Within the federal IT community there are certain phrases that are used so frequently that they can truly be called industry aphorisms. I think you all know the ones I’m talking about; doing more with less and the urgent need to modernize legacy IT systems are the two primary ones in circulation at present.
But, as we all know there’s a strong degree of elemental truth to an aphorism. There’s no question that federal agencies do need to do more with budgets that are going to be even tighter in FY18 and there is a real need to get agencies out from underneath the crushing burden of technical debt. But what I find bewildering, given the length of time these phrases have been part of our vernacular and the frequency with which these statements are used, is that very little progress has been made to address them even though it’s clear that the status quo for federal IT is no longer working.
Where the federal IT community finds itself right now is at an inflection point, where the consequences of merely paying lip service to the need to modernize legacy IT systems are coming home to roost. To be sure, there are the technical and budgetary issues that have made it hard to make any substantive change. When 80 percent of some agency budgets are used to sustain dilapidated IT portfolios, it’s undoubtedly hard to make meaningful investments in new applications and solutions.
While the IT Modernization Fund (ITMF) proposed by Gerry Connolly (D-Va), which went on to become the Modernizing Government Technology Act (MGTA) co-sponsored by Connolly and Congressman Will Hurd (R-Tx), might offer some relief for federal CIOs, there are issues here too. First up is the fact that while the legislation passed in the House, it stalled in the Senate, and while Connolly has vowed to reintroduce the legislation, it’s unclear if the result would be any different in this session. Moreover, agency IT leaders, including Marlon Andrews, Deputy CIO of the National Archives and Records Agency, have questioned whether creating the fund as loan vehicle, rather than a source of new funds, will actually solve the problems at hand. At a Hillversation on federal cloud adoption in February Andrews commented that MGTA is “a good attempt to give you a vehicle to prioritize” to budget authorities why certain systems need to be modernized [but] “do I really want to go out and get funds that I have to pay back later on?”
However, if you stop and think for a minute, borrowing for capital investments to deliver new services that deliver customers and revenue is how businesses operate, so why should government agencies be any different? Shouldn’t federal IT leaders be embracing risk and reward and effecting a cultural change within their organizations to actually move agencies out of this period of stagnation and into the next phase of mission delivery?
The immediate response is typically that federal agencies are unique in their scale and requirements, but like much of the staid thinking, I think we need to move on from that argument. In fact, one of the key issues with attempts at custom IT modernization efforts within the federal government is that they have been delivered as small, discrete updates and certainly not at mission-scale.
But before agency IT leaders swing from the custom to commercial off the shelf (COTS) solutions thinking that they’ll get enterprise-scale success, they might what to consider a third way. The issues I see with both custom application and COTS is that they lead agency IT leaders into inflexible deployments, cost overruns, security risks and, ultimately, into another cycle of legacy IT. The third way is to look to BPM – or Business Process Management platforms – that when combined with low-code development and the cloud create a powerful, agile, and scalable IT environment where costs can be managed, code doesn’t need to be fixed, and security can be baked in. The other significant benefit of this approach is that it requires a shift in mindset from silos of development to an ecosystem of innovation.
What’s plain to see is that we’ve reached a point in federal IT where the current model is unsustainable and the costs of maintaining the status quo are far more expensive than the risks of pivoting to a new way of thinking. And this is even before the pressures of a new business-minded administration and a citizenry that is demanding better service and integration to mirror how it interacts with the private sector. While it’s never easy to take that first step, there are those who’ve stepped into the next-generation of IT. In my next article, I’ll share some examples of federal IT leaders who’ve taken that step and the successes they’ve delivered to stakeholders and citizens.
Christopher O’Connell is Vice President of Federal Sales at Appian Corporation where he leads solution development for Government and Non-Profit organizations. He is a frequent speaker and passionate advocate for innovation and effectiveness in Federal IT. Want to hear more from Chris? Sign up to receive FTI content in your inbox or follow us on Twitter to read what Chris has to say about the agencies and IT leaders who’ve already taken the next step.