May 28 2024

TMF Helps Agencies Modernize and Improve Citizen Services

NARA, USAID and the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board modernize technology to enhance and improve customer experiences.

The Technology Modernization Fund jump-started two major projects of the National Archives and Records Administration that will improve customer and employee experiences.

With $9.1 million in TMF funds, NARA will upgrade two outdated IT systems no longer supported by its vendor with new cloud-based software. The new applications improve efficiencies and provide veterans and their families — and hundreds of federal agencies — with faster, more reliable and secure access to records.

“The outcome of this is being able to process things faster, but it also affects security,” NARA CIO Sheena Burrell says. “Putting veterans’ personally identifiable information in a modernized system that is more secure and supported by the vendor is crucial.”

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The TMF Program Management Office, overseen by the General Services Administration, provides funding and technical expertise to agencies to strengthen IT infrastructure; reduce costs; and improve customer experiences, cybersecurity and operational efficiencies.

The TMF prioritizes the customer experience because people increasingly manage significant parts of their lives online, and they expect to do so when interacting with the federal government, says Larry Bafundo, GSA’s acting executive director for the TMF.

“People just expect more from government digital services based on what they experience in the private sector,” he says. “They’re looking for fast, secure, accessible and easy-to-use experiences, and the bar is only getting higher.”

In particular, the TMF helps agencies expand self-service options and improve wayfinding so people can complete more tasks online and with greater confidence. As part of this, ensuring that digital experiences are accessible for people of varying needs remains a priority, such as guaranteeing that people who rely on mobile devices for internet access don’t face higher barriers to accessing services, Bafundo says.

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In the end, agencies also improve accuracy: When citizens sign up for government services using poorly worded or confusing forms, applicants will most likely give up, reach out to a call center for assistance or submit inaccurate information, he says. Enhancing the customer experience also reduces the burden on agency staff.

“Government workers also benefit from human-centered design practices and better digital experiences and tools,” Bafundo says.

Records Management Moves to the Cloud 

NARA received TMF funds in 2022 to modernize two mission-critical systems that manage high-value records. NARA technicians use one system, the Case Management and Reporting System (CMRS), to track and manage the more than 1.5 million record requests that come in each year from veterans and their families, who rely on the records to access benefits.

The second project updates the Archives and Records Centers Information System (ARCIS), an inventory management system for NARA’s Federal Records Centers  Program (FRCP), which houses 27 million cubic feet of physical records, across 17 locations, for about 400 federal agencies and the military. In both projects, Salesforce’s cloud-based CRM software will replace on-premises CRM applications that have reached the end of life, Burrell says.

DISCOVER: Intelligent document processing can help agencies meet NARA’s digitization deadline.

NARA tackled CMRS first, she says, because the application suffered from network latency issues, and at the time also faced a backlog of record requests stemming from the pandemic.

“We needed a way for our NARA technicians to do their jobs better and faster,” Burrell says.

Set to launch in summer 2024, the new cloud-based, user-friendly CMRS will eliminate the network latency issues and result in more efficient operations, she says. The modernization includes several workstreams: As the TMF covers the Salesforce migration, two related automation and digitization projects will speed up document retrieval and delivery of paper records.

When requests hit NARA today, staffers pull paper records from boxes housed at the agency’s National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. They make copies to send to veterans or their families before returning  hard-copy records to their boxes. With each step, the CMRS tracks progress and closes out completed requests. The Department of Veterans Affairs has started digitizing veterans’ paper records and storing them on NARA’s Amazon Web Services cloud. NARA also successfully piloted robotic process automation to retrieve digitized records, and will soon take the successful proof of concept into production.


Number of TMF projects funded across 30 agencies, totaling more than $850 million

Source: Technology Modernization Fund, “We drive modernization in federal IT that better serves agencies and the American public,” April 23, 2024

IT Modernization Improves Private Sector Engagement

In late 2022, the U.S. Agency for International Development was awarded $5.9 million in TMF funds to build an enterprisewide CRM system to centrally manage its relationships with thousands of private sector partners.

The new cloud-based CRM will allow USAID staff to do their jobs more effectively, and improve user experience and engagement with the private sector, says Michael Rifer, managing director of the relationship management systems team in USAID’s Private Sector Hub.

That’s essential for the agency’s success. Investments and resources from companies make up for gaps in public resources and allow the agency to carry on with work to mitigate climate change, reconstruct communities after conflicts, respond to disasters and ensure humanitarian relief, Rifer says.

“We want to improve the way we manage those relationships because we need them to collaborate with us and bring their resources and capabilities to the table,” he says.

LEARN MORE: Agencies are enabling hybrid work in new ways.

USAID’s private sector efforts have been decentralized, with partnership information siloed in missions and offices across 90 countries. Many individual missions track relationships using spreadsheets or other software, Rifer says. The new CRM allows missions to aggregate those insights in one place, including company contacts, interactions and signed agreements. USAID piloted the new tool with several missions. The app was set to go live in May 2024 and roll out more broadly through the organization over the next year.

Because the TMF requires agencies to either fully or partially cover the funds they receive, USAID will pay back $2 million when the project is complete. In the meantime, officials expect the new CRM to make a big difference.

“This system will help our USAID staff develop a more comprehensive view on the agency’s global relationships with companies,” Rifer says. “Staff members will walk into meetings with better information. They can represent the agency better, and hopefully that will result in a better collaboration experience for our partners.”

More Agile, Faster Service

In the future, the combined effectiveness of NARA’S Salesforce CRM tool, automation and digitized records will not only speed customer service but also improve worker productivity, Burrell says.

With the first project nearly complete, NARA has begun modernizing ARCIS, used to process 10 million records requests by federal agencies annually.

Through an external portal, agencies can submit records for storage and make requests for retrieval, and through an internal portal, NARA employees use ARCIS to process the requests and locate documents.

NARA has relied on agile development to modernize its CRM tools in a handful of five-week sprints and expects to launch the new version of ARCIS by summer 2025. The new system will automate some workflows and allow NARA to streamline records management and ensure high availability and uptime, Burrell says.

“The current system is at high risk of failure and data loss,” she says. “If we didn’t modernize it, FRCP would not be able to meet its primary mission.”

Larry Bafundo
People just expect more from government digital services based on what they experience in the private sector.”

Larry Bafundo Acting Executive Director, GSA

Railroad Agency Beefs Up Online Services

For years, the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board has wanted to offer more services online, but it couldn’t because its legacy applications running on an old IBM mainframe has made it difficult and costly to modernize its operations.

The agency is now working to build those online services thanks to $8.7 million in TMF funds.

Over the long term, RRB plans to build entirely new applications using the IBM mainframe’s data, which currently resides in the IBM Cloud, and build entirely new applications. In the interim, TMF funds will allow the agency to create several new online services that connect to the back-end mainframe data, says RRB Deputy CIO Rich Kramer.

The 2022 funds support two self-service options on the RRB website, which allow annuitants, beneficiaries and active railroad employees to update personal information, such as address changes, direct deposit and tax withholding information, as well as submit sickness applications online.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Contact centers are improving citizen engagement.

“Because we do not currently offer these online services, our call volumes can be high,” Kramer says. “This will allow customers to update their personal information and let our customer representatives work on more complex beneficiary requests.”

RRB leverages Microsoft Azure and AWS cloud services and expects to launch the new system by spring 2025. To help, the agency has purchased two IBM tools. The first, Application Discovery and Delivery Intelligence, helps the agency fully understand its mainframe applications, including its code, business rules and data sources. The second, z/OS Connect, will allow the agency to create secure application programming interfaces to connect to back-end mainframe data.

The agency has engaged with GSA’s 18F digital services group to help it procure a contractor to develop and implement the new online services, Kramer says.

The upshot? The project will improve customer experiences and increase worker productivity by eliminating manual processes, all while saving money, he says.

“Our No. 1 goal, from an agency strategic perspective, is to do better for our customers,” he says. “This will provide better services for everybody — internal and external customers alike.”

Illustration by Jonathan D. Reinfurt

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