The Role of Analytics in Federal IT Modernization


A strong analytics program can help ensure that federal agencies get the most out of the IT modernization program and the available funds.

The scene looks like something out of a movie. A government office buried 230 feet underground where more than 600 employees from the Office of Personnel Management process retirement papers—by hand.

Despite its location deep underground in an old limestone mine, the office is not top secret. It is simply a convenient place to house the employees and mountains of paperwork that the office processed on a daily basis. And yes, all of the work is done by hand on traditional paper in a process closer to 1918 than 2018.

This process, and others like it throughout government, is in desperate need of modernization. Thankfully, the federal government has made improving programs like this part of a new push to use analytics.

“In order to implement the Federal IT modernization efforts outlined in this report, agencies will need to realign their IT resources appropriately using business-focused, data-driven analysis and technical evaluation,” the "Report to the President on Federal IT Modernization" states.

As the report to the White House outlines, there is a need to ensure that money—and any funds that help modernize systems—get spent wisely to maximize outcomes.

Where to Focus Modernization Efforts

At its core, analytics is a decision support activity—everything that a quality analytics program does should help leadership make decisions better, faster and cheaper.  

In the modernization context, a strong analytics program can help ensure that federal agencies get the most out of the IT modernization program and the available funds. In its report, the American Technology Council called on agencies to prioritize the modernization of high-risk, high-value assets (HVAs) above anything else.

Before federal agencies can make these changes, they need to determine what exactly qualifies as an HVA, and how to prioritize them. The initial response may be to modernize the most out-of-date systems. While this seems practical it may not be the optimal approach. The best approach is to start by outlining what the key outcome measures should be at the end of the modernization effort, and to identify what the constraints are. Why is the government modernizing? What are the goals? Are they trying to achieve improved back-office efficiency?  Improved citizen services? Reduced fraud, waste and abuse? Reduced energy and maintenance costs? The funding bucket isn’t bottomless and agencies should be strategic in their choices, which first requires outlining the constraints and objectives.

Agencies will also want to measure the security vulnerabilities inherent in their current systems along with the cost to keep these systems operational. They should consider the potential costs of incorporating a new system, not just upfront charges but annual maintenance and upkeep requirements.

By using advanced analytics, which include techniques like optimization, agencies can quantitatively incorporate a range of complex and interdependent objectives and constraints in their decision-making. This evidence-driven approach, based on modern analytics technologies will identify and prioritize government systems for modernization.

The Need for Modern Analytics

So, what does a modern analytics program look like? For agencies that want to modernize their analytics before launching into the larger IT modernization initiative, they need to make sure they have the right culture, process and technologies in place.

First and foremost, federal agencies must specifically articulate the values and benefits they want to achieve by modernizing, and how they relate to each other. From there, agencies can then apply a range of analytics techniques and approaches to make certain that their modernization plans achieve those benefits to the maximum extent possible given available resources.

Modernization through Optimization

To use analytics to determine the most effective modernization approach, agencies need to identify the actions that will produce the best results, while considering resource limitations. Analytics enables agencies to run scenarios that produce the best outcomes, optimize the use of funds and support the most strategic decisions. This involves the following steps:

  1. Clearly identifying the mission objectives and measures that matter most to an agency, and how they relate to one another.
  2. Identifying the policies and programs (both existing, and possible or proposed) that can affect agency objective measures.
  3. Quantitatively assessing the degree to which those policies or programs will impact the objective measures alone or in combination.
  4. Optimizing the portfolio’s assortment of policies and procedures to maximize the desired outcome.

Using this process, agencies can look at different scenarios to judge different outcomes. For example, they can determine if the modernization of one system will provide a more mission-focused outcome. Or one that might actually provide significant cost savings that can be reinvested in other areas.

Analytics can take data and recognize trends that human analysts may miss, helping agencies find modernization opportunities they might not have noticed, all while providing valuable insights—with more supporting data—on other systems as well.

The federal modernization effort brings a world of opportunity for agencies. As the report to the White House states, analytics must be a part of that. By using analytics to drive change, federal technology leaders can ensure they are modernizing the right systems to provide the best outcomes for the future.

Steve Bennett is director of SAS' Global Government Practice. He is the former director of the National Biosurveillance Integration Center within the Department of Homeland Security.