Feb 10 2021

How Will Federal IT Modernization Be Impacted by the Pandemic Response?

A recent CIO survey from the Professional Services Council sketches out the strides IT leaders have made on technology upgrades and how those efforts might evolve.

IT modernization across the federal government has been a longstanding process that has been given greater attention in recent years through both executive and legislative actions. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated these efforts in some ways but also complicated strategic goals in others, according to a recent survey of federal CIOs.

The survey of federal CIOs, conducted by the Professional Services Council and management consulting firm Attain between July and October 2020, makes clear that agencies have made progress on adopting new technologies and enhancing their IT infrastructure. The pandemic, by necessity, forced agencies that had not invested as much as others in cloud and collaboration tools to support remote work on a large scale.

At the same time, the crisis of the pandemic has pushed strategic IT modernization projects to the back burner, and IT leaders want to make those a priority again. There also remain structural and cultural barriers to innovating at a faster pace, according to the report.

Simon Szykman, partner and CTO of Attain and the lead author of the report on the survey, says that some agencies were more prepared than others to shift to large-scale remote work, while others required more rearchitecting of their networks and cloud resources as well as endpoint security.

Szykman notes that every agency is pursuing an ongoing modernization path, and most were well into upgrading IT infrastructure before the pandemic. They then had to pivot to support remote work. Now, he says, “it will be important for them to prioritize their investments for modernization in ways that are strategic and not in response to the COVID situation for an agency to improve its operations.”

Agencies Have Made Progress on IT Modernization

The report makes clear that there are different flavors or concepts of what IT modernization looks like among agencies. For some CIOs, it is simply about moving from old mainframes to more modern infrastructure; for others, data center optimization and modernization remain the watchwords. Still others are focused primarily on rationalizing and modernizing their application portfolios.

“Some agency CIOs are focusing their efforts on the commodity IT services, with the intent of allowing mission organizations to focus their IT investments on requirements that are unique to their respective organizations,” the report notes. “This enables the agency CIO organization to become a service provider for those generic services that are common across the agency.”

Smaller agencies that can be more nimble are generally further along in their modernization journeys than larger ones, the report adds. Indeed, some of them have progressed beyond typical modernization programs and are now focused on applying artificial intelligence and robotic process automation to agency operations.

There is “extensive activity around modern architectures, technologies, and delivery models” across the federal IT landscape, according to the report. CIOs spoke often of “many of the commonly-accepted foundations for modernization: virtualization, cloud, containerization, microservices, serverless computing, low-code/no-code development platforms, automation, and more,” the report notes.

“When combined with modern development methodologies, they come together to support IT modernization initiatives that have the potential to reduce agency costs and enhance customer experience, and at a higher velocity than was traditionally possible in the past,” the report adds.

Simon Szykman, Partner and CTO, Attain
It will be important for them to prioritize their investments for modernization in ways that are strategic and not in response to the COVID situation for an agency to improve its operations.”

Simon Szykman Partner and CTO, Attain

Szykman says there are some agencies using all of those foundational elements, and some are looking to use them more than they currently are. Other agencies are still in the “investigation and exploration” phase of using them, he says. “Certainly, there are pockets where every one of those is in full use and growing,” he says.

“Agencies are getting better at adopting new technologies, which in turn contributes to enabling the workforce as well as an increased ability to deliver on the mission,” the report notes. “Core services, business and mission are more interconnected, as are agencies and the citizens they serve. People inside and outside of the government IT community are paying more attention to technology as they see the value it offers.”

READ MORE: Find out what existing technology policies will probably transition into the Biden administration.

Real-World Barriers to Innovation Remain

Despite that progress, and the Biden administration’s early signaling that it is pushing for billions of dollars in funding for IT modernization, there are still obstacles to progress.

One of those is budgetary, and the report notes that “continuing resolutions and budget disruptions affect IT modernization in terms of how CIOs make decisions in the short-term versus the long-term.”

There is also “a need for consistency in federal hiring practices for a skilled workforce that targets candidates with experience and skills in emerging technologies and critical decision-making abilities,” the report notes.

Notably, the report points out that “change management and changing peoples’ behaviors are essential to overcoming culture-related obstacles.”

PSC President and CEO David Berteau tells FedTech that agencies, like the rest of the country, are still in the middle of the pandemic and are in the process of figuring out what the workplace and structure of work will look like in the future.

The Biden administration’s IT modernization funding proposal — which includes $9 billion for the Technology Modernization Fund and $300 million in funding for GSA’s Technology Transformation Services — signals two key things. One is a “recognition that the government’s internal infrastructure” is in “serious need of additional attention,” and that modernization can help the government respond better to get the pandemic under control.

IT modernization projects, Berteau says, should be driven by “the nature of the work and the workforce” and not simply what is next on a modernization checklist. “If you do that, you’ll be reverting to a pre-pandemic mindset,” he says.

“Agency CIOs recognize that plans made years ago may need to be set aside, and you need to respond to the exigencies of the moment,” he says. “But there comes a point in time, and we’re getting close to it, where you say, ‘What will our needs be for the future of work?’ And you have a chance to shape that.”

This spring, the Biden administration will put forth a budget proposal for fiscal year 2022, which starts Oct. 1, and there will be a lot of haggling over the spending ceiling, since there is no statutory budget cap for FY 2022.

What may make modernization easier, Szykman says, is that many incoming CIOs are likely going to be people with government experience who won’t need to be convinced of the need for IT upgrades. They will want to use technology to improve citizen services and the customer experience, get less duplication and more efficiency, he says.

A key challenge within agencies, Berteau says, will be getting career staffers on board with modernization projects that may upend how an agency operates. “In my experience, all of the issues around modernizing legacy systems, whether it be IT systems or other operations, is that the past is generally stronger than the future. Everybody who is doing the past stuff knows who they are, and they all worry about, ‘What if I lose in this process?’” he says. “Whereas the beneficiaries aren’t as well identified or organized, and may not even know who they are.”

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