Government agencies are going Agile

Government agencies are going Agile

Leanne Russell,

On a sunny day in Washington D.C., with the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument in view, approximately 400 government leaders and industry experts gathered to share successes and lessons learned on complex, IT government modernization projects at the third annual Government Empowered conference.

Attendees heard first-hand testimonials from tech professionals charged with leading modernization programs at the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory; and U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; as well as IT partners responsible for leading government digital transformation at multiple state and international agencies, including in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Here are the biggest takeaways from the day:

A common theme emerged from all of the presentations – government agencies want to go (and are successfully going) Agile.

Each government speaker began with a similar set of woes – disconnected legacy applications and hardware well beyond their viability, as well as legacy systems imposing unnecessary cost and risk. IT leaders who had been patching together solutions just to keep the lights on are finally receiving funding to modernize critical systems, and they seek future-proof solutions that are robust enough to support the diverse needs of multiple agency departments. They are also looking for solutions that are flexible enough to update and modify without time consuming custom coding. Support for Agile principles is an important component of this flexibility. More than one speaker declared, “gone are the days of the 12- to 18-month implementation project.” Technology is advancing at such a rapid pace that IT teams need to upgrade systems in a business-driven, iterative, and agile manner. Government IT leaders want enterprise systems that can react quickly to change and remain viable for years to come.

Software platforms that connect people, data, and processes are also essential.

A shift toward Agile methodologies is recognition of the importance of sustainable development practices as well as a collaborative work environment – one that links people, processes, and data in a transparent way. Agency tech leaders, especially ones managing multiple departments in different geographic locations, discussed the importance of building systems with federated development on a platform that supports interconnectivity and mobility. To work collaboratively, agency staff need to be operating within the same applicable set of guidelines and rules, plus need to be able to view and share data, regardless if staff are working on desktops or on mobile devices in the field.

Other critical software system capabilities cited by government tech leaders include the ability to:

  • Use a government-approved cloud platform, on-premise, or hybrid model
  • Run on mobile platforms
  • Comply with cybersecurity requirements
  • Support common functionality, yet specialize application functionality for local or departmental variation
  • Support a single source for data visualization and reporting
  • Automate processes
  • Modify applications and scale
  • Create a visually engaging and intuitive user experience
  • Integrate with existing legacy applications

Though each government agency has mission-specific program goals and stakeholders, there is a commonality in functional IT needs. We’ve summarized below the conference keynote presentations, highlighting how each agency is approaching their modernization project.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) – paying off technical debt first

Technical debt is the cost of the work that needs to be done to keep systems running – and it carries interest. The older the debt, the more resources are used to maintain operations, and the longer it takes to modernize.

ATF is reinventing its case management systems through complete business process reengineering, and is building out the new processes in Pega. Over the years, ATF had accumulated so much technical debt that nearly all applications needed urgent modernization. Yet, it’s not feasible to do full-scale reengineering for dozens of apps at once. Mason McDaniel, Chief Technology Officer for ATF, explained the bureau’s unique strategy for addressing its other applications in parallel, while implementing case management systems the right way – to meet ATF’s mission more efficiently.

One of ATF’s most pressing needs was establishing a secure failover site. Because of budget cuts, the previous failover site for the ATF’s aging legacy system was relocated to the same data center building as their daily operating systems (with “one aisle of separation”) – and both were in jeopardy of being crushed by a roof heavy with a recent winter’s record snowfall.

That’s not all. The average age of the bureau’s server hardware was more than 10 years old and running on T1 connections. (T1 connections are 2,000 times slower than the broadband service in your house.) Older versions of ATF’s business software and browser apps had been de-supported by vendors, and critical custom apps were written in antiquated Java v1.4 language, which does not easily translate to the current Java 11 version. In fact, 70% of the ATF’s infrastructure was past end-of-life … and it was failing. The longer the government postponed funding to replace system hardware and software, the larger ATF’s technical debt grew.

ATF began their modernization project by paying down the largest technical debt first. That meant moving their failover site to the AWS Government Cloud, eliminating the need to buy new hardware for their failover system. The next phase tackled updating older apps that don’t talk to each other. To make data shareable, they moved it all to the cloud, then began a modularized approach of grouping together types of code (e.g., user interface, business logic, data access) and updating application components on the same technology platform. This, in turn, necessitated a rewrite of governance processes around automated deployment. ATF’s cloud migration strategy was also covered on Federal News Network.

ATF’s story of antiquated systems and legacy debt was hardly an uncommon challenge among government attendees in the room. Mason’s advice to other tech leaders faced with a critical need to modernize the majority of hardware and software in their systems is:

  • Pay off your technical debt first.
  • Automate everything – testing, provisioning, deployment – if you need to modernize quickly.
  • Leverage a cloud-hosted environment.
  • Use an iterative and Agile approach to validating new functionality.

U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) – connecting regional directorates and using Agile processes, OTAs, and federated development

When it comes to supporting the warfighter, decision support is mission-critical. AFRL is modernizing their IT system to increase the speed of informed decisions and overcome the inflexible Commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) trap. Speaker Chadwick S. Pfoutz, Deputy Division Chief of Enterprise Business Systems Division, explained AFRL’s strategy for modernizing IT at both the enterprise and local levels, and how the chosen technology helped stakeholders embrace the value of change through an open, flexible, no-code platform with federated development.

AFRL conducts research and development across a wide variety of scientific and technological domains. It has five superlabs and a workforce of more than 12,000 people across nine technical directorates and 40 other operations across the globe. Their IT system supports different geographies, revenue streams, tools, processes, and data that include science, technology, enterprise operations, and training functions. AFRL systems interface with Air Force and Department of Defense systems, as well as a variety of COTS and GOTS (government-off-the-shelf) applications. Their IT department manages 1,000 to 1,500 software change requests per year.

Since 2006, AFRL had been relying on a COTS system that had been significantly customized over the years for each directorate, creating multiple versions with different coding that prevent app sharing. Updates were costly and weren’t being adopted across the organization – in fact, only 20% of the system was being used (even though they were paying for 100%). Nor was collected data being used to make decisions. It was important to AFRL to find a platform that would allow them to centralize data, improve data quality, provide inheritance of existing apps, and support process variation across different directorates and geographies. And it had to meet stringent cyber protection requirements.

The key to AFRL’s modernization was creating a single source of truth for data as well as a common set of business rules and standards that run across a federated platform and allow for local variation. They now use Agile methodology to enable the development of process variations that are compliant with enterprise rules, and are prototyping four applications to streamline program planning and financial management.

Another essential component of AFRL’s modernization is the use of an Other Transaction Authority (OTA) to accomplish in months what might normally take up to two years (learn more in the Air Force Magazine article: Getting Agile, AFRL Finds Faster Way to Modernize IT). The ability to apply the knowledge already existing and tested in private industry helped AFRL speed development of prototypes and mature their technology much faster.

U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) – going from hours to minutes by automating document review with RPA, NLP, and machine learning

Approximately 15 million people in the U.S. have Medicare Part C plans, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is responsible for reviewing tens of thousands of medical records to measure the accuracy of Medicare Advantage payments to these plans. Jonathan Smith, Senior Technical Advisor for CMS’ Center for Program Integrity, directs the department whose mandate is to reduce overpayment and recover money for claims that can’t be validated. Their work had a number of challenges. For example, the intake process was historically rigorous, manual, and time-consuming, and limited funds and resources made it possible to review only an average of 45,000 claims annually. CMS was looking for a way to transform this intake and review process.

Jonathan’s challenge, specifically, was solving for speed – if they could review claims more quickly and efficiently CMS would be able to increase their footprint of claims to audit. They could also provide prompter feedback on problematic claims, giving payees an opportunity to revise their records.

Claims begin as paper documents anywhere in length between six and 100+ pages, with no consistent format. The documents are scanned and saved as PDFs, then assigned out to reviewers around the country. CMS developed a Pega-based, automated solution that harnesses emerging technologies such as Robotic Process Automation, Optical Character Recognition (OCR), Machine Learning, and Natural Language Processing (NLP).

The OCR and NLP technologies, combined with machine learning, help immediately spot errors in the scanned, uploaded PDF records. CMS’ system can now check the document format to make sure it’s the right kind of record for their reviewers, and then match the record with the right type of reviewer. NLP and machine learning are also used to take unstructured data, structure it, understand variances, and apply complex validations. The solution uses robotic automation to help reviewers click through screens more quickly.

The improvements are dramatic. CMS is saving an estimated $1 million in costs, significantly reducing process time from 141 days to 11.5 days, increasing accuracy, providing feedback to stakeholders 75% faster, and increasing job satisfaction by allowing resources to focus on more meaningful reviews instead of administrative tasks.

Recapping lessons learned, Jonathan recommends interacting early with key stakeholders. He advises, “Meet with your IT security group to make sure the digital tools you want fit your security standards, and begin socializing with other stakeholders early to get out in front of any concerns.”

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and New South Wales, Australia – agencies who have unlocked the secret to digital transformation

Governments across the globe have some of the most complex challenges, including overcoming legacy IT at the rate of increasing citizen demands. Through smart digital transformation, agencies have dramatically improved efficiency and engagement in unprecedented ways. In the United Kingdom and Australia, for example, multiple agencies are digitally transforming operations for asset management and deployment, workforce management, and case management.

HMRC is one of the largest departments in the U.K. government, with more than 60,000 employees dispersed geographically. It is responsible for collecting taxes from 45 million individuals and 5 million business, then redistributing that money to public services. Their charge is to help the honest majority get their taxes right and make it hard for the dishonest minority to cheat the system. Automating once manual, paper processes has helped them achieve this goal.

Using Agile methodologies and Scrum practices, HMRC digitized their collection system, leveraging enterprise case management to help reduce errors and protect revenue. From 2017 to 2018, HMRC’s system helped protect £30.3 billion of revenue through compliance activities. HMRC is also extending their platform to manage custom and border activities as part of the BREXIT program. By using small teams that work collaboratively, they are able to deliver new system applications and modifications very quickly.

In Australia, the need for enterprise case management is driving interest and adoption of digital process automation (DPA) technologies – especially in New South Wales (NSW), the country’s largest state. As part of a digital transformation initiative, agencies for transport, utilities, justice, legal, telecommunications, and planning, among others, are modernizing their legacy and manual processes to take advantage of automated, end-to-end workflow management.

For example, the NSW Department of Planning & Environment, an umbrella authority for the EPA, Heritage Crown Lands, and Infrastructure and Planning agencies, digitized its land development planning process to streamline application submittals and reviews – a huge leap from faxes and email to fully automated processes.

Project challenges included manual processes, ensuring citizen-centricity, providing a good user experience, adding online payment capability, and integrating with a number of third-party organizations and systems. Using an Agile approach to design and development, they created a system with the capabilities to accept application submittals, process application payments electronically, connect with a large, diverse group of entities relevant to each application, and provide visibility of the application status through tracking and decision notifications. Their Pega-based system is streamlining document collection, providing faster decisions, and scaling to handle an increasing number of applications.

Regardless of function, government agencies share similar challenges … and solutions

The overarching takeaway from this year’s Government Empowered conference is: regardless of an agency’s function, or the state/country in which it is based, government agencies share very similar challenges, goals, and initiatives.

They have antiquated legacy hardware and software that are reaching end-of-life, manual paperwork and processes that need to be digitized and automated, increasingly mobile workforces, and integrations to multiple internal and external entities that are an essential part of daily workflow. They’re also looking for platforms that can be modified quickly through Agile processes and can run in both a cloud and on-premise environment, to speed modernization.

In addition, organizational support is also critical to transformation. Each of the projects above was successful because the agency had a leader with an enterprise vision, executive backing, and tech leaders that were committed to improving operations by leveraging the advantages of digital technology and agile software development practices.

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Tags

  • Industry Group: Secteur public
  • Thème: Transformation numérique
  • Défi: Modernisation des systèmes existants
  • Groupe de produits: Plateforme
  • Groupe de produits: Cloud

About the Author

Leanne Russell, managing editor of Pega’s blog, helps high-tech leaders share their knowledge, experience, and success stories.