Outdated legacy systems restrict government agencies that are hoping to modernize operations and transform digitally. These large and cumbersome systems are expensive, difficult to manage and outdated and moving off of them is no easy feat. On GovLoop’s recent DorobekInsider training, four government IT experts discussed how to make IT modernization a priority and how agencies can overcome common obstacles to modernization from funding restraints to overhauling legacy systems.
-Joanne Woytek, Program Manager, NASA Solutions for Enterprise-Wide Procurement Program
-Bridget Gauer, Deputy Director, NIH IT Acquisition and Assessment Center
-Ann Bruner, Chief Information Officer/Assistant Director, Information Service Division, U.S. Labor Department
-Chris Borneman, Chief Technology Officer, Software AG Government Solutions
Importance of IT Modernization
Federal IT modernization can revolutionize efficiency, convenience and effectiveness for all users. In GovLoop’s recent IT Modernization guide, we discussed additional challenges to modernization and successful modernization efforts, as well as how the recent enactment of the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act pushed the subject of modernization to the forefront in government technology.
The importance of IT modernization in government mostly revolves around how quickly government operations and the technological landscape are changing. “Government systems have really changed,” Borneman said. “The way that citizens interact with government has changed drastically over the last years. How we go about our services changes with them.”
“It is necessary for the federal government,” Bauer added. “We have to think of better ways to do things.” Despite the obstacles to overhauling the old systems, Bauer believes that now is a good time to upgrade systems and look into new ways to automate. “The president is really behind us. We have a lot of opportunity with the MGT act to use this momentum and establish a plan to modernize our systems.”
In terms of initiating the modernization process, many agencies struggle with where to start. In Woyteck’s experience, some agencies and teams rush into modernization processes that are extensive and costly by not looking at the larger picture and focusing on specific end goals. “We need to ask about the specific purpose of modernizing and if it will be worthwhile,” she said. “We have to be careful that it’s done in a way that makes sense and that we have the money to support it. This is where the different meanings of modernization come in to play.”
Bruner described how the Labor Department formed their individualized modernization goals and plans. “We talked about different capabilities, pain points and disruptions on the near horizon,” she said. “We weighed how we could be successful when maintaining a legacy system and realized we would never be flexible enough to take on new challenges. It was through strategic alignment with the business that we understood those needs.”
Rather than completely overhauling the old legacy systems, some agencies are looking to connect the old with the new, but creating hybrid technological environments is not an easy mission. “Legacy systems were often approached from a need-to-last perspective but rarely from a need-to-change perspective,” Borneman said. “There are ways to leverage data from your legacy systems and extrapolate that data out.”
Borneman then mentioned using artificial intelligence to reduce some of the data load on legacy systems. “You still leverage all of the old systems at the backend. They just have to go through modernization at the connection point.”
The “need-to-last” legacy systems produce one of the biggest challenges of IT modernization. Many agencies face trouble connecting old legacy systems with updated technology. In extreme cases, agencies have systems that are not at all compatible with new systems.
If you do decide to overhaul system operations, it is critical that agencies not only consider changing agency operations, but how their chosen method of modernization could impact customers. “We have to have customers involved and have to figure out what our future requirements are because in the federal government we want to build a system that’s going to be around for a while,” Gauer said. “We have to train everyone on the new system while thinking about the customers’ needs.”
Leveraging customers is critical to modernization mapping, and it can help to convince department leaders and stubborn agency employees of the importance of change and modernization. “When you talk to customers about their experiences and their goals, they realize that they need something more than they have,” Bruner said. “This helps me bring in a discussion [within my agency] about when and how we might modernize to help solve the problems customers are facing.”
Funding Challenges to Modernization
Once agencies create a modernization plan and are prepared to initiate the process, it’s common that they run into issues with covering the up-front costs of new systems. Passage of the MGT Act opens new doors for agencies, but also creates new frustrations.
“It’s certainly a problem with stakeholders to realize the full cost of what you’re doing,” Bruner said. “Legacy systems are like having an old car that you continue to put money into. You have to be honest with your stakeholders and also with your legislature about the costs.”
Modernization creates funding issues even for government IT specialists like Gauer. “I try to help chief information officers come up with ways to reduce pricing and try to put procurement vehicles in place, but I’m struggling with the same thing.” The panelists encourage collaboration and relying on the experiences of other agencies that are undergoing IT modernization.
Exchanging best practices can improve the modernization process, but it may still be an extensive process of trial and error. In this case, it is best to make an investment that can withstand further change. “Agencies have a lot of investment already made today that you can leverage over time,” Borneman said. “Modernize thoughtfully so you don’t have to modernize soon again. Make it built to change so that it lasts.”