IT modernization isn't all about tech

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Modernizing big federal IT systems isn't really about technology -- it's about solving users' problems effectively, key federal managers said.

"Technology won't solve the problem," said Anna Rigney‐Phillips, chief of financial customer support at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Financial Services Center. Instead, installing big IT-based support platforms, such as customer relationship management, requires getting user input before those solutions are developed and implemented.

Her opinion was echoed by other federal IT managers who spoke about their modernization efforts at Pegasystems' Government Empowered conference.

Rigney-Phillips, who oversees a call center that serves internal and external VA financial services customers nationwide and is the program manager for its customer service modernization effort, said officials should take the user's experience to heart whenever they seek to modernize customer-facing systems. She added that agencies can no longer afford to have the attitude that "'it's the government, where are customers going to go'" if they don't like a service?

Rick Smith, a program manager at the Justice Department, said customer-centric thinking is integral to developing and implementing IT platforms that make a difference in agency operations. He is overseeing the implementation of a consolidated debt-collection system that tracks and manages debt litigation cases at the department's district offices nationwide.

Understanding what users currently rely on -- or put up with -- is a fundamental part of the modernization process, he said.

For the new data system, he said his team visited U.S. attorneys' offices to see how the current system worked and how users navigated around any quirks or difficulties. "That allowed us to [develop] a basic framework that we're now building on."

Smith said they are creating the debt platform with a combination of agile and waterfall methods. Users of the existing system did not want to abandon what they had, he added, saying that ensuring everyone was comfortable with the new system would take longer than an agile development cycle would allow. He argued that even though people aren't averse to change, there is usually some resistance.

"It's really not about change," he said. "It's about loss. They're afraid of what they're going to lose" when a new system comes online. Therefore, he and his team met with users to discuss how the new system would look compared to the old one and other day-to-day operational details.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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