What Federal IT Modernization Leaders Do Best

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Modernization is not about just finding solutions that are more cost-efficient and more secure.

Government IT leaders face constant pressure to rein in costs while delivering more powerful capabilities faster. And while agencies are pursuing IT modernization with gusto, spending on legacy systems continues to grow.  

In order to help agencies address this quandary, Accenture spoke with 350 federal executives spanning both civilian and defense agencies. This was part of a larger global study. What we found in our report, Modernize with Impact, is that some federal agencies are performing on par with commercial leaders in replacing stove-piped applications and operating models with open, standards-based, IT ecosystems. 

The results were impressive. For example, two-thirds of these federal leaders were satisfied with technology return on investment as opposed to just 16% of our late adopters. And these leaders were able to reinvest their savings into new innovation with 95% growing their innovation spend over a three-year period versus just 43% of late adopters. 

However, modernization is not about just finding solutions that are more cost-efficient and more secure. It’s about doing a better job of fulfilling the main mission and the core purpose of the agency. Here we saw leaders succeeding as well.

Roadblocks to Innovation

Too often, agencies approach innovation as a way to replace a specific system that is broken or outdated and adopt what other agency peers are doing. While the effort to do this is commendable, this piecemeal strategy gets in the way of a more fully realized approach to modernization.

We commonly find that innovation tends to happen in isolated teams pursuing objectives that are too-narrow, often classified as a pilot. Pilots are not designed to scale therefore the spirit of modernization fails to take root across all levels of the organization.

In addition, some federal technologists and business-line managers may view innovation as merely a route to the next-best-thing. They’ve heard about artificial intelligence and so they chase implementations without taking into account the larger context, the overall business needs and mission imperative.

Instead, we found a need to invest in more standards-based, IT ecosystems—what we’re calling future systems—to achieve scalable, sustainable success. Key lessons from the study describe a path forward for federal leaders looking to make innovation a more effective driving force at all levels of the organization.

Key Lessons

Building on our work advising federal CIOs, the future systems research looked at three key ways in which federal IT leaders can be viewed as effective when it comes to modernization. They can make organizational investments in innovation infrastructure. They can focus on scalability. And they can take a radically human-centered view of their innovation outputs.

In order to get beyond the project-based approach to innovation, agencies need to make strategic investments that deepen and broaden the impact of their modernization efforts over the long term. This means setting aside IT funding for innovation, but it also means making organizational changes—empowering specific individuals and teams to pursue innovation with an eye toward broad organizational impact. In our study, we found that federal forward-thinking leaders were twice as likely to have 20%+ of their workforce dedicated to innovation compared to late adopters.

Agencies also need to define the rules of the road, to establish boundaries around how they are going to get there. Leadership needs to spell out how new ideas will be brought to the table. When those at the top are successful at creating a positive culture of ideation, people across the organization can better understand how all this is going to help achieve notable changes in organizational and customer service delivery performance.

The most innovative agencies succeed by investing in a number of technologies—conducting many experiments—but also rigorously focusing on their results and doubling down on the most impactful.

When it comes time to scale up those new ideas, there’s a technical piece: Ensure you’ve decoupled from legacy infrastructure and applications, in favor of more flexible and agile platforms. Beyond this, there’s also a cultural aspect to scalability.

In government, not everyone wants to do the same thing. Enterprise solutions have historically been very difficult to put in place when people are wedded to their existing niche solutions, or when they are simply too comfortable with the existing application.

To drive broad-based adoption around innovation, IT leaders must make the case that what is coming next will help end-users to fulfill the mission more effectively. Disruption has to start at the top.

We saw a real impact from the use of more disciplined approaches, with those on the cutting edge more likely to use reliable data to form insights and drive business change (95% vs. 53%) and to see a large, positive impact from new technology on business operations and change-management processes (80% vs. 42%).

Then there is the human-centered aspect of IT transformation, the often-overlooked notion that a modernized solution will stand or fall based on the end-user experience.

Human-centered design addresses the fundamental question: What’s in it for me? The people who are actually using the technology need to see a benefit. When innovation addresses that need, people will be more willing to embrace it.

If the goal is to make innovation pervasive and organic across the agency, human-centered design should go beyond just the user interface. Agencies need to literally consider the human impact of their adaptive and disruptive offerings. This means that the intersection between technology and the workforce must be very natural and nonthreatening. Innovation should uphold and endorse the value of the workforce.

Not surprisingly, federal leaders who are out in front prioritize citizens’ user experiences when designing processes and services (95% vs. 50%). However, they are also twice as likely to systematically manage artificial intelligence responsibly (98% vs. 45%) underscoring the need to consider human impact broadly.

The Road Forward 

Ultimately, successful agencies benefit from strong leadership from political and career executives. Federal leaders typically are eager to make their mark, to leave things a little better than they found them. Those who succeed take the long view, embrace change as a positive force and create a culture in which those around them are empowered to seek for new and better solutions.

Dave McClure and Malcolm Jackson are principal directors of Federal CIO Advisory Services at Accenture Federal Services. Jason Layman is managing director and Technology Strategy & Advisory practice lead at Accenture Federal Services.