Mar 02 2021

Smaller Federal Agencies Are the Tip of the Spear for Innovation

Follow these best practices to drive digital transformation at your agency.

Smaller federal agencies (those with under 6,000 employees) drive many critical national operations. However, those agencies are often subject to tighter budgets and fewer resources than their big agency counterparts.

While IT innovation is an obvious means to help these agencies increase productivity and efficiency, those resource constraints can make innovation feel out of reach. It doesn’t have to be this way.

There are some unique conditions that create the opportunity for smaller agencies to take a leadership role in federal government innovation. Adopting the mindset and perspective of a private sector disrupter can open the door to making change far more quickly than can larger, more bureaucratic peers subject to detailed oversight and lengthy approval cycles.

While agencies must continue to adhere to regulations, smaller agencies can be more agile than larger ones thanks to more streamlined approval chains. This can mean taking lower-risk opportunities for a little experimentation.

How Smaller Agencies Can Maximize Existing Resources

Smaller agency budgets often don’t support funding for IT development, modernization and enhancement (DME), yet their need to modernize still exists. Industry has responded with promoting the “as a service” model, which enables smaller agencies to procure and benefit from leading-edge solutions. This way, they can leverage technology advances without having to bear the cost, time and skill burdens of new development efforts.

For example, some vendors are developing and integrating new software advances that incorporate automation of many daily tasks. Applying these advances as upgrades to solutions already used in their technology stack will help smaller agencies quickly benefit from technology innovation as part of ongoing operations and maintenance budgets. Automating many capabilities will also streamline the learning curve for the next generation of government workers, many of whom are accustomed to adopting new technologies in their private lives.

READ MORE: Find out what technology policies will likely transition in the Biden administration.

Execute Innovation in a Deliberate Way

Any innovation should be undertaken to meet real challenges, not just for its own sake. Every agency has its own mission to sustain. Getting started can feel daunting.

One way for smaller agencies to balance need with effort is to tackle change incrementally. Approaching a new idea like a pilot program can make change far more manageable.

Start by focusing on the benefits that a particular innovation can bring to an individual department. Identify that department’s users, understand their main mission needs and make incremental modernization efforts that improve their ability to meet them. Smaller agencies enjoy the advantage of needing fewer people to buy in.

For instance, the IT team at the Agriculture Department may pilot an innovative idea with the Farm Service Agency. Making a notable improvement to those operations can mean happy FSA customers. As word spreads across the greater department, more sub-agencies will see the possibilities and sign on to the change.

DIVE DEEPER: These are the federal IT trends to keep track of in 2021.

IT Innovators Need to Think Critically

Innovation depends on expanded thinking. One useful technique is to approach every situation from the perspective of asking, “How do I deal with this in my personal life, and why can’t I do that here?”

No plan needs to be bulletproof. What’s important is to think critically and objectively about how things can be done better, and avoid ‘we’ve always done it this way’ syndrome. Attending conferences (even virtual ones) is a great way to get an overview of industry and technology developments that can inspire creative energy.

Focus on the positive outcomes that are possible. Innovation will not only bring a beneficial impact to users but will also improve the IT team’s own operational efficiency.

Share Services and Combine Resources

Shared services and joint purchasing arrangements offer additional paths to modernization. Smaller agencies have often struggled with the best way to procure technology. Today, vehicles like the Governmentwide Acquisition Contract (GWAC) and NASA’s Solutions for Enterprise-Wide Procurement (SEWP) are available to streamline acquisition of IT equipment and services from a preauthorized list of resellers.

Consider combining forces with another agency that wants to make a specific change in its IT modernization effort. Reach out to peers and identify opportunities to pool resources. Even if the same solution impacts both missions differently, there can still be benefits from sharing a common service, like multitenant data infrastructures, analytics platforms, cybersecurity monitoring or on-premises file sync and share services.

Another option is to consider applying to the Technology Modernization Fund, where projects are reviewed by a board of government IT leaders with proven expertise in technology, transformation and operations. Approved projects receive incremental funding and technical expertise to ensure project success.

EXPLORE: What are the perils of not modernizing applications?

You Can Do More with Less

Modernizing IT while streamlining complexity challenges not only smaller agencies but industry as well. You’re not alone. Even with limited DME budgets, there are many paths to affecting positive change.

A cultural shift, some creative inspiration and tapping into the right government and industry resources can propel smaller agencies to be innovation leaders that set a new bar for all agencies across the federal government and beyond.

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