What Lies Ahead for Federal IT Modernization

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Industry is already making the tools many agencies need to modernize.

When coming to the end of an eventful year, it’s a common urge to wonder what the future holds.

The Advanced Technology Academic Research Center, or ATARC, hosted a webcast on Dec. 8 that invited government experts and business technology leaders to address different aspects of what agency futures hold in terms of the path forward for federal IT modernization.

Raylene Yung, the executive director of the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) Program Management Office at the General Services Administration, kicked off the day’s sessions by suggesting the future is less about emerging innovative technologies and more about using what is already available.

“I believe the technology industry has already invented all the technology we need to solve the problems” of modernizing federal systems, she said. “It’s a question of bringing the right technology, the right tools, together in the right way … from behind a keyboard [and] at scale.”

Perhaps spurred on by her emphasis on not simply chasing the “next new thing,” several panelists talked more about changing workplace culture than examining the technical aspects of how to accelerate modernization.

Jamie Holcombe, CIO for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, started the conversational trend. “It’s not just about the technology. You also have to transform your culture,” he said. “We moved from a project-oriented IT department to product-oriented, [and] the product owners are from the business units.”

Holcombe said these product owners have to describe the key performance metrics they are trying to achieve. He said the dimensions for the metrics are along the lines of “better, cheaper, faster.”

“Everyone’s going after better,” he said. “They forget about cheaper and faster.” He cautioned that considering a lower cost is trickier than one might think, however, because measuring it should also consider not just the cost of contractors, but also the federal employees working on the product. That also may change the in-house vs. third-party development decision, he pointed out.

Nagesh Rao, CIO for the Bureau of Industry and Security within the Department of Commerce, stressed that any modernization effort has to reflect what users of systems and consumers of data are looking for. “The customer is myriad when it comes to Commerce offerings,” he said. The pandemic forced “10 years of IT into happening in a year and a half. [Everyone had to learn] how to engage in a high virtual environment. We were an agency that had to learn to adapt fast.”

Rao suggested that rather than talking about artificial intelligence, his attention is on the idea of “augmented intelligence,” as a way to emphasize that it’s intended as one tool in a toolset to help improve customer outcomes. He said there needs to be a culture shift around the idea of risk, and being willing to take risks. “If you fail, own it. I don’t try to hide it, I don’t try to blame someone else,” he said.

Holcombe concurred. “[This] is all about culture, it’s all about people, because we’re not in the technology business, we’re in the people business,” he said. “Procurement officers are too risk-averse. They don’t use the tools given to them by the [Federal Acquisition Regulation]. Don’t tell me it can’t be done.”

Another panel was tasked with discussing how to use emerging technologies to enable modernization. Omar Bouaichi, the Emerging Technology and Innovation Director at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said his office has established an innovation lab at the Government National Mortgage Association, better known as Ginnie Mae. The purpose of the lab is to bring in technologies that might be considered high-risk, such as AI, but to run them in a safe space to see how they can be useful, he said.

“We want to focus on low-code solutions [that have] a lower barrier to entry, [such as] robotic process automation, machine learning, things like that,” said Eric Ewing, Managing Director of GSA’s AI Center of Excellence, “so that with some training you can really take advantage of those technologies … It’s not just about forward-looking technologies” but going back and making sure employees are prepared to use them.

“You have to get the business to assist in the adopting,” Bouaichi said. “We have been very successful in introducing new technologies [like] low-code and machine learning, [by] making sure we demonstrated the impact if we put through the change.”

“Ultimately it’s focusing on solving business problems at the point of need,” Ewing agreed. “Oftentimes emerging technologies [may] address them, but it’s existing technologies that you already have that can work … Sometimes it might be that data is stored in a place that” isn’t as accessible as users require. Fixing that pain point may have an easy solution, he said.

Part of creating a culture that embraces change is getting a department or agency’s leadership to champion it. In a panel on the use of DevSecOps to advance modernization, Ian Anderson, the lead DevSecOps engineer, for the U.S. Navy’s Naval Surface Warfare Center at Dahlgren Division Dam Neck Activity, offered a personal example.

“Getting those senior leaders into what is being done is not a Power Point, it’s getting them hands-on [information],” he said. “One of the projects I worked on early on, our sponsor was somebody who’d been in the Navy, a test pilot, but very traditional – [he] was getting his emails printed out and handed to him every morning.”

Anderson said the sponsor backed the project based on the feedback from the people reporting to him. “If you can get that buy-in from the people who will be talking to that [leader] every day, that’s where you’ll” find success.

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