IT modernization is just the beginning

Shutterstock image: wall of gears. 

Modernizing aging IT systems has always been a goal for agency CIOs, but one that's often pushed out to an indeterminate time in the future. However, increasing business and security risks mean the federal government can no longer delay system modernizations. Legacy systems are consuming an increasing portion of agency operating expenses, crowding out the resources available to conduct the agency's mission. Just as importantly, older technologies become more vulnerable as successful security exploits become more prevalent, even when vendors continue to support them.

I have held leadership positions in both the private and public sectors, focusing on innovation, technology and business strategy. Most recently I was the deputy assistant secretary for information technology and CIO with the Department of Health and Human Services, where one of my focuses was on developing a secure foundation for digital innovation and improving business outcomes. I became innately familiar with what technologies work well together and the best way to approach updating an IT system. There's no way I could have accomplished my projects successfully if the agency hadn't prioritized a modernized, secure IT system.

To be sure, legacy systems are difficult to update and the up-front capital expenses might not be available in the budget. Innovation, however, is helping to solve this problem in two ways:

  • First, agile development allows massive systems to be upgraded in bite-sized pieces, each demonstrating greater value to the business.
  • Second, as-a-service technologies allow systems to be built and hosted in a pay-for-use subscription – drawing upon operating expenses as opposed to capital expenses.

However, even though these innovations make modernization easier, there are two other modernization building blocks that can make or break the success of an IT project -- hiring the right employees and choosing the right business partners. Without the right resources, it doesn't matter how innovative an IT project is or how invested an agency is in its success. It will never get off the ground if the right people aren't there to lift it up.

The federal hiring freeze presents even more uncertainty as we look to modernize IT, given the high turnover in employees and the need for specific technical and project management skills. If your agency is looking at a potential hiring freeze, be clear about the skills you need to succeed in your modernization efforts, and make the case for exceptions to your agency leadership.

Here are five ways to focus on employees and business partners:

Narrow down your technology partners

Sometimes CIOs get lost in the technology choices they need to make to keep an IT system running efficiently and lose sight of the evolving big-picture needs of the agency. Multiple cloud solutions and other service offerings can help alleviate some of the immediate pressure, but multiple technology partners can make long-term planning complicated if your technology partners work independently from one another with different end goals.

For example, you wouldn't hire multiple contractors to build different pieces of a kitchen remodel. The coordination of each contractor would be a nightmare. You'd want one contractor that can build the cabinets, cut the counter top, lay the flooring, and also works well with the plumber and electrician. The same concept applies to your technology partners. You want a small group of trusted partners that can lead your agency through its digital transformation, and cyber security protocols that play nice with each other and help maintain a fresh and efficient system so that CIOs can focus on business outcomes and fully embrace their seat at the leadership table of the agency.

Implement a hiring process that makes sense for the agency's hiring needs


Hiring the right people is essential for IT projects to succeed; it's counterproductive to ask someone to undertake a project for which they're less than fully qualified. As you consider the talent you need for a particular project, focus on technical skills, project management experience and the size and scope of candidates' prior projects.

While recruitment in the federal government can be challenging, there are two great tools I have used to great effect: agency mission and scale. For many of us, public service is a calling -- even if it's temporary -- and a fantastic narrative to share with the candidates you want. As CIO at the Social Security Administration, for example, I served 61 million Americans every year -- and I shared this factoid on every recruiting trip.

Many technologists also are driven by solving complex challenges, and there are few challenges greater than those in government. Finally, avoid career hires. Many millennials wouldn't consider working in one place for 25 to 30 years, and cycling talent every two to three years refreshes your organization with new ideas and skills.

Clearly define your contractors' roles

Contractors play an important role in supporting the government, but in my opinion it's important to decide what that role ought to be and ensure the relationship is properly scoped. In my experience, there are two ideal roles for systems integrators: providing unique technical expertise that is not available on your team, and enabling you to scale up -- and down -- your need for project-specific resources.

However, if there's going to be an ongoing need for a particular technical expertise, it shouldn't be outsourced. If your federal team cannot assess the code, understand network architecture or the like, they won't be able to oversee contractors performing these functions.

Lift up existing IT employees by providing resources for new skills

Instead of looking outside your organization for new talent, your federal IT team should continually evolve, developing new skills that can help to accomplish future projects. Assisting existing employees in acquiring new skills can help to lift the whole IT team to the next level -- creating opportunities for high performers and bolstering morale. As HHS CIO, I implemented a training initiative that promoted a conversation between manager and employee on technical skills that would be needed in the coming year. Employees then developed a training plan from which that we pulled. The upshot was that managers were more likely to have the needed skills in-house, and employees had more opportunities to contribute to priority projects and assume greater levels of responsibility. Build your agency from the inside out and watch the digital IT transformation begin!

Be creative in the procurement process and hold vendors accountable for performance

When hiring for different projects, the procurement process for selecting and implementing a contractor can be so complicated that agencies end up using the same firms for multiple projects, regardless of how well the contractor is performing. It's important to have a procurement process that works well so agencies can hold contractors accountable and not waste resources on projects. One program recently introduced is the Digital Acquisition Accelerator being run by 18F through the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. This is a pilot program to help bring together the many stakeholders in a technology acquisition to ensure government agencies buy whole technology solutions. More information can be found here.

Employees and business partners are your keys to success, so it's essential to be transparent about your desired business outcomes. Federal employees and your business partners need to be jointly responsible for project achievement. And when you modernize your IT systems, the American public wins.

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Reader comments

Mon, Mar 6, 2017

I very much agree with this entire article, except the advice about cycling millennials every 2-3 years. Yes, many of them don't foresee working for an employer for longer than that, but that does not change the reality that losing any good employee every couple years is not a good thing, especially if you took the time to hire them into the government. As managers, we have to work hard to retain them, and in doing this for two decades, I can speak from my own experience that we can in fact have very high retention of great STEM candidates.

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