COVID-19: The Unlikely Accelerant of IT Modernization

COVID-19: The Unlikely Accelerant of IT Modernization

NextGov (Apr 24, 2020)

Matthew Cornelius, Executive Director of the Alliance for Digital Innovation

Today, in the midst of a global pandemic, we are witnessing neighbors helping neighbors, the young helping the elderly, and governments working diligently to support families and businesses. And—as both the administration and Congress have stated—in this time of crisis, America needs the best and most creative collaboration between the public and private sectors to ensure the continuity of vital operations and services.

Innovative American technology companies are already stepping up to support federal agencies and the citizens they serve. Every day, the technology sector is offering up new tools to support COVID-19 response effortsfreeing up capacity to enable agencies to operate in a massively distributed work environment, and beefing up monitoring and cyber defense measures to deal with new security threats. The scope of partnerships and collaboration between the public and private sectors matches the efforts we saw doing World War II, where American companies formed the backbone to create the arsenal of democracy. These efforts are allowing government to respond quickly and capably to these unprecedented challenges.

As our political leaders and public health officials continue to remind us, America will beat the virus. But when we will “get back to normal,” especially in our professional lives, remains unknown. There will be a return to the routines that many of us held before, as offices allow workers to return and businesses reopen. However, don’t expect the way most employees operated pre-COVID-19, especially at federal agencies, to default to previous norms. What we are experiencing today is the accelerant to the workplace of the future.

The Here and Now

We are still in the eye of this emergency, and the response from agencies has been uneven. Many federal agencies, and scores of state and local offices, are still beholden to on-premise, legacy systems and infrastructure to perform essential functions, such as distributing loans or processing benefits claims. Consequently, some government offices have been absolutely crushed under a surge of demand for critical citizen services

Major media and Washington pundits are increasingly critical of the government’s continued reliance on antiquated technology systems, and there are calls that additional funds be made available to the states to fix these legacy systems once and for all. COBOL programmers find themselves in high demand!

In response to constantly surfacing agency technology and service delivery issues, the White House is pushing out new policy at a furious pace. Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security is routinely providing information and guidance to stay ahead of fast-moving cybersecurity threats.  And agencies are updating procurement guidance and other COVID related resources on a near-daily basis.

Congress, realizing that the current resources at most agencies—especially those pushing the bounds of distributed work—are falling short, recently provided nearly $150 billion in emergency funds to enhance telework capabilities and improve cybersecurity. While helpful, those funds are simply inadequate to keep up with constantly changing missions and, crucially, decades of inadequate investment in critical digital transformation opportunities. This is why, last week, the Alliance for Digital Innovation and five other trade associations urged Congress and the administration to support inclusion of additional technology and cybersecurity funding in upcoming stimulus legislation and tie that spending to specific capabilities that can improve citizen service delivery, enhance secure telework, and modernize legacy systems at the federal, state, and local levels.

Managing through difficult circumstances is certainly the most important priority of government leaders today. Government and industry are working day and night to deal with frustrating constraints and to find new, better ways to empower critical federal, state and local operations. But agencies must understand that the pointed issues with which they are dealing today will not suddenly disappear once the worst of the crisis is over. Forward-looking leaders are already aware that the realities of today will, in many cases, become the likelihoods of the future.

Where We Go

The necessary steps the government has taken to maintain continuity of operations during this chaotic time is already setting the stage for the future. But more action is needed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already signaled that future relief bills need to include massive investments in the country’s digital infrastructure to address immediate issues like the ones referenced above, and also to truly enable IT modernization so that future government operations, both routine and in extremis, can be more effective and successful. State and local leaders are similarly desperate for resources and skilled vendor support to mitigate immediate challenges but are wise enough to know that just maintaining the status quo will not be enough in the years ahead. All of this is to say that the unprecedented investments the country can—and should—be making now in technology and improving digital operations will have a galvanizing, fundamental impact on the future of government’s citizen service delivery.

Will there be challenges ahead, even if the government continues to truly embrace—and adequately fund—this new operating model? Sure. Change management and accountability for performance will be more important than ever. Agency leaders will have to communicate more effectively and more often with employees. Paper-based business processes are no longer sustainable. But these are solvable problems and smart agencies can adapt successfully to these new circumstances. For example, the Department of Defense is already highlighting how it plans to not just survive, but thrive, in this likely future. Other public sector technology leaders, such as Federal CIO Suzette Kent, are providing new data points now that are likely to lead to long-term policy and operational changes across the federal space.

As difficult and chaotic as times are today, the lessons being learned must accelerate IT modernization over the long run in ways that were unfathomable just a few short months ago. Leaders across the board should make note of how technology and culture can truly empower departments and agencies to overcome some of their most difficult obstacles and embrace the new opportunities being presented. Agencies at all levels of government would be well-served. when the time is right, to break free from the traditional, encumbered technology paradigms and more deeply and effectively embrace the modern commercial technologies they desperately need as the new normal.