Culture and IT Modernization

 In COVID-19

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Culture and IT modernization

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The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has high­light­ed the many sig­nif­i­cant tech­no­log­i­cal chal­lenges our gov­ern­ment faces, renew­ing calls to rapid­ly enhance IT mod­ern­iza­tion pro­grams. Investments in these pro­grams are crit­i­cal for both our near-term crisis and our long-term prospects. In many cases, they are long over­due.

But as gov­ern­ment agen­cies look to accel­er­ate their IT mod­ern­iza­tion efforts – and con­trac­tors look to sup­port those projects – it’s impor­tant to remem­ber that people are the crit­i­cal ele­ment deter­min­ing whether tech­nol­o­gy upgrades suc­ceed. Attempting to mod­ern­ize with­out a com­pre­hen­sive approach that accounts for an agen­cy’s cul­ture, engages its work­force and address­es crit­i­cal busi­ness prac­tices can actu­al­ly create new or addi­tion­al chal­lenges that limit effec­tive­ness and neg­a­tive­ly affect mis­sion out­comes.

This process begins with an under­stand­ing of how to acquire tech­nol­o­gy. Government pro­cure­ment rules and reg­u­la­tions large­ly pre-date the new tech­nolo­gies devel­oped over the past decade. This puts acqui­si­tion offi­cials in a tough spot as they look to deliv­er inno­va­tion to their agen­cies. After all, no one wants to be the next poster child for waste­ful spend­ing or pro­cure­ment vio­la­tions.

Risk aver­sion in the acqui­si­tion com­mu­ni­ty is hold­ing back gov­ern­ment inno­va­tion. It’s essen­tial that we change that cul­ture, and pro­vide the acqui­si­tion com­mu­ni­ty with the tools, process­es and incen­tives to meet the chal­lenges of today and the future.

While the admin­is­tra­tion has taken sev­er­al pos­i­tive steps in address­ing these chal­lenges, includ­ing making fric­tion­less acqui­si­tion a Cross-Agency Priority Goal, much more still must be done. We need a height­ened focus on out­come-based pro­cure­ments and a shift in mind­set from labor-based to out­come-based acqui­si­tions.

The con­tract­ing com­mu­ni­ty also has an impor­tant role to play in help­ing to stream­line these process­es. Complaining about bur­den­some or out­dat­ed reg­u­la­tions will not suf­fice. We have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to pro­vide clear, trans­par­ent prac­tices that empow­er acqui­si­tion offi­cials to under­stand exact­ly what they’re pur­chas­ing. That means devel­op­ing easily under­stood track­ing mech­a­nisms that define the value of enhanced tech­nol­o­gy for agen­cies and tax­pay­ers, as well as train­ing in alter­nate con­tract­ing mech­a­nisms that they can use.

Acquisition is only one part of this effort. Without buy-in from pro­gram man­age­ment or the rank-and-file work­force, no new tech­nol­o­gy – no matter how excit­ing or inno­v­a­tive – can be fully effec­tive in serv­ing the mis­sion. Building that trust requires a robust frame­work of oper­a­tions and a thought­ful approach to orga­ni­za­tion­al change man­age­ment.

The best man­agers in gov­ern­ment will always put suc­cess of the mis­sion above every­thing else. But as with the acqui­si­tion com­mu­ni­ty, this well-inten­tioned com­mit­ment can often lead to an over-reliance on the famil­iar and risk-aver­sion that actu­al­ly hold an agency back.

Industry must demon­strate that our inno­va­tions can safely and secure­ly manage crit­i­cal data – espe­cial­ly clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion – to assure that we are never putting nation­al mis­sions at risk. Government man­agers should also expect that any IT vendor has a proven under­stand­ing of unique agency mis­sions built into their solu­tions. Because agen­cies oper­ate in a dif­fer­ent envi­ron­ment than com­mer­cial com­pa­nies — with dif­fer­ent rules, prac­tices, goals, secu­ri­ty and com­pli­ance need, and expec­ta­tions — simply taking an off-the-shelf com­mer­cial prod­uct and push­ing it into a gov­ern­ment system is a recipe for fail­ure.

Of course, the most impor­tant ele­ment in the suc­cess of any IT mod­ern­iza­tion effort is the work­force that uses the tech­nol­o­gy on a daily basis. If employ­ees do not feel com­fort­able oper­at­ing in a new system or a new envi­ron­ment — or worse, if they active­ly oppose it — we will never see the full ben­e­fits of mod­ern­iza­tion.

Supporting the work­force begins with an under­stand­ing that new IT sys­tems are not designed to replace employ­ees, but to help them do their jobs better by reduc­ing repet­i­tive tasks and pre­vent­ing frus­trat­ing system out­ages. We have to com­mu­ni­cate clear­ly and be trans­par­ent to employ­ees about the impact of these changes, and the exten­sive pos­i­tive out­comes in sup­port of their abil­i­ty to meet the mis­sion. Workers must also be empow­ered with the skills they need to max­i­mize any new tech­nol­o­gy. That means having a plan to engage and train employ­ees for the tools they’ve been given.

We’re at a crit­i­cal moment in our coun­try, and the need to upgrade our gov­ern­ment IT is clear. We should absolute­ly take this oppor­tu­ni­ty to address gaps where they exist and invest in our future. By keep­ing in mind the impor­tant cul­tur­al com­po­nents of this change, and the respon­si­bil­i­ties both gov­ern­ment and indus­try have in shap­ing this effort, we can max­i­mize our impact and ensure what we all value most: suc­cess on our nation­al mis­sions.

About the Author

Lakshmi Ashok is vice pres­i­dent of Digital Transformation at Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC).

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