How to Stop Technical Debt from Eating Your IT Budget


Before federal agencies can modernize, they need to figure out how to tackle the workarounds in old systems.

As senior agency leaders and government chief information officers take on IT modernization with gusto, they quickly discover decades of unaccounted for technical debt to be addressed. In its simplest definition, technical debt represents the investment needed to update legacy systems to fully address current requirements. Bigger picture, this equation must include upgrade costs to modernize systems, current workaround costs like manual processing, incurred risks and lost opportunities to improve performance or innovate.  

What soon becomes apparent is that federal agencies need more systematic approaches for managing, measuring and remediating this debt. While implementing these more rigorous practices can be challenging, they also provide the foundation for a more continuous modernization strategy or sustainable digital decoupling.

Survey results from the recent Accenture Federal Digital Decoupling report show how technical debt can impact readiness. Findings in our survey show that 83 percent of respondents believe that technical debt limits their innovation, 80 percent say it severely limits their ability to enhance current systems and 81 percent cite the need to remediate technical debt before migrating to the cloud.

The report also shows that almost 58 percent of federal agencies say that they have experienced two to three major disruptions or outages over the past decade and just 4 percent avoided any discontinuities over this period. Given these responses, it’s easy to see why tackling technical debt is so critical to sustainable modernization.

Technical debt is not always avoidable; rather, it is part of the standard trade-off associated with software development as one feature is prioritized over another. If managed properly, it can have minimal impact on operations. Problems occur, however, when it accumulates over time and performance, security and functional capabilities no longer meet mission requirements.

Government has unique challenges managing technical debt for a variety of reasons, including irregular or prolonged funding cycles, overreliance on homegrown legacy systems, persistent skill gaps, leadership turnover and risk-averse cultures that hinder modernization efforts. As a result, according to Accenture’s analysis of CAST Appmarq data noted in the report, the cost to manage legacy applications that are 10 years or older is 2.5 times more expensive when compared with new applications. The CAST data also shows that government had the highest technical debt per application—up to five times greater—of 11 industries studied.

When tackling technical debt, consulting the “First Law of Holes” may be useful: “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” In other words, avoiding new debt is as important as remediating past technical debt. The Accenture Federal Digital Decoupling survey shows that less than half of agencies (46 percent) track when new systems take on technical debt.

Embedding a debt-tracker into everyday agency processes would capture and document tradeoffs between increased velocity and functionality versus the potential for added debt. Agencies should also consider creating acceptable performance standards for technical debt and dynamically test to ensure that unaccounted debt isn’t being created.

Once the digging has stopped, agencies can begin to start filling the hole. Many have learned that using “big bang” or “lift and shift” methods to modernize legacy systems is not always feasible due to the unexpected disruption, cost escalation and functionality risks that are commonly encountered. This is especially problematic for mission-focused core systems. A hybrid approach is often a much better fit, providing continuous technical debt reduction by allowing legacy systems to run in parallel with new technologies as modernization initiatives roll out over time.

To start, agencies can use Application Portfolio Management to better understand where application-level technical debt is having the greatest impact. Key criteria to consider include mission and business alignment, functional performance, technical health, cost-to-maintain, cloud and modernization readiness, and security vulnerabilities for each enterprise application. Through this process, agencies can determine total technical debt, cost-to-remediate and the overall impact of potential fixes on performance.

Building upon this insight, agencies can begin to modernize their systems using DevOps-based tools that offer a more agile and modular approach. This ensures that systems can be modernized at a pace that the agency requires and can support. Through these methods, new functionality like enhanced user interfaces can be layered in while core business logic and data are decoupled, exposed via Application Program Interfaces and migrated to new platforms.

The imperative for many CIOs is to institutionalize and scale these approaches into an overriding digital decoupling or continuous modernization strategy allowing agencies to become more responsive to changing business requirements and technology advances. CIOs can also guard against the accumulation of additional technical debt through regular and ongoing hygiene, and capture benefits incrementally so that initial cost savings can be reinvested to fund subsequent phases of modernization.

Performance expectations within the Trump administration, Congress and citizens at large will only continue to grow, creating the urgency for federal agencies to take immediate steps to address the cost, performance and security challenges associated with technical debt. While these issues have arisen over decades, I am optimistic that with a strategic and pragmatic approach federal agencies can take advantage of the opportunities to innovate.

Dr. Dave McClure, Ph.D., Principal Director, CIO Advisory, leads Accenture Federal Services CIO leadership agenda.