The Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act of 2017 has now become law. Even if it hadn’t, however, CIOs of federal agencies would still have a lot of modernizing to do.
But what does it really mean to “modernize” government IT? How can agency CIOs best leverage their finite resources -- which may or may not include dollars from the Technology Modernization Fund established under the Act -- to fulfill the rapidly evolving digital demands of the American electorate?
One thing is certain: Knee-jerk infrastructure rip-and-replace is no substitute for true digital modernization. In fact, CIOs who indiscriminately engage in wholesale replacement of so-called “legacy” technology will squander their budgets in ways that leave them worse off than when they started. Here ae a few questions those CIOs need to address:
Question 1: What’s your real objective?
Before deciding what to scrap, what to add and what to genuinely modernize, CIOs first need to clearly define their goals. You can’t plan without goals. And an agency’s goals must always be concrete improvements in the delivery of services to its constituencies.
These concrete improvements can take a variety of forms, depending on the current state of an agency’s digital services. Does the agency need to expand self-service capabilities on its website? Does it need to time-compress internal processes so it can respond more quickly to constituent requests? Are operational costs for IT too high? Has a rigorous evaluation of security revealed specific vulnerabilities?
If you haven’t asked and answered these questions, there’s little chance any investments in “modernization” will pay off – because they won’t be well-aligned with specific, measurable digital objectives.
So, every CIO should undertake some serious fact-finding and soul-searching before allocating large chunks of capital budget to an infrastructure overhaul. Opportunities to make investments of such magnitude don’t come around often. To make the most of this one, be sure you have some very clearly defined goals in mind.
What you don’t want to do is engage in a spending spree that primarily benefits technology vendors. The MGT wasn’t written to enrich the tech sector. It was written “to enhance cybersecurity and to improve efficiency and effectiveness.” So that’s where CIOs need to focus.
Question 2: Where are the real constraints?
Once you know what you want to accomplish, you can start to focus your modernization efforts on your worst constraints. Here’s where you have to be careful, though. Sometimes the constraint on your ability to deliver isn’t where you might initially think it is.
For example, you may not be getting as much uptake on your mobile app as you’d like. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to spend a lot of time re-coding your front-end application. It could just be an interface issue. So instead of modernizing your underlying app code, you might be better of modernizing your app interface design.
On the other hand, your agency may also be struggling to deliver great mobile and web experience because of subpar development and ops on your core backend systems. In today’s multi-tier, multi-platform environments, there’s often a “domino effect”—where, say, something you’re trying to do on the web side is being constrained by sub-optimal calls to a database system of record.
Does that mean you need to undertake a massive re-platforming effort with that database? Probably not. The more efficient approach is often to simply modernize the tools and processes with which your staff performs back-end development, QA and ops. If you re-tool and re-train for a more agile and measurable DevOps process, you’ll get better results with less risk, less disruption and less cost than you would with wholesale re-platforming.
That’s not to say re-platforming is never the right move. Applications you currently have running on under-virtualized, high-TCO distributed infrastructure often deliver better performance with more flexible scalability when you move them to the cloud. But federal CIOs should resist “cloud fever.” Availability, security and other considerations make the cloud less than ideal for some services. And savings that appear attractive on paper may fail to materialize as higher utilization results in higher monthly costs.
Question 3: How will you really measure – and extend – success?
A third important question when it comes to modernization is “How am I going to measure and sustain my modernization initiative?” Too often, organizations approach modernization as a single intensive “push.” This is unrealistic for two reasons. First, modernization initiatives don’t usually get you where you wanted to go all in one shot. It’s more likely that you’ll have to stop, reassess your progress and change course.
You may find that you have the wrong culture or incentives, so you need to complement your technology spending with a shift in your own leadership style. Or you may find that your accelerated development efforts have led to performance and/or uptime problems in production, so you need to up your QA efforts.
Regardless of what specific issues you encounter in your modernization efforts, you can’t accurately discover them or resolve them if you’re not capturing and analyzing the right metrics.
The second reason you need metrics is for accountability and credibility. IT leaders have a history of requesting budget, spending budget, and then never quite explaining what they did or didn’t accomplish with that budget. That undermines IT’s credibility, and makes it tougher to get more funding further down the road.
Metrics help you communicate your accomplishments to the rest of your organization. By communicating those accomplishments, you make it easier to get the resources you’ll need later on. That’s vitally important, because modernization isn’t a one-shot deal. As the world becomes increasingly digital – and as the pace of technology change continues to accelerate – continuous improvement must be an integral part of an organization’s culture.
That’s why you don’t want to overspend or under-deliver today, just because the MGT may cause a lot of agency CIOs to do exactly that. Prudent resource allocation and a constituent-focused, iterative-learning and outcome-driven modernization strategy is always the best approach.