Private Sector Lessons for Government IT Infrastructure Transformation
Government IT infrastructure is by and large the same as private sector infrastructure, save one key difference: Private enterprises are much more adept at deploying new technology.
To the average knowledge worker this may come as a surprise, considering the continued prevalence of static, disaggregated data constructs that still make up the majority of commercial IT shops. But in many sectors of the government, particularly at the federal level, the situation is much worse: Critical agencies are struggling with hardware and software environments that GAO finds date back to the 1950s.
21st Century Government IT Infrastructure
But times are changing. Under the White House’s Digital Government Strategy — with perhaps an assist by a pending congressional IT modernization bill, according to FedScoop — public agencies may soon be on solid footing to provide services for an increasingly tech-savvy public. The movement has many facets, ranging from technology provisioning and deployment to process automation and development of new employee skillsets, but the overarching goal is the same: Rid the government of sclerotic data center architectures in favor of new platforms that produce better results at lower costs.
The enterprise, of course, has just started on the road to digital transformation, but already it has learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. For one thing, says James Warrick of Beacon Technology Partners cited in GCN, before the first cloud server is tapped, it’s important to have a clear idea of the ROI. A key element in this calculation is the need to determine “technology that is relevant to the citizens and government employees who will be using it.” This is a lot harder than it sounds because change of this magnitude is difficult, and more often than not people can’t see the real benefits until all the pieces are in place and all the bugs have been worked out.
One thing is clear, though: From a purely maintenance perspective, emerging platforms will be easier to deploy and maintain than current technology, dramatically reducing the cost of operation. As Next-Gov’s Jack Moore notes, nearly three quarters of the $80-billion federal IT budget goes into simply maintaining legacy systems. And if the cost isn’t bad enough, many of the technicians overseeing these constructs are nearing retirement and their replacements tend to be more versed in mobile apps and cloud infrastructure than traditional client-server infrastructure.
The Way Forward
Exactly how should the incoming administration confront these challenges? A three-pronged approach is recommended, involving not just deployment of new technologies, but the development of flexible policies and regulations — as well as the fostering of innovative leadership skills in the federal workforce. This is possible through the adoption of scale-driven data governance and collaborative development, and by targeting technological research geared more toward government performance challenges than those of the private sector.
As for the specific technologies the government should adopt, it’s a tougher call given the diversity of its operations and the unique security, data preservation and workflow requirements that agencies face. Earlier this year, Gartner issued a number of key development areas that should be addressed in emerging government IT strategies. These include digital work environments that stress mobility and collaboration, as well as open data platforms, intelligent automation and analytics and software-defined data center architectures.
The most important aspect of this ongoing digital transformation isn’t the impact it will have on government infrastructure itself, but on the processes and services they support. Many structures will be enhanced, but some will become obsolete — if not on the customer-facing side then at least in back-office support.
As commercial enterprises are already starting to realize, a digital ecosystem is highly adept at developing and maintaining the proper configurations to support user requirements. But it takes people with the right skillsets to create and deploy the services that provide the highest value to consumers.