May 17 2018

5 Ways Feds Can Make IT Projects a Success via a Human-Centric Approach

Building relationships, thinking about IT modernization and developing user-centric designs are among tactics IT leaders recommend.

When launching a new government technology project, it can be easy to get lost in spreadsheets, timelines, demos and buzzwords, but the key to success lies with keeping relationships at the heart of the pursuit.

“It’s not about the technology. It’s about technology adoption,” said Teri Takai, moderator of the panel “Fostering Strategic Relationships Beyond IT” at the Adobe Digital Government Symposium 2018 in Washington, D.C., on May 15. Takai, who is currently the executive director for the Center for Digital Government and is the former CIO for the State of California, State of Michigan and the Defense Department, noted that big IT spend does not equal success, and often a simpler, more user-centric tool trumps a large but tone-deaf deployment.

So how can government CIOs and IT teams go about keeping both constituents and federal government workers in the eyeline of tech deployments? Experts on the panel proffered these tips to improve everything from adoption to return on investment for IT projects:

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1. Cross-Department Relationships Are King

It’s often been said that stakeholder engagement is the key to success for new IT deployments, but what it takes to attain that stakeholder buy-in often starts long before the first meeting.

“You have to have working relationships with people before you need them. That’s really important,” said Dean Pfoltzer, a former senior executive at the Defense Department who served in key roles in IT modernization and reform efforts.

These relationships are key to not just getting a project off the ground, but also in seeing it through whenever it hits a rough patch, added Pfoltzer.

“Sometimes you’re just trying to hold things together, and those relationships are really important because no project ever goes squeaky clean. Everything has rocky times. Those relationships sometimes are really important just to be able to sit down and clarify [where things went wrong],” he adds.

And when it comes to being a project leader, those relationships may also play a large role in your ability to course-correct when necessary — something that will only strengthen a project as it moves forward.

Part of the art of being successful is listening, and not only listening, but acting upon it,” said Pfoltzer. “You build credibility that way because if people feel like you’re listening to them and adjusting, they trust you, and then, when you really need their trust, they still trust you. That’s critical to your success.”

2. Think About Government IT Modernization Early and Often

IT modernization and digital transformation aren’t “once and done” efforts. In fact, these are constant and ongoing processes that require CIOs and IT teams to stay one step ahead at all times.

“If your system is even five years old, it’s legacy. It now needs to be modernized again,” said Karen Loquet, deputy audit controller for Los Angeles County, who previously worked with LA County’s centralized IT department. She notes that LA County is currently upgrading some systems that are 40 or 50 years old, but that with a rolling system of auditing IT and thinking about modernization, departments and agencies can stay ahead.

“You should already be thinking about how are you going to revamp that, especially with the speed of technology today. The way things are moving so fast, we have to continue to stay up to speed,” Loquet added.

3. Zero In on User-Centric Designs

Not properly understanding what constituents want or need from a system can be catastrophic from both an adoption and cost standpoint.

It’s really easy to break the bank,” said Pfoltzer, speaking to the costs of IT deployments

From left: Teri Takai, executive director for the Center for Digital Government; Kumar Rachuri, director of state and local government solutions at Adobe; Karen Loquet, deputy audit controller for Los Angeles County; and Dean Pfoltzer, former senior executive at the Defense Department, speaking at the Adobe Digital Government Symposium 2018 in Washington, D.C., on May 15. Photo: Juliet Van Wagenen 

To stay within cost constraints, IT teams need to take the time to understand what people want, not just what agencies think they want, which will allow them to work through the most cost-effective way to deliver the most desired outcome.

“It should be continuous. It should be something that in the background is always occurring and if you do it right, the customer experience improves and sometimes without them even knowing it,” Pfoltzer added.

4. Get All Government Staff on Board with New Tech Rollouts

While getting C-suite buy-in is key to getting projects off the ground, getting staff on board is even more crucial to getting a new tech deployment to launch — and seeing return on investment.

Never underestimate the power of the staff,” urged Pfoltzer. “Their bosses feed their senior leaders. I can talk to their senior leader all day long, but if the staff on their side isn’t convinced, they can change minds better than I can.”

On the contrary, getting staff buy-in means they can champion a project to their manager and ensure its success.

“Sometimes the best champions are the people in the middle of the work processes…because most of their bosses don’t know IT,” Pfoltzer added. “If they tell their boss, ‘This is way better than what I had,’ that carries much more credibility and that actually helps propel [the project].”

5. Make Business as Agile as Government IT

The move to more agile IT is all the rage, but if business processes don’t match that willingness to modernize speed and flexibility, it all accounts for naught.

“As you’re doing the IT modernization, your business has to modernize. That means your business has to be at the table and be willing to keep an open mind to modernize the business process,” said Kumar Rachuri, director of state and local government solutions at Adobe. “If your business process is rigid, set in the old ways of working 50 years ago, it doesn’t matter how many millions of dollars you dump into a modernized system, you’re not going to get 100 percent benefit from it.”

This requires the business side of the equation to stay engaged with an IT project as it moves through a rollout and adjusts according to new needs. Oftentimes, vendors can play a large role in that.

“Vendors and support contractors … have a lot of good information,” said Pfoltzer, adding that keeping vendors engaged can help agencies and departments implement a more continuous approach to modernization. “Technology should be ongoing; it should be a paradigm that it’s always going to change, and if you build that into your paradigm, it helps with planning, too.”

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