This post is an excerpt from GovLoop’s latest research brief, Enabling Digital Transformation in Government.
Digital transformation — the updating of information technology solutions and services — is one of the highest priorities for government today. Given its potential to improve citizen services, cut procurement costs and improve productivity, federal agencies are aggressively pursuing this objective. But while digital transformation is pursued, many agencies have yet to see real outcomes in the way digital tools facilitate mission goals.
A recent GovLoop survey of 163 federal government professionals revealed that there are a number of obstacles that make it difficult to transition to better technologies, including the burden of current infrastructures, resource shortages and ineffective planning.
A primary obstacle to innovation is the current composition of government IT infrastructures. Most agencies’ current technology systems don’t support the type of digital services and processes that are expected of organizations today. They don’t meet citizen expectations for customer service tools, nor do they help employees efficiently collaborate and do their jobs.
When government leaders attempt to replace those outdated and legacy systems, however, they find the task much more difficult than simply ripping out one system and replacing it with a better one.
“The primary reason why agencies are not able to innovate is because they’re hamstrung by the types of legacy solutions and infrastructure that exist within their agency,” Adolf said. “The tools they have in place that are core to their mission in many cases are not designed in a way that’s easy to innovate on.”
Fifty-six percent of survey respondents cited the inability to integrate new solutions with outdated technologies as a primary barrier to effectively innovating. Legacy systems were most often built for unique needs, met in a specific IT environment. They were not built to integrate with newer environments like cloud, nor were they made to be heavily altered as new service demands arise.
But while these systems aren’t flexible enough to be adapted, they also prove difficult to replace. Because these solutions were designed for custom needs, the newer off-the-shelf solutions that most organizations target for cost-savings and operational simplicity don’t provide a sufficient substitute. Most pre-built applications simply can’t provide all of the capabilities of a single, custom-built system. As a result, IT leaders are forced to either sacrifice functionality to modernize or purchase multiple solutions to replace one system.
Not only is the latter tactic resource-intensive, combining multiple solutions to aggregate those capabilities can also reduce the efficacy of modernization efforts. As more solutions are added to an already-complex legacy IT infrastructure, the ability to securely and effectively manage those systems decreases.
Resource Shortage and Misallocation
Not only do these legacy systems present integration roadblocks, they also consume already-constrained government resources. Unsurprisingly, more than half of survey respondents cited the costs of new technology as a major concern. Data shows, however, that an even bigger cost barrier to innovation is legacy IT.
For most agencies, well over half of their IT budget is spent on operating and maintaining (O&M) current IT systems. According to ITDashboard.gov, 68.6 percent of the current federal IT budget is being spent on O&M, with only 22.9 percent spent on development, modernization and enhancements. Survey respondents cited similar conditions — 43 percent said the cost of operating and maintaining current IT systems hindered effective innovation.
Legacy systems not only tie up IT professionals’ time and skills in outdated processes, they also consume the budget to invest in new technologies or new skills for IT professionals.
Leadership and Planning
Finally, innovation efforts suffer from a lack of cohesive leadership and planning to execute large-scale technology projects.
Replacing legacy infrastructure with effective new solutions requires careful planning, not just to acquire those solutions but to maintain and upgrade them as needed. One survey respondent noted, “I have not seen a true digital transformation plan. I have seen some short-term plans and other innovations, but not the comprehensive, integrated, long-term, visionary plan I’d hoped for.” Unfortunately, this experience isn’t unique in government settings.
While many government leaders understand the need to invest in new technologies, they are often prevented from doing so by the nature of federal work. “The timeline for doing those modernizations or innovations often outlasts some of the personnel who are appointed to make those types of decisions,” Adolf said.
Budget cycles, personnel turnover and changes in administration often prevent leaders from seeing an effective technology transition through from planning to execution and maintenance. At the same time, the developers and users of these applications also have difficulty keeping pace.
But these dynamics of federal government work are unlikely to change. That means leaders must seek a different approach to technology that is more agile and flexible to changing circumstances.
To read our full research brief, Enabling Digital Transformation in Government, click here.