The top 10 challenges to conquer in digital modernization
Digital modernization is a term that is as ubiquitous as it is critical in today’s government IT ecosystem. While there has been significant progress in both government and private sectors, there are some obstacles in place that we’re working to address. In fact, there is much reason for optimism. A recent McKinsey report notes that the US government has actually increased its ambition for digital modernization by five years’ time.
In this article, we outline ten key challenges government entities face in digital modernization, along with some insights into how we intend to address and tackle some of the most critical roadblocks.
1. Slow pace of migration to the cloud
Despite ongoing pushes in various corners of the government and increasingly viable, secure cloud offerings from the public sector, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports only 11% of federal agencies are currently on the cloud1. This slow march towards the cloud, which is a foundation for digital modernization, represents a significant hurdle for government agencies who will soon face binding requirements to modernize their digital architecture. After all, being the “first” to make the jump can be an uncomfortable position for a program manager to be. At Leidos, we believe our job is to do everything in our power to alleviate that anxiety and make sure agencies know that we are more than a vendor, but a partner in their path towards digital modernization.
2. Technical debt
Technical debt is a term used in IT circles that refers to the amount of outdated code or unsupported platforms in a particular organization. Many government agencies carry high levels of technical debt, and the more they carry, the further they are from true digital modernization. A key component of digital modernization is application modernization which helps reduce and eliminate technical debt.
3. Legacy business processes
As surprising as it may be, even today, many interactions between the public and government still happen on paper. Think of long lines at the DMV or Social Security Administration, massive backlogs at immigration centers, etc. These antiquated processes lead to massive amounts of time lost and more importantly errors. For an agency to embrace digital modernization, they need to be ready to revamp these business processes to provide better customer experiences by taking them online via web forms, for example. Direct access to the agency’s system via secure web forms could start with a small set of options, trigger new options based on the previous choice and ultimately lead to a more positive interaction for the citizen, plus more accurate, simpler processing and faster decisions by the agency.
4. Security and perception
Conventional thinking sometimes suggest that large, physical data centers where engineers can physically touch their servers are more secure than cloud security. We contend that this is not the case and that the cloud is, in fact, a more secure home for applications and data. There are a number of reasons why, including homogenous security technology in the cloud vs. layers of multiple security systems on physical servers that accumulate over the years. Leidos works to encourage government agencies to look at policy-based, security-comprehensive architectures like Zero Trust now, as perimeter-based security is totally insufficient to prevent breaches.
Another challenge government agencies face in this space is to convince engineers and IT leaders that while they may not be able to physically touch the server, they still have complete control over what happens to it, how it is configured and who can access and work on it through digital interfaces.
5. Outcomes vs. process
In 2021, government entities must focus on outcome-oriented services so they can focus less on “what’s under the hood” and more on whether the user has had a positive, productive experience with the public-facing technology. When we can shift attention from “how did they get here” towards examining a set of experiences like availability, response time, and end-user satisfaction, we begin to focus on positive outcomes and mission rather than the processes.
6. People vs. product
Government procurement is typically centered on fixed priced contracts based on clearly defined contract line items (CLIN) and clearly definable service level agreements (SLAs). They’re designed to make it very easy for the vendor to know what is required and for the government agency to have clear visibility into spending patterns. The challenge today is that digital modernization is by nature an evolutionary process that requires flexibility and agility. Government customers are accustomed to adhering to strict protocols that allow auditors to know exactly how many servers are being used in a month over a period of performance (PoP). The problem is that modern technology scales up and down based on requirements, usage volatility is so high that a hundred servers may be in use in one hour, and only 20 the next. Most government billing and procurement processes simply cannot support this degree of fluctuation and unpredictability of budget. This procurement issue represents one of the greatest barriers to digital modernization.
7. If it ain’t broke…
The old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and this classic line certainly applies when talking about challenges to digital modernization. The truth is, in many cases, the current computing infrastructure is in fact working to meet current expectations. Procurement specialists may raise an eyebrow at the prospect of investing in a new digital framework when they are already meeting mission requirements. After all, the digital modernization process does come at a cost and risk-averse program managers may not be willing to take a chance with impacting their mission services or on a major investment when their existing platform is currently adequate. System integrators like Leidos need to take responsibility for convincing these agencies that “good enough” will not be good enough forever, especially in regards to a secure, resilient infrastructure and we share the responsibility for mitigating that risk.
8. The art of the possible
Similar to #7, there are cultural challenges associated with digital modernization that system integrators need to consider when approaching government customers. Many program managers are trained to meet their requirements, support their mission and nothing more. This is a model that has proven to achieve consistency, reliability and candidly, mediocrity. We see it as our responsibility to expand the aperture of what’s possible and help government see how they can be innovative and compliant at the same time. Through transparency and an obsessive commitment to security, we can help teach the art of the possible.
9. Fear of redundancy
Another cultural challenge we see is the concern some government employees may have around their own lack of knowledge in a digitally modern environment. As we discussed earlier, many systems and processes have been in place for decades. Government has not necessarily required that employees’ skills grow and evolve along with modern technology. It’s perfectly understandable that there may be concern and resistance to being “upgraded out of a job” when considering moving towards digital modernization. With that in mind, our approach to digital modernization goes beyond simply updating critical assets and infrastructure. We collaborate with customers to assess and understand the various skillsets in the agency, prepare all stakeholders for the changes that are coming and outline what training may be necessary to embrace the change and focus more on mission. Preparing our customers for success is every bit as important to our digital modernization process.
10. Time to value
The concept of “time to value” revolves around the amount of time before a customer will perceive value from a newly acquired product. Many program managers struggle to see how, and when an investment in digital transformation will pay off. While this is a real challenge that system integrators must address, it’s also one of the key differentiators in moving towards digital modernization. Leidos leaders are experts in learning and understanding workflows, evaluating organizational change and giving real-world analysis of expected time to value for the specific mission. We see transparency, collaboration, and constant communication as the cornerstones of successful organizational change management.
Factors like the COVID-19 pandemic and other cultural and environmental issues have proven that the need is there and when done right, truly modern systems can improve, and even save lives. To meet this end, technology leaders like Leidos are laser-focused on defining and implementing best practices to bring customers into the future where security, scalability, and reliability are paramount.