Foundations for Federal Digital Transformation

We all know that digital transformation is top of mind for the federal IT community. Too often, however, it’s a term that’s thrown around without a real understanding of what it means or what it takes to be successful.

Based on my experience as a chief information officer, it’s vitally important that we start with a definition to which we can all agree.

Digital transformation is the process of turning your organization into a digital one. But, what does that really mean? For me, a digital organization is one where disparate data and processes are connected to create value for the people – employees, customers and citizens.

Nevertheless, most organizations aren’t digital, despite embarking on high-profile digital transformations. For example, how many times have you interacted with customer service and heard, “That’s in another system, I can’t help you…”

What we normally find are “random acts of digital” masquerading as digital transformation. While these efforts demonstrate that we can successfully use the cloud and develop mobile apps, the outcomes from these projects are too often disconnected from other key processes.

What’s Your Digital Maturity?

Real digital transformation starts by assessing your “digital maturity.” This requires a comprehensive, top-to-bottom examination of how you operate today. The review should extend far beyond IT, cutting across the entire agency. It must include the programs, processes, data, and systems – the key business functions – that drive your agency’s mission.

This requires taking the time to develop a detailed understanding of your data and work and how they move through your organization. Without this, you can’t transform your organization into a digital one. An ideal way to start is through a “discovery” process to find legacy systems and processes that ought to be rationalized and rebuilt on a digital platform.

Then, dig deeper to find and assess your data and develop a data management plan. A digital organization has a mastery of its data and uses it to create great experiences and unlock productivity. However, there are routinely dark data and dark storage lurking in data centers that impede this way. It’s critical to find them, as well as the redundant, obsolete and trivial (ROT) data that can impede your digital journey. Delete what you can and manage what’s left to drive excellent mission outcomes.

This not only makes your digital journey easier, but it also limits your risk. Unmanaged systems and data are targets for bad actors. Your customers (or Congress) won’t care if you lose data that was old, especially if it was theirs.

A critical step in this process is to select the right environments for your digital transformation. Again, this all comes back to understanding your work and data. Ideally, you will be able to standardize on a few platforms based on the type of work and data sensitivity to minimize the “digital chaos” plaguing your organization. If you can, choose platforms at the highest security levels you need. You can then move workloads there, irrespective of security requirements, simplifying your journey.

Destination Digital

Digital transformation efforts often stall because we fail to think holistically about what we want to change. Systems and business processes impact the whole agency, not just IT. You must be able to tell a compelling story about how your transformation ties back to an improved mission outcome to get your non-IT colleagues on board.

It’s also important to remember that you can’t transform what you can’t measure. So, you must be able to assess the processes you plan to transform and then know how you will measure the results. Without a demonstrable tie back to the mission outcome that you are trying to improve, your march toward digital won’t get that far.

Case in point, I recently heard a senior government leader describe a high-profile digital transformation project. He lamented that the agency he was working with had no baseline for the process they were transforming. When this organization gets new leadership, which it inevitably will, there’s a high likelihood that this project will be revisited because there’s no way to show that the work was successful in improving this process.

Best Practices

In my experience, you need to see the mission in action to create alignment and understanding. This means getting out of D.C. to visit a local office, a national park, a school or a hospital. You need to see how the work flows through the organization, all the way to the citizen and back into the agency.

This will help get you started, but it’s not enough to ensure your success.  The processes in organizations are usually a hodgepodge of functions that were sewn together without much strategic thinking. They normally get the job done, but poorly and with a high opportunity cost. As you embrace your transformation, treat it as an opportunity to re-think and re-design your processes from the ground up.

Pick key workflows that really matter and create consumer-like experiences by integrating data and processes that put the citizen at the center. Treat the effort like you were starting from scratch. This is surely easier said than done and it might not always be possible. However, we are talking about digital transformation, not the automation of an already broken process.

Governance is key for both your data and systems. The process alone forces you to think holistically about your organization. The governance group should be cross-functional and include key members of programs and IT alike. This will help drive robust and repeatable digital transformation processes. Further, the big-picture thinking that comes from this process is the best way to avoid investing time and resources in “random acts of digital.”

Lastly, be sure to measure your progress and celebrate success along the way. There’s a healthy skepticism in most organizations regarding transformation and IT initiatives. We have all seen our share of project failures. So, think big but embrace small victories and let everyone know about them.

As you connect digital transformation efforts to improved mission outcomes, you will win over skeptics and be well-positioned for complex challenges on the long digital journey ahead.

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