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Make way for the MGT Act

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After a long journey through Congress, the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act was signed into law in December -- punctuating a new era of IT innovation in the federal government. The new legislation provides an unprecedented opportunity to update the government’s legacy IT infrastructures, but agencies must assess their readiness before they can act.

Congress just last week appropriated $100 million for the governmentwide modernization fund in fiscal year 2018, and agencies can now establish their own. But it will be the federal IT program managers on the front lines of these modernization efforts to ensure their CIOs and CTOs have the information they need to plan appropriate IT investment portfolios.

Here are three important questions IT program managers can address now to prepare for modernization proposals under MGT:

1. How organized is the system?

Agencies must understand the full breadth of their technology systems before they can modernize them. In many ways, this process of sorting through a system can be like organizing a junk drawer. It’s messy, difficult to navigate, and most of the time you’re not quite sure of everything in there. You know it contains some valuable items, but you’re stuck shuffling through a heaping unstructured mess while periodically getting tagged with “gotcha” items, like a thumbtack.

The first step in creating an organized system—whether a junk drawer or a technology system—is finding these “gotcha” items, so you can reduce risk, costs and timeline for organizing the initiative.

Program managers can begin to assess system organization by asking if they have a solid understanding of the pain points, security standards, risks and maintenance costs of their systems as they stand today. These questions can help prioritize improvements and needs based on the impact it will provide the overall mission.

Program managers could start with the following to address their system organization:

  • Use code-scanning tools can help evaluate a system’s health and detect any hidden problems early.
  • Audit and identify security vulnerabilities. Are unsupported or outdated software present in the system? If so, prioritize sealing these gaps to limit exposure to advancing cyber threats.
  • Solicit feedback from your team. If your team has been working with a system for a long period of time, they will know the location of the messy parts and how to work around them.
  1. Are there any easy fixes which can provide immediate value?

    Under the MGT Act, the Technology Modernization Fund Board will review federal IT modernization efforts to assess impact and progress within federal agencies. With this in mind, establishing a clear goal upfront and demonstrating incremental improvements early will increase buy-in and bolster morale among participants helping to deliver a new system.

    Optimistically, some of these quick and easy changes may help alleviate one of your identified pain points. Beginning with a small, tangible upgrade can help break up a large issue into smaller pieces.

    While these incremental improvements are important jump-starters and good for morale, it is also critical to keep an eye on the big picture. An eternal “small ball” mindset will yield “small ball” results. Being able to step back and identify how these incremental improvements fit into the bigger picture is important to getting a system where it needs to go.

    Start with identifying opportunities for improvement:
  • Conduct usability assessment on the current system and how it is being used and interacted.
  • Assess and prioritize based on the value various upgrades provide and the effort required implementing them into the larger picture.
  1. How do your people interact with the system?

    Operational processes and technology systems are intricately connected. Understanding how they work together will provide greater insight into what to change (or keep) when modernizing the larger ecosystem.

    Who are the individuals using the system? Why they are using it? How often do they need to access it? What will happen to the operational processes if it is reorganized? How will these changes be communicated? These questions and their implications can play a large role in driving decisions to make an upgrade as smooth and efficient as possible.

    To get the answers you need, consider taking time to:
  • Map operational processes relating to your system. Create a process map of interactions with the system to identify tension points and produce insights on how the system could be improved.
  • Convene people who interact with infrastructures but operate independently to discuss the best ways to improve them. These people are rarely in the same room at the same time, and developing shared understanding will increase your chances of gaining buy-in regarding implementation of a new approach.

Why these questions matter

The MGT Act is a call to pursue modernization across the federal government, and to bolster those agencies already modernizing to take steps toward greater innovation. Agencies with a clear understanding of their systems, stakeholders, and processes will have the information they need to better serve their overarching missions.

This is an exciting time for the federal IT community, but change does not come without challenge. For federal IT program managers, the first step in overcoming these challenges is to start asking the questions that can lead to answers and innovation.

About the Author

Stephanie Vineyard is business analysis service lead at Excella

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