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6 pragmatic strategies to spur federal IT modernization

By Evan Lee
Sep 9, 2020
8 MIN. READ
Federal CIOs and senior IT leaders who embrace IT modernization as a pragmatic management approach will have the greatest success of moving vision to action. Here’s how to do it.

For many CIOs, managing modernization efforts is akin to renovating a house while living in it—a gradual yet consistent incremental transformation that does not significantly disrupt the day-to-day, but does embed an experimental mindset driven by increased collaboration across silos.

How do you manage the process effectively? After interviewing industry professionals and former federal subject matter experts in IT modernization, change management, agile delivery, and emerging technologies, we have arrived at the following six pragmatic strategies to help agencies move beyond strategic planning to execution.

1) Identify problems to envision outcomes—know where you want to go

Technology is effective at fixing problems (increasing productivity, decreasing costs, delivering services) but cannot add meaningful value without measurable outcomes. Advancements in technology mean we can embrace more nuanced evaluation instruments. For example, we can move from monitoring grantee spend rates to measuring results, and this shift necessitates collaboration between IT and program.

  • Develop a strong vision for the future grounded in reality. Collaborate with program and policy leaders to clearly articulate the business problems you want to solve together and the outcomes you want to achieve.
  • Conduct customer research—quantitative and qualitative—including feedback from customers and employees to understand the current state and refine your vision to address the most pressing needs.
  • Define (and continue to define) modernization at your organization. Focus on building capabilities instead of installing software.
  • Define quantifiable goals and actionable metrics aligned to mission outcomes and measure progress throughout.
  • Tie mission outcomes to work done at the program level. The large mission outcomes are the product of smaller successes achieved in iterations and batches. Use impact maps to help actors align their activities to mission outcomes.

2) Inventory and assess—know what you have

There has been a huge organizational investment in your workforce, processes, and technologies. Preserve what works and modernize what holds you back.

  • Technology: What does a portfolio analysis reveal about the current state of your technology, systems, and architecture? Identify functionality, vulnerabilities, operational costs, and compliance issues.
  • Data: Data and analytics are an untapped resource for most agencies. Do you have the capability to unlock insights from your data? Does the organization have the ability to access and analyze structured and unstructured data? Do you have modern data architecture in place to manage the exponential growth of data? Do you have the right amount of governance in place to prevent duplication and silos? Building the capability to collect, analyze, and synthesize your data can illuminate gaps and opportunities.
  • Customers: Understanding the needs and motivations of customers—including employees, grantees, and the public—are frequently an untapped resource for agencies. Do you know who your customers are? What do their journeys and challenges look like? Conducting frequent qualitative research (i.e., talking to your customers) informs which problems to solve for the highest impact.
  • Maturity: What is your team’s level of experience with product management, user-centered design, and agile development? What is your level of experience with continuous integration and product delivery?
  • Culture: Do you have executive backing and trust from key agency stakeholders? Do you have the mechanisms to create change? How engaged are stakeholders? How transparent, open, and collaborative are your internal teams?
  • Rationalization: To justify the consolidation of systems or business processes, are your teams able to use analysis methods such as lean process improvement and design thinking to engage stakeholders in the decision making?
  • Legacy IT: Which IT investments are underserving the mission (assessing cost, risk, and importance to the mission)? Can you identify what needs to be rearchitected, re-platformed, retired, or replaced?
  • Surprises: Are there interdependencies in your enterprise systems? Shadow IT?

3) Prioritize and prepare—know where you want to start

By following your vision, using supporting data, and considering the broader PMA CAP goals, you can prioritize which problems to solve first. These are the key considerations:

  • Mission value: Services that impact large user communities; opportunities to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse; opportunities to improve employee experience and support citizen services.
  • Cost: The government prioritizes cost-savings; for example, TMF funds are ultimately repaid by agencies’ savings.
  • Risk: Vulnerable systems housing sensitive data, or technology with known performance problems require more immediate attention.

4) Manage lean and start small—make progress early and often

A pragmatic approach borrows from lean startup principles and the agile mindset. Start small to show success early through quick wins and measurable outcomes.

  • Build-measure-learn: Develop a minimum viable product through iteration, practice continuous deployment, test business hypotheses, and learn from data—including feedback from users through both testing and observation.
  • Quick wins: Scalable prototypes developed in months or weeks that demonstrate early success and generate valuable insights through user testing and feedback.
  • Champion the change: CIO and leadership must give people cover to conduct small experiments. They need to celebrate teams that adopt the behaviors and new capabilities the agency is trying to build—even if the project fails in other ways. Don’t let small failures block the change.
  • Measure to manage: Remember that many measures will be lagging and might take years to influence. Do pay close attention to analytics to inform business decisions. But also measure signs that new approaches and capabilities are being adopted.
  • Tools and technology: Don’t over-engineer solutions, and be cautious of the latest buzzword. Focus on developing mission capabilities, and establish an architecture that allows you to swap out technology as it evolves.

5) Shift culture by doing—make change visible

Entrenched cultures can kill the best intentions of leaders. Successful culture change is more likely when initiated with incremental initiatives that demonstrate near-term value. Empower people to experience (and see) change early; continually reassess and communicate often.

  • Put people first: Assess the needs of your workforce. Know what levels of support, training, and direction staff need; identify early adopters and champions; motivate with awards, work opportunities, or titles; and be sensitive to change fatigue.
  • Identify resistance: Resistance often sprouts from a lack of understanding, awareness, and fear. Identify the drivers of the opposition and actively address them.
  • Spread the message: Clear and consistent messaging is key to buy-in. Different levels of leadership need to be on the same page with the same message. Invest in internal marketing and communications. Marketing campaigns let people know what is changing and what is in it for them; internal communications create an ongoing conversation (e.g., the same ideas are repeated).
  • Integrated teams: Establish small integrated, multi-discipline teams. Together, a business analyst, a UX expert, a scrum master, and developers can work with a product owner to solve small problems (slices of a larger problem); encourage collaboration (e.g., product owners should continually invite input from key stakeholders and users). Pair teams with experienced people either from industry or government to guide them.
  • Document the evolution of change: Produce video diaries and testimonials that resonate—visual, real-life examples of how the change has improved how people work, the way they feel about their job, and the way the agency delivers services to stakeholders and citizens.
  • Support cultural rituals: Model and reward rituals that reflect the culture your agency is trying to reflect. For example, retrospectives at the program, project, or even sprint level will provide judgment-free opportunities to reflect on progress and acknowledge successes and failures.
  • The workforce of the future: Define your workforce goals, and assess the needs and current gaps to build a roadmap to the future. Use change management techniques, training, brown bag sessions, and more to address skills gaps or redeploy workers.

6) Draw on experience—move as one team

Shifting from rigid silos to an open, transparent culture takes time. It is a continuous effort of improvement that is easily stalled or even derailed. Starting your modernization journey with experienced professionals who understand your agency operations, security requirements, budget, and procurement process is critical to building a foundation that can go the distance.

  • Domain expertise: Onsite experience—such as former agency subject matter experts or industry professionals with federal modernization experience—ensures that teams understand and can work within your agency’s unique constraints and limitations.
  • Flexibility and adaptability: Work with experts who can easily adapt to your unique environment and level of maturity, and provide the support to match it—from simply advising to embedding within your teams as needed.
  • Integrated approach: From business processes to change management to automation, agile development, user experience (UX), security, analytics, and more, consultants need to combine capabilities to deliver business functionalities that bolster the mission.
  • High degree of trust: Create trusting environments where consultants and staff work side by side, share information, contribute ideas, and accomplish goals as one team.
  • Solving problems: Build teams around solving problems rather than individual capabilities (e.g., “I only do x on this project”). Leverage an integration of different skills, levels of experience, and perspectives so consultants can become trusted advisors.

The golden age of federal IT modernization 

Modernization is as much a commitment to the agency’s future as it is a response to the present. The PMA is a galvanizing force for change within the federal government. By placing technology at the center of management priorities, the administration makes a clear case for agencies to get serious about modernization—and fast.

IT modernization requires a widespread culture shift—which is a serious challenge for large, siloed, bureaucratic agencies. Rushing into massive change efforts comes with risks, costs, and setbacks. A pragmatic approach allows agencies to begin to add value right away and address PMA CAP goals with quick wins and small, scalable proofs of concept.

Modernizing at a smaller scale allows agencies to significantly minimize risk and visibly and continuously change their technology, data, and workforce while maintaining what works. The golden age of federal IT modernization is here. Now is the time to embrace it.

By Evan Lee

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