Dec 17 2020

5 Federal IT Trends to Watch in 2021

Biden administration policies, zero-trust cybersecurity and the evolution of remote work tools are among the key technology shifts to look for next year.

The federal government, like its state and local counterparts, has been consumed with responding to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and its resulting effects on how work gets done.

Agencies shifted to large-scale remote work setups and zero-trust cybersecurity became more important with so many users operating outside of the traditional boundaries of the federal enterprise.

As the federal government looks ahead to January and the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, federal IT leaders are planning for potential new policies and priorities as well as for the continuation of many that began during the Trump administration.

Experts and industry analysts say there will be a mixture of continuity and acceleration of existing trends in federal technology next year. Here are some of the key trends to watch in 2021.

1. The Biden Administration Will Put Its Stamp on Federal IT

The most obvious and potentially significant shift that will occur in 2021 in federal IT is the transition to a new administration.

While some federal agencies will get new, politically appointed CIOs and there is likely to be a new federal CIO and CISO, much of the federal IT workforce is composed of career civil servants who will be looking to see which federal technology policies will remain in place, which news ones will be rolled out and how IT investment and priorities might change.

Dave McClure, principal director of federal CIO advisory services for Accenture Federal Services, says he expects we “continued strong support for IT modernization, particularly as it relates to high-priority policy areas such as healthcare protection and delivery, climate change analysis, and economic recovery.”

“This will accelerate the current trends toward digital government, improved customer experiences, stronger cyber resilience and agility in creating better customer experiences,” McClure adds. “Transparency and accountability for modernization outcomes will continue to be emphasized.”

Loren DeJonge Schulman, vice president for research and evaluation at the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, home to the Center for Presidential Transition, tells FedTech that certain initiatives are likely going to continue. Those include the IT Modernization Centers of Excellence program, which was codified into law in December 2020, and the Technology Modernization Fund. Other areas are going to continue to receive funding and interest and that may accelerate adoption.

“The focus on modernizing tech is likely to continue under the Biden administration,” Schulman says. “I’d expect that some of the major tech initiatives that the Trump administration put in place will also keep going, such as the development of new technologies and emerging tech like artificial intelligence or quantum computing, and also the focus on encouraging agencies to use technologies like this. I think they’ve actually had some really great effect with a lot of innovation during this COVID timeline.”

Loren DeJonge Schulman , Vice President, Research and Evaluation, Partnership for Public Service
The focus on modernizing tech is likely to continue under the Biden administration.”

Loren DeJonge Schulman Vice President, Research and Evaluation, Partnership for Public Service

Schulman also notes that the Biden transition team has created an agency review team for the U.S. Digital Service, an important indicator that “that the Biden administration will at least be interested in continuing this capacity.” This is also a time, she says, to “think deeply about what the things are that we can do to really advance and innovate beyond USDS, and whether there are ways that we can better serve.”

DIVE DEEP: What does Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat think is in store for IT modernization?

2. Remote Work Will Continue and Evolve

Federal IT leaders have indicated that they expect remote work setups that were expanded this past spring to be extended into 2021 as the pandemic continues to unfold.

That will likely require additional technology investments as agency IT teams look to maintain and potentially augment the capabilities available to users.

“Work from home has proven to be successful for many types of jobs,” says Shawn McCarthy, IDC’s research director for government infrastructure and systems optimization strategies. “It’s likely to continue. I don’t expect the look and feel of teleconferencing to change much, but there will be a need at many agencies to either get the tech they need from the cloud (Zoom, Teams, etc.) or to build out their virtualized infrastructure if they want to do everything in-house.” Most agencies will choose cloud solutions, he says.

Other investments will also be required, says McClure. Remote work environments “will require attention to rapid data access to improve management of online service delivery; strong cybersecurity that embraces elements associated with zero trust, network expansion and the flexibility of cloud-based platforms; and serious attention to distributed, productive talent/workforce agility that creates new skilling and role shifts at scale,” he says.

Collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams are already a large part of the response to a remote workforce, he says, “but AI chatbots for internal and external help desks should also be on the rise.”

Agencies should also be leveraging robotic process automation “more aggressively to reduce manual processes as much as possible,” McClure adds.

LEARN MORE: How does an agency deploy zero trust practically?

3. Zero-Trust Security Will Become Even More Popular

In August, the National Institute of Standards and Technology issued the final draft of Special Publication ­800-207, on zero-trust architecture. It defines zero trust as “a cybersecurity paradigm focused on resource protection and the premise that trust is never granted implicitly but must be continually evaluated.”

Zero-trust cybersecurity has taken greater hold in the defense realm than in civilian agencies, but they are also considering it as well. Analysts expect zero-trust security to take deeper root in federal IT in 2021.

“With current state-sponsored international hacking efforts, we are clearly headed for zero trust for most connections,” McCarthy says. “But agencies also need better security software and tools. They need better visibility into all types of devices and packet traffic, and they need to be able to see where hackers manage to gain entrance into a network and where they go.”

Shawn McCarthy, IDC
With current state-sponsored international hacking efforts, we are clearly headed for zero trust for most connections.”

Shawn McCarthy Research Director, Government Infrastructure and Systems Optimization Strategies, IDC

McClure says that agencies’ “protection of users, devices and data will be important given the dispersion and expansion of the perimeter outside on-premises systems to smart cloud platform providers.”

Zero-trust principles “should accelerate attention to ID management and strong authentication, microsegmentation, software-defined networking and automated, trust-based algorithms to protect access to high-value data,” McClure says.

Additionally, McClure says, the Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation program, managed by the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, “will continue to help agencies accelerate adoption of zero-trust techniques and extended detection and response (XDR)-type solutions that can bolster near real-time investigation, detection and remediation of endpoints to deliver speed, visibility and effective data control.”

EXPLORE: What are the perils of not modernizing applications?

4. Cloud Migration and Application Rationalization Will Continue

One of the core tenets of the government’s Cloud Smart strategy is application rationalization, which involves reducing an application portfolio by assessing the need for and usage of apps and pushing to get rid of obsolete, redundant or overly resource-intensive applications.

There are many benefits to rationalizing application portfolios and modernizing applications by putting them in a cloud architecture.

Those efforts will continue in various forms, analysts say, though the progress will likely come in fits and starts. “I expect to see growing use of thin client and virtualized desktops for government home workers,” McCarthy says. “It is easier (in most cases) for security experts to control virtualized desktop environments and limit additional connections.”

Agency IT teams will need to determine which cloud platforms match well with specific agency needs, such as case management, health analysis, inspections and more, says McClure.

“Legacy modernization is still very much a work in progress for agencies,” he notes. “Application portfolio management is key to understanding application space — what needs to be kept, replaced, enhanced and monitored from a business impact perspective.”

Dave McClure, principal director of federal CIO advisory services for Accenture Federal Services
Application portfolio management is key to understanding application space — what needs to be kept, replaced, enhanced and monitored from a business impact perspective.”

Dave McClure Principal Director of Federal CIO Advisory Services, Accenture Federal Services

One way to accelerate this process, McClure says, is to develop IT modernization portfolios and “analyze opportunities within the context of the portfolio.” That includes setting performance goals, such as the reduction of the percentage of the IT budget spent on on-premises projects or operations and maintenance projects.

Agencies can also set up “application factories” and digital service centers and deploy “engagement teams” that include user-centered design specialists, McClure says, “who can work with program managers to show them the art of the possible.”

5. AI Will Be Prominent, But Don’t Lose Sight of Other Emerging Tech

In August, the Trump administration unveiled a plan to invest $1 billion in AI and quantum computing. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Biden administration is likely going to continue such funding efforts.

Citing Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the Journal reports that the “Biden administration is expected to invest more money in AI and quantum information science, in part because overall spending on research and development is expected to be higher.”

In 2021, the federal government “will encounter a technology inflection point, and CIOs need to radically optimize the use of these new tools in ways that can help address changes in service delivery deriving from a digital operating model focused on customer experience,” McClure says of AI.

The best practical approach for agencies, he says, will be to “focus on use cases with very targeted implementations that are used to help form an overall enterprise strategy. Applying agile approaches focused on prototypes and MVPs will also help to provide value in the near term as the agency gets more experience with the emerging tech.”

Awareness of emerging tech is high in government, but adoption is relatively immature, according to McClure. Agencies have been more adept at adopting open-source software development, DevSecOps and microservices architectures because the benefits of those can be easily quantified in terms of faster software delivery times, for example.

“Where agencies are gaining differentiated mission or customer value from an emerging technology, we believe continued investment should be prioritized, even if their peers are lagging,” McClure says. “Where peers are stumbling and struggling to gain value from an emerging technology, investment should likely be deprioritized until more stable and mature emerging tech identification, piloting and adoption practices are in place.”

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