Government agencies are not typically seen as agile organizations. Disney played this for laughs by depicting a DMV office operated by painfully slow-moving sloths.

But as we’re now seeing with the vaccine rollout, when government services aren’t accessible due to inefficient operations, it can be a matter of life and death. Our health, happiness and post-COVID economic recovery depend on better government systems. Technology will play a key part in that transformation.

“All companies are now tech companies in some form—and that goes for governments, too,” Steve LaFleche, IBM’s general manager for the US Public and Federal Market, told Industrious. “The top companies in the private sector are innovating and modernizing endlessly. Governments, likewise, must become citizen-focused, rapid-response tech companies.”

The changes are already underway, if fitfully. Just think of where you have or will be signing up for a vaccine, where you probably filed your taxes and even, on account of the pandemic, started your license renewal or requested a ballot. Odds are, it was on a web or mobile portal.

That largely hasn’t been the case in the US, and some of the blame can be placed on outdated, under-performing IT infrastructure. When the rapidly escalating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic began to snuff out lives and crush economies, many turned to government agencies for essential services and accurate information.

“The COVID crisis has primarily been a human tragedy,” LaFleche points out. “We wanted the government to help us prevent the spread of the virus, pinpoint the hotspots, work to speed the cure and respond to the pain and suffering.” In too many high-profile instances, however, that didn’t happen. The unemployment agencies of several states fell apart, for instance, as essential payouts were delayed and phone lines were overwhelmed.

While these shortfalls were painful, they were unsurprising.

Clear and present breakdowns

Only about 20 percent of the more than $90 billion the US government spends annually on IT is devoted to modernization. The recently approved $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act provides some support for turning things around by dedicating an additional $1 billion to the Technology Modernization Fund. Still, there is a long way to go.

The challenges of remote education were a stark reminder of the digital divide many communities face.

The General Accounting Office identified critical legacy systems at government agencies running outdated programming languages, unsupported hardware and software, and operating with known security vulnerabilities. Three agencies—the Education; Health and Human Services; and Transportation departments—have no documented modernization plans, according to the General Accounting Office.

That alarming situation formed part of the urgency underpinning a letter that IBM CEO Arvind Krishna sent to President Joe Biden shortly after he won election in November. Krishna noted “the vital importance of America’s digital infrastructure,” concluding that “moments of crisis almost always carry lessons, and if there is anything the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it’s the critical importance of technology solutions that enable speed, flexibility, insight and innovation.”

Krishna stressed the importance of building coalitions between science and government to implement technologies like artificial intelligence, open cloud, quantum computing, 5G, IoT and blockchain.

Such partnerships are ones IBM knows well. While its work on the Apollo missions may be the best known, IBM’s federal work goes back at least as far as the 1930s. That’s when it created the data processor for the original Social Security system enacted under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

As sensor proliferate around cities and states, the underlying IT must be able to support them.

Over the past year, IBM has been involved in a number of important pandemic projects. Its supercomputers helped a government consortium accelerate the race for COVID-19 treatments; it supported numerous remote-education and contact-tracing efforts; and the company has helped launch some of the first vaccine passports with governments in the US and Europe.

Adapt and adopt

Some government IT systems are decades old and running very well, but many of them need to modernize in order to provide better services to citizens.

In thinking broadly about the needs of IT modernization, managers stand to gain the most from two crucial areas. One is in applications, delivering both essential and everyday services and opportunities to citizens. The other is the basic technological infrastructure that makes the delivery of these services possible. Three short-term goals are paramount:

    • Adopt an open hybrid cloud approach. This approach, widely embraced by commercial enterprises, would push government IT architectures toward not only long-term but sustainable transformation. A hybrid cloud approach combines the use of legacy systems with new approaches. This helps reduce modernization cost and complexity, and provides greater flexibility for the constantly evolving needs of government.
    • Leverage commercially available technology. Off-the-shelf software and services can help federal agencies process routine low-risk activities, freeing up federal workers to focus on more complex decisions. This kind of tech is already being used in areas such as benefits application processing, financial management and call center automation. This tech can also decrease fraud and waste, as well as to provide better cybersecurity.
    • Enhance the role of government CIOs. Given the growing demands on their systems, government technology leaders need greater authority to direct IT modernization investments. CIOs should be empowered to help other agency chiefs develop and execute a strategy to make the best modernization choices for key applications.

Emergency responders have found particular benefits to less constrained cloud technologies.

While there is much work to be done, agency are already breaking through their IT breakdown. The Department of Veterans Affairs, for instance, is using AI to speed up the sorting and processing of incoming claims, reducing processing time from 10 days to about half a day.

Such efforts are an important start, but there’s more to do, and—like democracy—technology is constantly shifting and expanding.

“Governments must be focused on innovation and transformation,” LaFleche said. “They should use technology to make their services more effective and efficient, so they can provide better services to everyone. As citizens, we need to have zero tolerance for anything short of that.”

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