The American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council hosted a panel discussion on IT Modernization Challenges and Recommendation during the recent Imagine Nation ELC Conference. Moderated by Richard A. Spires, CEO and Director of Learning Tree International, the panelists included:
- Matthew Cornelius – Senior Technology and Cybersecurity Advisor, Office of Management and Budget
- Darren Ash – Assistant Chief Information Officer, USDA/Farm Production and Conservation Mission Area
- Jay Huie – Secure Cloud Portfolio, U.S. General Services Administration
The group provided practical advice and insights on policy, programs, culture, change management, and legacy technology to help attendees understand IT modernization challenges and devise a ‘best fit’ strategy for their agencies. Below is a summary of what was discussed.
Tactically Moving IT Modernization Initiatives Forward
Matthew Cornelius from the OMB is encouraged by the critical mass of senior level interest and sponsorship viewing it as a key to making progress on IT Modernization initiatives. He shared how OMB is working towards a more progressive perspective; one that sets the IT modernization vision then ‘gets out of the way’ to allow the agencies to get to work. The goal is to let those closest to the mission drive the process and execute.
Darren Ash of the USDA believes that agencies need an outcome-focused approach. He discussed the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) as an example. The TMF is set up to provide incremental funding as a form of ‘start-up’ investment, but agencies and programs need to show results, specifically those that impact the customer. Improvement such as data center consolidation or internal process automation are acceptable modernization steps but if they do not impact the customer, citizen or warfighter directly then it doesn’t really matter. He urged agency leaders to define outcomes clearly and link modernization efforts and funding requests to those outcomes.
Each of the panelists emphasized culture and workforce as key enablers to IT modernization. Clearly it is challenging to break legacy beliefs regarding how tasks should be carried out. Yet with the evolution and growing adoption of robotic process automation, manual tasks are being automated. As a result, agencies must work to help staff understand how this technology shifts the skill value chain. Additionally, agencies are facing increasing competition for talent, compounding the governments traditional challenge to attract commercial sector talent. Now agencies are competing with each other for new skills.
Don’t Just Think Shared Services, Think Shared Language
Mr. Ash favors shared services that segregate core services from mission-specific services for two reason: first they allow agencies to focus on their missions enabling those that are most closely connected to the mission flexibility and authority to make better decisions. Secondly, consolidation of core services improves outcomes while reducing IT cost.
Jay Huie from the GSA talked about how too often the federal government decides that consolidating around a single solution and rolling it out to as many as possible is enough—think email or lease management. He suggests that what can be more significant is finding the shared language, the core set of definitions, outcomes and measures that are adopted by IT, acquisition and the customer. A shared language and standards make priorities clear, connects funding to outcomes and enables alignment.
Working with industry groups such as ACT-IAC, SEI and CISQ can help accelerate this approach. The Consortium for IT Software Quality has worked with industry and government organizations to develop measurable code quality standards around key software characteristics such as security, quality and technical debt. All of which are important in helping agencies develop an objective, baseline view of their software systems, helping to build effective IT modernization plans.
Driving IT Modernization at Speed
Mr. Ash shared how Agile methods have been helpful to roll out new capabilities but there is still some change management that needs to occur on the client side. He noted that most Agile training has happened on the IT side, whereas the customer needs to understand their role in Agile environments as well if they want to work in this manner. Training and working with the business or mission side to integrate them better into Agile process will continue to accelerate the delivery of capabilities. Mr. Cornelius believes that there’s still more innovation needed in acquisition and appropriations to make this a reality.
Mr. Huie suggested that “Momentum trumps innovation as does inertia.” Essentially, he recommends that agencies just get started. Noting that the government needs to shift from a ‘learn by talking’ to a ‘learn by doing’ culture. Agencies must adopt a culture that is comfortable bringing imperfect solutions to market faster versus never fielding perfect solutions.
There was much discussion about lack of visibility and clarity around existing systems as a significant inhibitor to modernize. How can we modernize what we do not understand? What is the value of modernizing systems that no one uses? We need to better understand what systems we have in place and how they are being used before we can make sound modernization plans.
In response to this discussion, Mr. Huie likened modernization to a puzzle. “You dump out a puzzle on to the table and the pieces are everywhere, but you have the picture on the box. So, you have your as-is and to-be architecture.” What you need are standard process and methods to move forward. Sort your pieces by color, find the corners and those with straight edges. Once we have this approach, and we are all using the same language, the IT Modernization journey become less scary, less risky and much more efficient.
Mr. Ash asks his organization, “How are we buying down Technical Debt?” regarding their modernization decisions. But first you need to understand what systems have technical debt and how much. Once you have a baseline understanding of where you are you can begin to make better modernization decisions.
The panel discussion was one of many great exchanges between government and commercial community. You can learn more about ELC event or how to engage with ACT-IAC here.