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A new chance at digital transformation [Commentary]

February 13, 2017 (Photo Credit: Terry J Alcorn/Getty Images)
As the Trump administration ramps up and begins to set new priorities and bring new perspectives to the federal government IT community, we can expect actions such as the recently announced hiring freeze to make headlines over the next several weeks.

As a former federal government executive, I know these developments can cause anxiety or at least raise questions about the future. And while news of a hiring freeze may give rise to thoughts about taxing an already overburdened workforce, we may also view it as an opportunity to accelerate digital transformation.

An interesting paradox related to government IT is that the systems we create to assist us with the work of government often end up influencing the way people work to such an extent that it can become difficult for them to look outside of their everyday activities and to envision the art of the possible. When I served as a federal chief information officer, there was a standing joke in government circles that the people work for the systems — not the other way around. And as with most jokes, there is an element of truth to it.

The reason for this is that it is harder to change systems than to change people’s behavior, owing to the rigid confines of the way automated systems get work done. This has led to huge expenditures for legacy systems in the federal government.

In May 2016, the Government Accountability Office found that the federal government spent more than 75 percent of the total amount budgeted for IT for fiscal 2015 on operations and maintenance investments. GAO went on to say such spending has increased over the past seven fiscal years, which has resulted in a $7.3 billion decline in development, modernization and enhancement activities.

Former Federal CIO Tony Scott has called this issue “ a crisis that’s bigger than Y2K,” a reference to the widespread software glitch that many feared would debilitate our IT systems when the year changed from 1999 to 2000. It took a massive governmentwide effort to update critical systems and prevent any such failure of our IT infrastructure.

Now with the new constraints dictated by the incoming administration, agencies will again be forced to get creative to address pressing issues. And one way to do that will be to reset priorities and focus on modernization — to take legacy systems and hollow them out little by little, pulling out pieces of functionality and reworking business processes.

It also presents other modernization opportunities in areas like cloud, enterprise-class agile development and user-centric digital government services. It’s an opportunity to rethink the way work gets done.

This type of approach doesn’t necessarily require large, upfront expenditures. Rather than pursuing a Big Bang approach, agencies can focus first on the areas of their business in most need of modernization. The result will be a gradual reduction in operations and maintenance costs and a move closer to achieving the digital transformation goals that all government agencies strive for.

So what may seem like a short-term setback that would entail fewer human resources and budget dollars may actually present a unique opportunity to rethink our entire approach to IT and address the requirements of a world in which technology presents new ways for us to improve the way government works.

Casey Coleman is group vice president for civilian agencies at Unisys Federal. She previously served as an IT executive at the General Services Administration, holding the position of CIO from 2007 to 2014.  

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