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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Modernization takes more than technology

Across government agencies, IT leaders are considering modernization’s possibilities. The combination of the passage of the Modernizing Government Technology Act with the growing conversation on digital transformation, there’s no question that the technology and will to modernize are there. But plans and technology alone are not enough.

When they get down to business, agencies still face many of the same roadblocks that have stalled progress in the past. The government health care space is no stranger to these challenges, but it is starting to see some successes in new approaches to implementation and procurement, offering lessons that apply across agencies.

Consider upfront research and a show-me approach

The traditional RFP process puts unnecessary pressure on agencies to make an up-front choice based on limited information in a rapidly evolving technology environment. If an agency is serious about innovation, it needs a way to assess a vendor’s understanding of its program and vision for what’s next.

There’s beginning to be a shift to a “show us, don’t just tell us” acquisition mentality. Agencies can benefit not only from working closely with industry, but also by giving prospective contractors a real problem to solve and evaluating how their solutions meets the goal. Presented concepts can also bring innovation, fresh perspectives and solutions giving agencies a better method of evaluation.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, officials hosted a code-a-thon designed to develop data-driven solutions to help fight the opioid epidemic. A gathering of 50 teams of computer programmers, public health experts, data scientists and researchers competed to produce solutions for this specific problem. As a result, HHS has greater insight into the real-life possibilities of any solutions it may fund.

Rethink implementation

Agencies typically take prudent and measured steps on the road to modernization largely because a system failure would be felt immediately and acutely by the general public and often have devastating impacts on citizen lives, agency reputation and public confidence. At the  Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, a system failure would very publicly affect a large vulnerable population that depends on government services.

The pain of potential failure has long discouraged officials from  pursuing major change despite the excessive ongoing costs that go into maintaining technology. To overcome these challenges, government IT leaders should make modernization decisions based on the type of architecture, the method in which development will occur, the end users and a DevOps framework.

Many government IT systems are showing their age. They’re monolithic in design and often built via traditional waterfall practices. As a result, it's challenging  make sweeping state-of-the-art enhancements to systems whose complexity and interdependency has increased over time, often requiring deep code changes to make minor changes. Agencies that can take advantage of new plug-and-play technologies such as containerization or microservices will have more flexibility as technology evolves.

Agile development practices are sometimes offered as a way to offset developmental risks. However, this approach to development requires heightened engagement from government system owners already carrying Atlas-like burdens. Government employees who are facing a daily schedule of back-to-back meetings may find it tricky to find enough time to commit to agile system development, which can require a fully dedicated product owner that has decision-making authority and is fully available for routine engagement.

As an additional consideration, system developers must also not forget about the end-user experience and their program’s mission. From the very beginning of product creation, designers should have users testing each iteration of a product and should refine the user interface based on feedback. This human-centric approach to technology solutions will improve the constituent experience and increase the efficiency of public servants. 

Agile lifecycle processes and DevOps practices in federal health care programs has  led to improved efficiencies and lower costs, such as the  redesigned user portals in support of the Health Insurance Oversight System. Open lines of communications and an agile approach incorporating on-going feedback enhanced the user experience and improved the accuracy and availability of data and, ultimately, citizen health.  

Find a champion

Lastly, modernization isn’t just about the systems. Success requires the buy-in and support of everyone involved. If the question, “What happens if the new technology doesn’t succeed?” overshadows “What’s possible?” fear will keep modernization at an arm’s length. Overcoming this barrier to IT modernization and taking an agile approach requires identifying a champion at the right level to encourage and motivate an agency. Agile development and IT modernization need a different type of involvement from government, but can also lead to greater successes.  Without a champion to vocalize the benefits, gaining widespread adoption of agile processes will remain a challenge.

Government appreciates the need for modernization, but there is much more to an influential IT project than technology alone. New approaches to acquisition and implementation, and choosing the right champion for modernization, can ensure agency efforts to improve IT are a success.

About the Author

Doug Brown is vice president at Solutions By Design II, LLC.

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