(Scoop News Group)

The 6 foundational elements of modernization

People expect more government services to be available online than ever before, and state agencies are finding that they need to replace legacy IT systems to deliver faster, more efficient digital tools. Because the enterprise IT systems are often decades-old, the data and applications they host are often not easily transferrable, requiring complex, multi-million dollar migrations to newer, more flexible systems. Every state aligns its IT staff and strategic vision to replace these systems differently, but there are several components of a successful modernization that officials agree upon.

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Simplify accessibility.

Simplify accessibility.

Decades-old computer systems in use across state and local governments today were not designed to sustain the suite of digital programs and applications that governments use today, and often require citizens and employees to use different credentials for each application. Simplifying that process for internal programs and citizen-facing digital services is paramount for a successful modernization, according to James Weaver, Washington’s state CIO.

“Identity and access management is a foundational item for us as we begin our digital transformation journey,” Weaver said. “It is how we identify and provide access to not only our applications internally, from a state basis, but also to our residents.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order last October directing Weaver and other agencies to modernize their systems to meet Washingtonians’ expectations of “higher quality services, faster interactions, more and easier access to services and data, stronger data protections, and better outcomes.” To ensure that people actually realize the benefits of a new IT system, however, Weaver said they need to ensure they’re able to easily access the digital services available to them.

Some large government organizations, like the city of Boston, have found that introducing identity access management tools that hold every digital application under a single user name and password has improved security and reduced the amount of time employees and residents spend asking IT staff for help.

But Weaver said his challenge is designing a system that makes sense for Washington and its populace.

“You could be an employee, a resident or a small business owner,” Weaver told StateScoop last year. “And fundamentally, what we’re debating and investigating right now is, is that three separate identities? Or if you’re one individual, is that one identity?”

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One size does not fit all.

One size does not fit all.

State and local governments often have to make the decision between procuring computer systems or building them in-house, but one philosophy that’s stuck with Montana CIO Tim Bottenfield is that IT modernization isn’t “one-size-fits-all.”

Montana began the process of retiring its legacy mainframe for an entirely cloud-based environment several years ago, and it will have a new suite of digital services beginning in 2021 as the state ends a 10-year contract with its current vendor. But when the state hired a new vendor to supply an enterprise content management system three years ago, Bottenfield realized it wouldn’t be sufficient to give agencies with different missions and responsibilities only one choice of platform.

“So we took steps in terms of an enterprise solution to roll out a second solution, so the agencies have a choice,” Bottenfield said. “Ultimately, the one solution will be a cloud service and one will be on-premise.”

Bottenfield also determined that a “one-size-fits-all” wouldn’t satisfy the state’s hiring requirements for IT staff, who are often able to fetch higher salaries in the private sector and aren’t plentiful in low-population states like Montana. To connect agencies with the IT talent they need, Bottenfield has let agencies specialize and tailor their IT roles to the person they’re hiring.

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Plan the business, not just the technology.

Plan the business, not just the technology.

Minnesota spent 11 years and more than $100 million on a failed attempt to modernize its licensing and registration IT system before Gov. Tim Walz shutterd the project for good last year. The technology failed because the state failed to plan adequately from a business perspective, according to Mark Mathison, the IT audit director for the state. Mathison told StateScoop that Minnesota’s initial vendors understood how the state wanted its IT system to work, but knew little about how to revise the state’s business and administrative practices.

Paul Meekin, who served as the state’s chief business technology officer from 2015 to 2017, later called the lack of business requirements “the worst possible situation,” and a 2018 review of the project revealed one official saying “business analysis expertise has been absent from the beginning.” Without a strategic business plan, Minnesota’s system became bloated with different systems and functionalities that state officials couldn’t possibly test or determine the actual need for.

“As you look around in different government entities, how many times do you see a strategic or tactical plan from a business agency?” Mathison said. “A lot of times in government you don’t see that. I think it requires a little more accountability.”

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Ensure the right stakeholders are invested.

Ensure the right stakeholders are invested.

Ohio CIO Ervan Rodgers tries to encourage his team of agency IT chiefs to embrace things like artificial intelligence in state government by DJ-ing pitch meetings modeled after “Shark Tank,” in which participants are encouraged to share their thoughts on new technologies. Rodgers says the meetings, which he holds every six weeks, are forums for “no bad ideas.”

Many of his peers in other states have placed a similar importance on stakeholder engagement during modernization, where the technology is only as successful and efficient as the people who are involved in designing it. The director of the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles, Mike Dixon, told StateScoop that he relied on a governance committee made up of county and state executives to help lead the state’s DMV 2018 modernization process. And in Oregon, officials convened a “change network” of more than 100 employees around state government offices to address concerns about a 2017 modernization.

State CIOs have repeatedly told StateScoop that if they couldn’t get the right stakeholders involved, getting projects done was far more difficult.

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Keep an eye on your technical debt.

Keep an eye on your technical debt.

A government organization can often measure how far behind it is by measuring its “technical debt.” Tennessee CIO Stephanie Dedmon said the cost of running legacy systems increases every day as agencies continue using them. Dedmon’s office is now moving the 23 statewide agencies it supports from a mainframe to a cloud-based system, and is trying to encourage adoption by showing those agencies how they could improve their output on the new platform, which Dedmon said offers improved communications, faster load times and a reduction in paperwork.

“What we really need to do is provide the tools and the evaluation to help our agencies understand the risks associated with not modernizing, and then how to prioritize that,” Dedmon told StateScoop last year.

But Dedmon’s optimism about cost-cutting might be tempered by reviews of modernization attempts in other states. Audits of unsuccessful IT projects in the California and Minnesota motor-vehicle departments revealed technical shortcomings that amounted to billions of dollars in maintenance and repair costs over the last decade.

Utah CIO Mike Hussey said he tried to avoid a similar fate by cutting the timeline for his modernization process from five years to two-and-a-half years as the state government migrates to a new data center. He told StateScoop in 2019 that he views the rapid change as an opportunity.

“I’m sure we’ll sweep out the corners and find a few things that need to be modernized as we switch our data centers, but it certainly provides an opportunity,” he said.

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Consider your team's limitations.

Consider your team's limitations.

Although Colorado DMV Director Mike Dixon considered building a new enterprise system in-house, he told StateScoop his ultimate decision to buy a prepackaged solution from a vendor and customize it to his agency’s needs was the result of not wanting to overburden the staff at the Colorado Office of Information Technology, which would’ve been responsible for developing the platform itself.

“Managing all the software solutions they have across the state is a pretty challenging endeavor,” Dixon said. “We certainly, as a state, can’t pay enough to compete with a lot of the private sector.”

Because the technology sector offers better pay than what most states and cities can offer — and the fact that many government IT systems still run on old programming languages like COBOL, which has largely fallen out of the computer-science curriculum — it can be difficult to hire cutting-edge IT staff. To conserve the resources Colorado already had, Dixon and his team determined that a third-party solution made the most sense.

“[States] each have their own preferences,” he said. “Sometimes they have a really robust IT team and a lot of controls, and they want to build it themselves. There’s this idea about keeping your data in-state, so you want to have your own workers do that work.”

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