Jumpstarting Federal IT Modernization in the New Administration


Agencies should start by selecting the applications most appropriate for modernization and creating an architecture where legacy and modern systems can co-exist.

Digital services are a lifeline for government agencies looking to connect with citizens and employees when in-person interaction isn’t an option. But with each engagement powered by technology, IT modernization has become a requirement—one that agencies remain challenged to fulfill. 

According to the Government Accountability Office, the federal government spends nearly $100 billion per year on IT, with 80% of funding allocated to operate and maintain existing IT systems—some that are decades old. The upkeep required for legacy IT both limits possibilities and presents a financial challenge that further strains agency budgets.

But the momentum is beginning to shift. Government as a whole is placing a greater emphasis on IT modernization, including recently dedicating $1 billion for the Technology Modernization Fund to improve federal government IT and $650 million for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Although this signals a positive change, it pales in comparison to the $9 billion originally requested. Agencies need strategies to address modernization and technical debt, even when major funding isn’t an option. 

Modernization is complex—requiring technology, cultural changes, funding, time and other resources—but a few initial steps can make it manageable and give agencies a place to start, even without significant investments.  

Make It Manageable 

For new IT leaders, the first few months are the time to make the biggest impact. But this task may feel overwhelming. Modernization doesn’t need to be daunting—even embracing small solutions can make a high impact and agency leaders will find that there are plenty of areas they can start.

For example, a tool as simple as a chatbot can make a major difference in supporting citizen needs. Internally, onboarding processes are another example. Disconnected onboarding processes can impact productivity and employee morale, but through a relatively simple modernization effort, connecting dashboards, workflows and otherwise siloed programs can streamline onboarding in a time of transition. 

These are simple yet tried-and-true examples of applications that can influence efficiency and overall experience for both citizens and the federal workforce, but there are many programs where agencies can start small.

Target Technical Debt 

One of the fastest ways to find funding for innovation is to eliminate spending on costly legacy systems. Legacy IT requires high maintenance and licensing spend, as well as specialized staff with hard-to-find skills, as the GAO revealed in its 2019 report on legacy systems. 

To address this, IT leaders should create a program of systematically eliminating technical debt wherever possible to tackle modernization goals. Sen. Maggie Hassan recently noted that nearly $29 billion, or roughly one-third of total IT spending, was dedicated to maintaining legacy systems in fiscal 2019. Starting piece by piece with the projects that offer the greatest return gradually opens up more funding for emerging technologies and other investments. 

Take the Best of Legacy and Modern IT through Integration Platforms

Typical federal IT ecosystems are complex, comprising a range of decades-old to cutting-edge components. For many agencies, this setup is an unavoidable reality, but it shouldn’t represent a barrier to continued advancement and evolving technology solutions for the 21st century. Agencies should start by selecting the applications most appropriate for modernization and creating an architecture where legacy and modern systems can co-exist.

To achieve this goal, integration platforms, ideally offered as a service, can be the foundation and a key component of any effective modernization effort. IT leaders should look for integration platform as a service, or iPaaS, offerings that can streamline operations with one-touch deployment and enable control of data movement and enhanced governance of sensitive data.

Integration platforms make modernization easier on non-technical workers so senior technical staff can focus on more complex tasks. This is accomplished by ensuring proper connectivity and a frictionless data exchange when legacy applications and infrastructure are migrated and consolidated. These tools make data more accessible for all employees, unlocking key insights and analysis across agencies. By streamlining modernization efforts, iPaaS offerings can accelerate agency projects by as much as 10x. 

Moving Forward

Four months into 2021, there’s still a renewed focus on modernization. To maintain this energy, agencies can take smart steps toward modernization focused on cutting technical debt. 

Supported by iPaaS, agencies can take advantage of the applications where modernization will have the highest impact, without having to overhaul entire systems overnight. And with each intentional step, agencies will be prepared to invest in the next IT advancement and continue along their modernization journey.

Joseph Flynn is public sector chief technology officer for Boomi.