Long-awaited investment in government technology is finally here in the United States and now we must act. Last week President Joe Biden announced his administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, and technologists rightly lauded his inclusion of $10 billion to modernize state systems and networks, improve cybersecurity, and fund the Technology Transformation Services. This acknowledges that governments are facing an unprecedented need to expand their digital and virtual services due to COVID-19.
The pandemic continues to create immediate demands for services, raises the government’s technology risk profile, and changes long-term expectations for how government interacts with citizens and delivers services. To make the most of the momentum for change that’s now here, governments will have to look beyond 2021 and this crisis.
My hope is that this is the beginning of long-term sustained, strategic investment to establish resilient technology infrastructure and digital government.
Even prior to this crisis it was clear that governments faced high-stakes technology challenges. For example, with the onset of the long-anticipated “silver tsunami” retirements, IT departments face high levels of attrition, leaving them understaffed and with the loss of much institutional knowledge. Yet, the pressure to deliver quickly has led to an accumulation of technical debt, with the near-term agenda being prioritized at the cost of sustainability. Legacy systems, running on hardware or software that is increasingly costly and difficult to support, present operational and security risks that must be addressed. Cyberattacks have risen over the last year. The risks are not hypothetical; they are playing out at all levels of government in real time.
While there are pressing, immediate needs, the technology agenda cannot be short-sighted. To succeed, governments must create long-term integrated plans that encompass enterprise architecture, funding and policy support for scaling infrastructure, shared services, automation and workforce development/skills building.
First and foremost, governments, as some already have, must adopt cloud-based infrastructure that scales. As legacy mainframes and servers are overwhelmed by people seeking aid from COVID-19 and the economic crisis, the challenge becomes a matter of global interest. Of course, governments aren’t going to switch to cloud infrastructure overnight. In the short-term, however, that means operating in a hybrid environment (part on-site, part cloud) while also planning for the future with supportive funding and policies that promote best practices in technology procurement and development.
Likewise, governments also often have multiple solutions that serve the same purpose due to being built over the course of 10 or 20 years without an overarching vision. This means more time in developing and managing applications that might no longer be needed, increased costs related to procuring software, and a confusing experience for people using government services. If governments treat their modernization projects as one-off “rip and replace” initiatives, these problems will recur again. Now is the moment to break out of that cycle and build for reuse across government.
IT organizations will have to balance pressure to automate things quickly and a need to set themselves up for long-term success. The reality of COVID-19 means doing more with less. Many government agencies have embraced automated solutions to help fill gaps. Automated solutions can help streamline processes, lighten overhead, and provide for better data and tracking of operations. However, implementing automated solutions cannot be done without considering the processes and teams involved. The Federal RPA Playbook is a great starting place for organizations looking to implement automation at scale.
The success of almost every other program and investment noted above depends on investing in a workforce capable of supporting, maintaining and growing it over time. Technology and workforce development plans must be developed hand-in-hand so that the workforce is prepared to execute on the organization’s priorities. New approaches, such as The Digital Corps, to hiring can help get tech talent in the door quickly. Training and support for professional development ensure IT organizations have the skills they need and employees who buy-in to the long term vision for the organization.
It’s not just about funding, but also about supporting long-term plans with policies and processes that complement those investments. Without that supportive structure, even smart investments in technology will fail to have positive impacts. With funding and support, total net costs will be lower, new software will be delivered more quickly, people will get their government services more easily, and technology will be more secure.
Organizations all over the world are putting together their plans for 2021, with a heavy emphasis on technologies that will help the ongoing response to COVID-19. NASCIO recently published its top 10 priorities for 2021, The Commission for Smart Government in the U.K. just released a comprehensive list of recommendations for improving digital government, and articles calling for investments in key technologies have been published in countless outlets over the last 10 months. Parlaying those short-term priorities into sustainable, long-term transformation is the next, crucial step on the path to better government technology.
Jeremy M. Goldberg is part of Microsoft Worldwide Public Sector and is the former deputy secretary for technology and innovation for Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the interim-chief information officer at the State of New York.