IT modernization for the COVID era

Crises are clarifying events, and the pandemic is making clear the limits of IT systems built for a different era.

Shutterstock ID: 777532213 By Billion Photos

The need to modernize federal IT is hardly new. But, to keep up with the rapidly-evolving demands created by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clearer now than ever that decision-makers in Congress and the Administration need to rethink how they fund, prioritize, and pursue IT modernization.

On August 3, 10 agencies are set to respond to Sen. Maggie Hassan's request for IT modernization plans, a request the senator has linked to vulnerabilities exposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During August, agencies will also submit draft IT plans for 2021-2022 to the Office of Management and Budget, as required in Circular A-11.

Crises are clarifying events, and the pandemic is making clear the limits of IT systems built for a different era. The massive government activity needed to respond to COVID-19 has revealed that aged applications constrain even agencies that rapidly adopted cloud computing as infrastructure. While infrastructure modernization has provided significant benefits, future success requires shifting focus from software upgrades to modernizing business processes for delivering better mission outcomes.

In the past, agency applications generally were form-based, "check the box" approaches that have become easy to game. These apps have highly-customized software and interfaces that constrain the ability to deploy program modifications and collaborate with related programs. Trying to do today's work with these legacy approaches can place an incredible burden on the government workforce, often requiring excessive manual labor to check individual data files, assemble data across disconnected systems, and review reams of forms.

In normal circumstances, this is a difficult, time-consuming process that causes delays and frustration for employees and citizens. With the rapid growth in pandemic workloads, only a fraction of the manual work gets done. Errors or fraud, waste and abuse are inevitable.

The good news is that technology and modern business practices are available to help meet these challenges and fix the user experience. CIOs need to drive a two-pronged approach: 1) Triage using automation powered by artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics for reducing or eliminating manual, non-value activities, such as reporting and coordinating information across disparate systems; and 2) digitize processes using cloud-native services and low-code/no-code platforms to replace custom-built applications.

The policy framework is in place: The Cloud Smart strategy sets the course for leveraging high-quality services that are continuously modernized; the Evidence-Based Policymaking Act focuses programs on enhancing data and decision-making for better results; and the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act requires agencies to focus on the user experience in digitizing government. Now, Congress and the Executive Branch must fund modernization of the business of government, not just IT.

Nothing clarifies priorities in government quite like budgets. Currently, only 20% to 25% of annual IT spending goes to modernization. Congress can begin to implement a more forward-looking vision of government by targeting modernization funding, starting with the worst performing or most inefficient programs. It should embrace the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) and agency working capital funds to drive truly transformative modernization efforts.

Also noteworthy, House Democrats are promoting TMF funding in a coming round of fiscal stimulus, and there has been a bipartisan push to make money available to states for modernizing their own unemployment systems.

Modernization funding will need to add to ongoing sustainment funding. Legacy systems can't be turned off, or security patches stopped, while new systems are built. Asking agencies to modernize by underfunding operational budgets has not and will not get us to the future-state we need.

Agencies must define a roadmap for IT modernization tied directly to delivering mission benefits and serving citizens. Ensuring that agencies are pursuing targeted, executable strategies will bring maximum value to the taxpayer. OMB and Congress should incentivize and fund projects that can yield citizen-centered benefits, leveraging cross-agency collaboration and pushing against inefficient, parochial initiatives.

It is also important that these goals be realistic and achievable. No agency can reasonably be expected to absorb too much change too quickly. My analysis of fiscal year 2021 IT spending shows that only about 17% of the more than 500 major IT investments were new systems; that's less than four per cabinet agency. Could that be doubled so that a third of IT spending would modernize government?

It's 2020. Putting 1980s-era business processes on new technology will not meet our 21st century needs. By investing in new technologies designed to achieve strategic, forward-looking outcomes, we can reimagine the way government works. That is how we can deliver the modernization our country needs to meet the pandemic challenges of today and the public needs of tomorrow.