With planning cycles for fiscal year 2025 in full swing, federal agencies again face the annual uncertainties around future resources and funding. The current challenge is compounded with the dynamics of 2024 as an election year and a broad array of new mandates and regulations that carry long-term implications.

While pending budgetary and political outcomes are still many months from resolution, carefully planned and justified digital transformation offers a safe harbor for investment decisions being made today. By finding opportunities to improve government efficiency and productivity while reducing costs, agencies can both gain needed advancements and mitigate risks from current unknowns. The key is readiness to make constructive moves quickly to be well-positioned for momentum and success on Oct. 1.

Starting off strong in FY25

Agency IT leaders may be giving some serious thought as to what to do in the first 100 days of the new budget year. One area ripe with potential is removing systems duplication across agencies with adjacent purposes. Consider one real example: a department within Agency A identifies and certifies individual claimants as legitimate victims of a particular type of crime. Department personnel had traditionally used spreadsheets to collect, track and analyze claimant data to decision benefits entitlement. Automating data collection and tracking allowed on-demand access for the entire program team, but also enabled a dozen other Agency A components to more easily coordinate with Agency B, an integral part of the justice system. Agency A’s productivity skyrocketed, with twice as many victims served in the year after implementation vs. the year before, without increasing budget or staffing; time to victim certification was reduced by half. Their IT investment also eliminated the need for a duplicate system at Agency B, which was now willing to accept Agency A’s certification decision – a win-win for everyone.

Digital transformation can also make a significant improvement in mission outcomes where poor or inconsistent system quality is leading to customer dissatisfaction. The biggest impacts will be found when new technology enables customer self-service, reducing time to benefit and concurrently reducing government employees’ burden of performing lower-value work like filling in forms. Effective planning will also help replace cumbersome, expensive aging technologies to make room for more cost-effective options and processes. Routine, manually-intensive activities could be made significantly better and faster using advanced technologies like artificial intelligence. The resulting talent enablement will empower staff to prioritize activities that are more important, and also likely more fulfilling, supporting workforce retention.

An additional option is to focus on known appropriations priorities (such as infrastructure, the Chips Act or supply chain sustainability, in the recent past). Understanding where the government will be willing to spend can help direct the alignment of an IT organization’s own investment strategy.

Maximizing year-end ‘bonus’ dollars

Agencies that may find themselves with the luxury of obligated but unused FY24 funds can apply that money toward sound end-of-year digital modernization investments that will deliver a big impact. Again, look for where automation can address system duplication or independently recognized poor quality or poor customer satisfaction. This is also a good opportunity to modernize a system that has been either unreliable, compromised, or otherwise proven to have significant shortfalls.

The key is to pursue technology opportunities that will produce a measurable business return. That requires innovative thinking for IT-minded people who often consider new technology only as a means to reducing operations and maintenance (O&M) costs – i.e., moving to the cloud for cheaper data storage or using low code software to reduce development costs. While any savings is helpful, these kinds of reductions have minimal impact, since IT O&M typically represents only a small part of an organization’s total budget.

Instead, approaching IT investment as a means to benefit business productivity (i.e., repurposing labor to higher-value needs or increasing customer transaction capacity with the same number of staff) can produce dramatically higher returns. And, because budgeted O&M expenses will have already been met, any extra end-of-year funds can be applied toward development, modernization and enhancement (DM&E) initiatives that might otherwise not get done, amplifying the payback of this ‘bonus’ money.

If IT leaders need some guidance on this journey, the discipline of Technology Business Management offers a valuable framework and tools that provide a consistent way to measure technology investments so that they can be translated to business value.

Solving a perennial problem

While government fiscal cycles will always impose some annual uncertainty, one thing is certain – the ongoing requirement for digital transformation is sure to continue as long as technology evolves. By focusing investments on business outcomes, agency IT leaders can not only appropriately justify their budgets but also advance their agencies’ mission fulfillment – no matter which direction the political winds may blow.

Jeff Myers is Senior Director of Government Contracts at REI Systems.

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