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Modernization in Government: FAQs

Alex Dunlop

Director of Business Development, Government Services, Forum One

Mike Shoag

Vice President, Government Services, Forum One

Digital Modernization is about transforming your government agency, and how you interact with customers, through the use of new technologies to achieve an integrated approach to engaging your audiences and achieving your mission. And while digital tools and systems play a big role, it’s not just about the technology.

In our recent Forum One webinar on modernization in government, we shared some common focus areas for modernization investments, which include:

  • Using data and analytics for making decisions and measuring performance
  • Updating IT infrastructure by replacing legacy systems
  • Moving data to the cloud and away from costly on-premise data centers
  • Improving workforce skills and facilitating the difficult work of change management throughout an agency

Government agencies use a variety of tools, which can create overlapping or redundant solutions and processes. In addition, the common challenge that large agencies face is that internally they are working in silos, making it difficult to share information. If an agency finds itself in one or more of these scenarios, it’s likely time to consider how a modernized system and approach can help improve processes and communication.

There are three essential components that go into a digital modernization:

  1. Mission, goals, and objectives: Focus on your mission. You must understand what you want to accomplish.
  2. Audiences: Whether you are targeting citizens or internal stakeholders, clearly identify who those groups are and where they are facing challenges.
  3. Systems and tools: Don’t just replace, improve! This is an opportunity to rethink systems and tools to improve efficiency and impact.

And don’t forget organizational culture, as it can have a big impact on how successful your modernization efforts will be. Without connecting the process, the technology, and the outcomes, you really won’t be setting your initiative up for success. First and foremost, it is about organizational change, and then it is about the tools and systems and processes that you use to get your work done. Without the organizational change component, you are just buying a product.

You can watch the webinar recording here: Tackling Government Modernization

Government Modernization FAQS

There is a lot of information to take in when it comes to tackling government modernization. Here we answer some of the most common questions we hear from our government clients.

Q1: We’ve all heard that modernization efforts often fail.  What are some common reasons they fail?

A: Modernization efforts can fail for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes you don’t really understand the end-user needs and you are trying to create the system without talking to those who will be using it. Another reason modernization efforts can become complicated is because requirements often change midstream. These changes can range from a new administration, a government shutdown, new legislation, or receiving last-minute requests from management for new features. All in all, such changes can be caused by countless reasons.

Understanding potential risks early on is the best way to mitigate these common challenges. A “pre-mortem” review is a way to head off these challenges before getting started. Conducting a pre-mortem begins with getting key stakeholders in the room at the very beginning and asking them to imagine: “Let’s assume we are at the end of the project and things went really wrong, we went over budget, over time, things are going badly, etc.” Then ask: “What went wrong? Why?” These stakeholders know the sticking points of their agency so they are perfectly suited to say it was likely because of x, y or z. If you understand these risks upfront, you can address them from the very beginning.

Q2: Have you (Forum One) undergone a modernization effort that got stuck? What happened? How did you fix it?

A: Yes, we certainly have. As we previously mentioned, there are many reasons modernization efforts get stuck, whether it is because of a phantom stakeholder who has come in at the end with requirements we didn’t know existed, or a government shutdown delayed the schedule. The best way to avoid getting stuck in the first place is to be sure you are talking to your stakeholders and the end users. Involving stakeholders from the beginning and throughout the effort is key to ensure they are on board.

Q3: What are my obligations currently regarding federal policies?

A: The Technology Modernization Fund — a funding mechanism that agencies can use for modernization efforts, which was initiated along with the Modernization Government Technology Act (MGT Act) — has clear restrictions on what it can fund and what it cannot. For example, if you have an IT budget allocation for your agency and you know you need more, which is a common problem, this is not a fund to top off your existing IT budget. What they are looking for are commercial applications and concrete deliverables for using that fund. They are prioritizing certain approaches, like shared platforms over proprietary systems. The process involves a proposal for the funds, which you can apply for with the criteria that they have.

Another great resource is the Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer. They offer templates and have answers to more frequently asked questions.

If you’re working at a government agency and want to procure IT modernization, you and your contracting officer should look at the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) regulations, which were passed in 2014. They share guidelines on how to go about contracting for these types of services. They also have a resource that includes a self-assessment with questions to gauge your agency’s readiness to take on a project like this. It’s important to remember to make sure you have a contracting officer to look at these restrictions and to enable a modernization effort to be funded and executed.

Q4: How long do these projects typically take?

A: It really depends on the project. In terms of modernization efforts, the planning phase can be anywhere from a few months to a year depending on the complexity of the project. We typically try to complete planning within 2-6 months — which includes having workshops with staff, conducting stakeholder interviews or focus groups, and ensuring we understand the high-level features needed for success. It really depends on how many people are involved and how involved the stakeholders are.  As many of us know, “it takes a village” to do something as complex as modernization at a government agency.

Why this matters

We know there are many more questions surrounding government modernization, and our team regularly helps its government clients gain a better understanding of these efforts and how to get started. At the end of the day, the impact of modernization at a technical level includes better and more readily-available data, improved means to measure key performance indicators (KPIs), and stronger security. At a process level, it makes it easier for agencies to do their jobs, reduces frustration with systems, and most importantly, allows government agencies to focus on their missions to serve its citizens.

To learn more, watch the webinar!

In April 2019, we held a webinar on “Tackling Government Modernization.” Request a free copy of the webinar recording today.

Written By

Alex Dunlop

Director of Business Development, Government Services, Forum One

Mike Shoag

Vice President, Government Services, Forum One