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Best practices for government IT modernization

IT modernization is becoming a mandatory business imperative for federal, state, and local governments. The same factors that propel private enterprises to modernize so they can embrace customer experience and operational excellence also drive government agencies—but with an added twist. Government agencies process enormous volumes while supporting a huge citizen base that differs widely on each of many dimensions, including education, income, language, culture, technology expectations and experience, etc. The four Vs—volume, variety, velocity, and variability—make it challenging for agencies to modernize legacy systems, particularly given the demands of annual budget cycles, rapidly shifting technology advances, and constantly rising citizen expectations.

Some of the challenges that government agencies face when undergoing modernization were explored in depth at Pegasystem’s recent Government Empowered 2017 event. An executive panel, comprising the following individuals, examined how agencies are tackling modernization:

  • Christine Calvosa, Acting Chief Information Officer and Deputy Chief Information Officer for Technology and Resiliency, Federal Communications Commission
  • Jack McCarthy, Chief Information Officer, New Jersey Courts
  • Rodney Payne Jr., Supervisory Information Technology Specialist, U.S. Energy Information Administration

One of the most important points the panelists quickly agreed upon is to avoid “rip and replace” as being far too risky for modernization projects. Instead, they recommended building new systems one piece at a time. Specifically, Calvosa felt an alternative to rip and replace is to deploy a service architecture, enterprise service bus, and a service catalog. She also said the FCC’s project team took one of its legacy licensing systems, learned from that approach and then applied that knowledge to the next similar licensing system. She recommended using a modular approach in which teams “pick something small, learn, and then move forward based on that experience.”

In addition, the executive panel surfaced these lessons learned and best practices when successfully tackling large-scale modernization efforts:

  • Engage business owners more than ever before. It’s accepted wisdom that business owners need to be involved in IT projects, but the stakes are higher with large-scale modernization projects. Payne (U.S. Energy Information Administration) noted that it’s crucial to talk with business owners first and then constantly interact with them throughout the project, including introducing them to Agile. Calvosa observed that 25% of the FCC’s decisions hadn’t yet been made; once the team builds 75% of the system, it needs to be flexible and adaptable for the remaining 25% yet to be added.
  • Focus on reuse. Calvosa also emphasized the importance of technology reuse, which the FCC carries out through a catalog of services that can be reused among all offices. McCarthy (New Jersey Courts) observed that reuse involves getting some of the business to complete work the same way, and then replicating that standardized way throughout the organization.
  • Use modernization to drive a new focus on data. McCarthy also noted that the courts have 40 years of data and now need to leverage what they’ve got without increasing their spending. From his point of view, modernization helps with extracting data so the organization can then “put a shiny cover on it.” He is trying to implement next best action and then wants to “make the next jump” to robotics. In his view, it starts with something mundane: the courts “had to get rid of the paper to speed the process up.” As a result of those paper-oriented initiatives, they have decreased processing time by half. He noted that “trying to understand what decisions are being made, and why they are being made” has helped the courts achieve operational efficiency. Data is now his key focus; his one final word of advice was, “make your data accessible. Once it’s accessible, then learn from it.”
  • Double down on organizational change management. All three panelists emphasized the need for senior executive involvement. Payne even repeated my favorite truism: “over-communicate at every opportunity to the business owners.” He noted that the U.S. Energy Information Administration relied on Wiki pages, demos, plus a collaborative/hands on approach for communicating about the new system to the business. The problem was overcoming the fear of the unknown, making it important for everyone to hear the same message and everyone to understand what the modernized system will look like. Payne emphasized, “IT often thinks they understand what they need to know, but business owners often don’t know what they know. The solution is to make sure the business people are engaged constantly and evolve over time.” McCarthy noted that organizational change management needs be driven from the top down by the very highest executive level. This includes funding and the push for organizational change. Then, he said, the project leaders must find business champions. He believes that once approximately 20% of the work is done, the business champions then become very supportive.
  • Invest in people throughout modernization. The panelists agreed that modernization projects will not be successful with just IT alone—they must have business participation throughout. This may require investing in business employees and IT staff so they are aware of the latest business and IT trends, understand the terminology being used for the project, and adapt to changes as parts of the new systems are rolled out. Sometimes the lack of training or knowledge about the future adds to the overall sense of unease. Focusing on organizational change management alone may not be sufficient; project teams should also look at specific training needs. For example, Calvosa noted the importance of working with the business to collectively understand the terminology being used.
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