Feb 07 2022

How Federal Agencies Can Overcome Hurdles to Digital Transformation

Government IT leaders who have been successful are focusing on data management, investing in staff and developing technology visions.

The federal government’s path to digital transformation is an iterative one, with many steps along the way, including modernizing and improving customer service delivery.

Federal IT leaders uniformly agree that the government needs to do more to digitize government services and use technology to improve how government functions and services are delivered to citizens. Yet, agencies face many barriers to doing so, including cybersecurity challenges, resistance to change among staff and a depleted IT workforce.

IT leaders say that the journey to digital transformation includes investing in staff and developing and articulating a clear vision for modernization.

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The State of Digital Transformation in Government

MeriTalk, in partnership with DocuSign, recently surveyed 300 federal, state and local government IT and program managers to understand their perspectives on digital transformation.

While 60 percent of respondents say they have felt a “significant” shift in digital transformation in the past two years, only 37 percent characterize their organizations’ approach to digital transformation as advanced, meaning they are “aggressively expanding digital services and digitizing internal processes.” A majority (56 percent) describe their digital transformation as intermediate, saying they are “making progress digitizing incrementally where possible.”

Despite that, 88 percent say they face roadblocks to transformation. The key barriers include security or data privacy concerns (33 percent), lack of available budget (30 percent), resistance to change from end users (28 percent), and lack of a skilled IT workforce to implement transformation (27 percent).

Respondents say they need workforce training and education (51 percent) to advance digital transformation, along with committed, multiyear funding (39 percent) and shared best practices across all levels of government (39 percent).

Leading organizations are more likely to focus on improving data management to streamline workflows and reduce redundancies, according to 54 percent of IT leaders surveyed, and 50 percent say they are expanding their use of cloud service providers certified under the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program and its state-level equivalents.

EXPLORE: What are the key federal IT trends to watch in 2022?

How Federal IT Leaders Are Pursuing Digital Transformation

Federal IT leaders have recently offered their own viewpoints for how agencies can best achieve digital transformation. One clear area to work on, they say, is investing in talent.

During the ATARC Digital Transformation Virtual Summit in January, Gulam Shakir, the CTO and acting director of enterprise data management at the National Archives and Records Administration, endorsed this idea.

Shakir said that agencies need to invest in their staff to rapidly innovate their digital capabilities, MeriTalk reports. “Give them the opportunity to train and try to give them a safe place to experiment, to explore different technologies.”

That work allows IT leaders to “create a sense of ownership” for transformation among workers and increases their ability to take risks in a safe environment. “And then, when the opportunity comes along, when there is a need, you have a task, you have a workforce that’s ready to take on the challenge immediately so that they can help you on the innovation journey,” he added.

Chezian Sivagnanam, the chief enterprise architect at the National Science Foundation, said staff should be involved in transformation efforts and need to evolve along with the technology itself. “As we go through your digital transformation, do not forget your people, your staff, your workforce. You know, find a way to take them alongside,” Sivagnanam said. “Whatever you innovated, if your staff or your customers are not adapting, the whole innovation is a waste of effort. So, make sure you invest in them.”

Other IT leaders say that to be successful in digital transformation, leaders need to articulate a clear technology vision of how modernization helps enhance the agency’s ability to deliver on its mission.

Jill Marlowe, digital transformation officer at NASA, speaking at the ATARC event, said that vision “is the topic that has to precede any events or any true discussion about digital transformation, because if you do not know what change you’re trying to bring about, then your digital strategy is likely to be more of a digitization than a true digital transformation strategy,” MeriTalk reports.

Marlowe noted that NASA’s digital transformation initiative began about a year ago with meetings with senior agency leaders “to get their insights on how NASA needed to change, what was keeping them up at night in terms of where we needed to pivot.”

Those efforts have allowed NASA to define its digital transformation goals, MeriTalk notes, which include improving complex decision-making, allowing partners to more easily work with NASA, and evolving the workforce experience.

RELATED: How are federal IT leaders thinking about modernization?

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