide vital services like water and power and election monitoring. A cybersecurity project becomes another opportunity to modernize with more resilient technology and platforms.
Government simply must become more efficient. Leveraging modern technology and innovation is the most effective way to get there and will ensure government systems can drive efficiencies to meet the needs of the people they serve. Public-sector leaders can accelerate their innovation initiatives by adopting the following four strategies:
1. Design systems from the outside facing in. Modernize based on the way citizens engage with government, rather than how changes have always been made. For example, someone starting a new business may need to deal with multiple agencies: one for federal tax purposes, another for state taxes, a different agency to register a business name and another agency to apply for permits. Instead of simply updating the technology around this cumbersome process and expecting citizens to figure it out, reimagine the system to make it easier and faster for business owners. Of course, this means agencies must coordinate with each other better.
2. Engage citizens the way they want to be engaged. Americans are accustomed to shopping online, banking via secure mobile apps and enjoying retail experiences personalized by machine learning. We should be applying the same expectations to government services.
3. Innovate the procurement and budget models to accommodate agile. Large-scale IT projects should be broken down into much smaller phases incorporating concepts like minimal viable product. This approach will deliver more immediate business value as agencies build toward the bigger systems. Find ways to leverage agile in a fixed-budget model in which agencies must live. In the triple constraints of project management (budget, schedule and scope), flex on scope.
4. Adopt market solutions instead of custom solutions. Where possible, agencies should adopt enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, financial and HR solutions from the market leaders instead of reinventing the wheel. This approach frees agencies from the trap of maintaining costly custom solutions or dealing with potential interoperability issues.
Agencies should start with an overall assessment of their systems based on the constituents they serve. Modernization not as just a replacement initiative, but an opportunity to transform an agency to enhance the service it provides to constituents. With that vision in mind, they should deliver solutions in smaller increments and continuously improve to add value, taking advantage of innovations and practices from the private sector. That approach will ensure they are developing the solutions and processes to serve constituents effectively.