Innovation and government are two words that, unfortunately, are rarely used together in a positive manner.
I think we can all agree that government agencies are doing what they can with aging infrastructures, outdated processes and lack of resources.
At the same time, federal CIOs and IT professionals make innovation elusive, if not impossible, because they’re either handcuffed and/or they can’t justify taking risks. But obviously not advancing isn’t a viable option to thrive in an era of digital Darwinism — a time when society and technology evolve faster than most organizations can respond.
Yes, modern tools, systems and processes are needed. But new solutions need change agents who are willing to push through the risk versus reward tipping point to introduce a bolder, more modern vision to innovate and lead digital transformation.
Balancing the Concerns of Citizens and Feds
We also need to consider citizen user experiences. Citizens don’t care what the problem is. They want government agencies to operate just like their favorite technology.
In an era with apps that offer on-demand car services, food, gasoline, dates and anything else you can imagine, citizens are still stuck filling out paper forms, using snail mail to communicate and standing in long lines to complete tasks — all of which can be easily accomplished online. It’s both ridiculous and frustrating.
Meanwhile, government IT leaders and employees are drowning in other pressing priorities, day-to-day processes and constant struggles for budget and resources. Historically, caution of unforeseen risks, along with limited budgets, meant agency goals were best pursued by working with the IT that was on hand.
However, using outdated systems leads to soaring maintenance costs and security risks. This leaves CIOs, and IT organizations overall, in a vulnerable state. Yet there are options for change agents ready to push forward.
How IT Leaders Can Become Change Agents
IT gets it, but they need to do more than “see” the need. Change agents need to drive evolution.
The White House’s proposal for a $3.1 billion IT Modernization Fund (ITMF) led the House of Representatives to pass in September the Modernizing Government Technology Act of 2016. The MGT Act would not have appropriated new funding, but would have authorized working capital funds at the 24 CFO Act agencies to spur IT modernization by banking savings from retiring legacy IT and shifting to managed services. The bill, which the Senate did not pass, would have also authorized a governmentwide revolving fund that the General Services Administration would manage, akin to the ITMF.
Although the bill did not become law this year, agencies must start to move away from legacy IT and embrace modern solutions, such as cloud computing and mobile.
Moreover, CIOs don’t have to wait for Congress to swoop in to save the day. Among the more promising trends is the rise of “change agents” within government agencies — risk-takers who explore new solutions to modernize IT infrastructures by getting out of the hardware business and moving services to the cloud.
Cloud-based productivity apps, phone and video services, and employee networks have already proven successful in many consumer-facing businesses.
In fact, change can start from within — and also outside — each agency. This is the promise of change agents who bring not only new vision, but also third-party perspective to drive innovation in unforeseen or improbable ways.
The FCC Sets an Example
For example, David Bray, CIO of the Federal Communications Commission, is leading the charge to empower his staff while bringing new players to the table. Bray is a globally recognized change agent (he was named to Business Insider’s list of “Top 24 Americans Who are Changing the World”) who is demonstrating what’s possible when agencies approach everyday problems with new mindsets.
Bray also empowers his team to do the same. He describes change agents as those who, “'illuminate the way' and manage friction of stepping outside the status quo for benevolent ends.” And he encourages everyone in IT to become a change agent, reminding them, “you do not have to wait to receive formal authority to do so.”
Bray is betting big on the cloud. By the end of fiscal year 2017 (October 2017), the agency plans its IT to be almost 100 percent cloud-based. This includes an ongoing effort to physically move servers out of FCC’s current headquarters while also modernizing current and future applications for cloud use.
It’s not easy to stand up and fight for change. Some will say that it’s risky to challenge existing management and processes. But you cannot change anything if you change nothing to do so. If things continue in a “business as usual” mode, systems will literally break, agency missions and goals will go unmet, and agency and citizen information and data will be put at risk.
On the other hand, moving to the cloud (similar to the FCC) carries immediate and long-term upsides. Now agencies can reduce redundancy, increase productivity, harness data, and empower mobile and remote workforces — all which help agencies thrive in digital Darwinism.