In the US, we love arm-chair strategizing government IT, in particular federal IT. Getting your arms around “the problem” is near impossible.
What do we think is wrong, exactly?
As citizens, our perceptions seem to be that government IT has poor user experience, none at all (there’s no app to do things, you have to go to an office to fill something out, etc.), and that it costs too much. More wonky takes are that there’s not enough data provided, nor insights generated by that data to drive better decision making.
When I’ve spoken with government IT people, their internal needs revolve around increasing (secure) communication, using more modern “white-collar” tools (from simply upgrading their copies of Office, to moving to G Suite/Office 365 suites, or just file sharing), and addressing the citizen perceptions (bringing down costs, making sure the software, whether custom made or “off the shelf,” have better customer experiences.
Is it so hard, really?
It’s also easy to think that government is a special snow-flake, but, really, they have mostly the same problems as any large organization. As highlighted below, the government contracting, procurement, and governance processes are more onerous in government IT, and the profile of “legacy” systems is perhaps higher, but, worse, more of a pull down into the muck.
From my conversations, one of the main barriers to change is systemic inertia, seemingly driven by avoidance of risk and overall lack of motivation to do anything. This lack of motivation is likely driven by the lack of competition: unlike in the private sector, there’s no other government to go to, so there’s no fear of loosing “business,” so what care to change or make things better?
Anyhow, here’s a notebook of federal government IT.
- “92 percent of Federal IT managers say it’s urgent for their agency to modernize legacy applications, citing the largest driving factors as security issues (42 percent), time required to manage and/or maintain systems (36 percent), and inflexibility and integration issues (31 percent)” from an Accenture sponsored 2015 survey of “150 Federal IT managers familiar with their agency’s applications portfolio”
- Theres a large pool of legacy IT, though not as large as you might think: ~60% of portfolio are from before 2010(https://www.gartner.com/document/3604417).
- That said, the same report says that ~25% of portfolios are pre-1999, with 5% from the 1980’s.
- On spending: “The government has been reporting that 75 to 80 percent of the federal IT budget is spent on running legacy (or existing) systems.”
- But, actually, that’s pretty normal: “That may sound alarming to those who aren’t familiar with the inner-workings of a large IT organization. However, the percentage is in-line with the industry average. Gartner says the average distribution of IT spending between run, grow and transform activities — across all industries — is 70 percent, 19 percent and 11 percent respectively. Those numbers have been consistent over the past decade.”
- However, the spending items above are from Compuware’s CEO, who’s clearly interested in continuing legacy spending, mostly on mainframes.
Source: “2017 CIO Agenda: A Government Perspective,” Rick Howard, Gartner, Feb. 2017.
- In the same survey, data & analytics skills are the leading talent gap, with security coming in second. Everything else is in the single digits.
- Why care about data? On simply providing it (and you, know, the harder job of producing it), the UN e-Government survey says “Making data available online for free also allows the public – and various civil society organizations –to reuse and remix them for any purpose. This can potentially lead to innovation and new or improved services, new understanding and ideas. It can also raise awareness of governments’ actions to realize all the SDGs, thus allowing people to keep track and contribute to those efforts.”
- And, on analytics: “Combining transparency of information with Big Data analytics has a growing potential. It can help track service delivery and lead to gains in efficiency. It can also provide governments with the necessary tools to focus on prevention rather than reaction, notably in the area of disaster risk management.”
- Reducing compliance and overall “bureaucracy” is always a problem. My benchmark case is an 18F project that reduced the paperwork time (ATO) down from 9-14 months to 3 days.
The workloads – what’s the IT do?
- And, while it’s for the Australian government, check out a good profile of the kinds of basic services, and, therefore, applications that agencies need, e.g.: booking citizenship process appointments, getting permits to open businesses, and facilitating the procurement process.
- If you think about many of the business services governments do, it’s workflow process: someone submits a request, multiple people have to check and co-relate the data submitted, and then someone has to approve the request. This is a core, ubiquitous thing handled by enterprise software and, in theory, shouldn’t be that big of a deal. But, you know, it usually is. SaaS offerings are a great fit for this, you’d hope.
The problems: the usual old process, expensive COTs, contractors, compliance
- If you accept that much of government IT is simple workflow management, much of the improving the quality and costs of government IT would likely come from shifting off custom, older IT to highly commoditized, cheap (and usually faster evolving, and more secure), SaaS-based services.
- Jennifer Pahlka: “When you consider that much of what ails government today is the use of custom development at high cost when a commodity product is readily and cheaply available, we must acknowledge that agile is one useful doctrine, not the doctrine. “
- So, if you do the old “IT – SaaS = what?” you suck out a lot of resources (money, attention, etc.) by moving from janky, expensive COTs systems (and all the infrastructure and operations support needed to run them). You can both cut these costs (fire people, shut down systems), and then reallocate resources (people, time, and money) to better customizing software. Then, this gets you back to “agile,” which I always read as “software development.”
- In my experience, government IT has the same opportunities as most companies, taking on a more “agile” approach to IT. This means doing smaller, faster to release batches, with smaller, more focused, “all in teams.” Again, the same thing as most large organizations.
- An older survey (sponsored by Red Hat): “Just 13% of respondents in a recent MeriTalk/Accenture survey of 152 US Federal IT managers believed they could ‘develop and deploy new systems as fast as the mission requires.’”
- Mikey Dickerson, 2014: “We’ll break that up by discouraging government contracts that are multibillion-dollar and take years to deliver. HealthCare.gov would have been difficult to roll out piecemeal, but if you, a contractor, have to deliver some smaller thing in four to six weeks while the system is being constructed, you’ll act differently.”
- Government contractors and procurement are a larger problem in government IT, though. The structure of how business is done with third parties, and the related procurement and compliance red-tape causes problems, and, as put by Andrew McMahon, it creates “a procurement process that has become more important than the outcome.”
- While there’s “too much” red-tape, in general we want a huge amount of transparency and oversight into government work. In the US, we don’t really trust the government to work efficiently. This become frustrating ironic and circular, then, if your position is that all of that oversight and compliance is a huge part of the inefficiency.
- As put by one government CIO: “Government agencies, therefore, place a business value on ‘optics’—how something appears to the observant public. In an oversight environment that is quick to assign blame, government is highly risk averse (i.e., it places high business value on things that mitigate risk)…. the compliance requirements are not an obstacle, but rather an expression of a deeper business need that the team must still address.”
- Tom Cochran: “While running technology for Obama’s WhiteHouse.gov, open-source solutions enabled our team to deliver projects on budget and up to 75% faster than alternative proprietary-software options. More than anything, open-source technology allows governments to utilize a large ecosystem of developers, which enhances innovation and collaboration while driving down the cost to taxpayers.”
- As with “agile,” it’s important to not put all your eggs-of-hope in one basket on the topic of open source. My theory is that for many large organizations, simply doing something new and different, upgrading – open or not – will improve your IT situation:
- While open source has different cost dynamic, I’d suggest that simply switching to new software to get the latest features and mindset that the software imbues gives you a boost. Open source, when picked well, will come with that community and an ongoing focus on updates: older software that has long been abandoned by the community and vendors will stall out and become stale, open or not.
- One example of success, from Pivotal-land, is the IRS’s modernization of reporting on diligent taxes. It moved from a costly, low customer service quality telephone based system to an online approach. As I overuse in most of my talks, they applied a leaner, more “agile” approach to designing the software and now “taxpayers have initiated over 400,000 sessions and made over $100M in payments after viewing their balance.”
If you’re really into this kind of thing, you should come to our free Pivotal workshop day in D.C., on June 7th. Mark Heckler and I will be going over how to apply “cloud-native” thinking, practices, and technologies to the custom written software portion of all this. Also, I’ll be speaking at a MeetUp later that day on the overall hopes and dreams of cloud-native, DevOps, and all that “agile” stuff.