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COVID-19 highlights workforce technological challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the many significant technological challenges our government faces, renewing calls to rapidly enhance IT modernization programs. Investments in these programs are critical for both our near-term crisis and our long-term prospects. In many cases, they are long overdue.

But as government agencies look to accelerate their IT modernization efforts – and contractors look to support those projects – it's important to remember that people are the critical element determining whether technology upgrades succeed. Attempting to modernize without a comprehensive approach that accounts for an agency's culture, engages its workforce and addresses critical business practices can actually create new or additional challenges that limit effectiveness and negatively affect mission outcomes.

This process begins with an understanding of how to acquire technology. Government procurement rules and regulations largely pre-date the new technologies developed over the past decade. This puts acquisition officials in a tough spot as they look to deliver innovation to their agencies. After all, no one wants to be the next poster child for wasteful spending or procurement violations.

Risk aversion in the acquisition community is holding back government innovation. It's essential that we change that culture, and provide the acquisition community with the tools, processes and incentives to meet the challenges of today and the future.

While the administration has taken several positive steps in addressing these challenges, including making frictionless acquisition a Cross-Agency Priority Goal, much more still must be done. We need a heightened focus on outcome-based procurements and a shift in mindset from labor-based to outcome-based acquisitions.

The contracting community also has an important role to play in helping to streamline these processes. Complaining about burdensome or outdated regulations will not suffice. We have a responsibility to provide clear, transparent practices that empower acquisition officials to understand exactly what they're purchasing. That means developing easily understood tracking mechanisms that define the value of enhanced technology for agencies and taxpayers, as well as training in alternate contracting mechanisms that they can use.

Acquisition is only one part of this effort. Without buy-in from program management or the rank-and-file workforce, no new technology – no matter how exciting or innovative – can be fully effective in serving the mission. Building that trust requires a robust framework of operations and a thoughtful approach to organizational change management.

The best managers in government will always put success of the mission above everything else. But as with the acquisition community, this well-intentioned commitment can often lead to an over-reliance on the familiar and risk-aversion that actually hold an agency back.

Industry must demonstrate that our innovations can safely and securely manage critical data – especially classified information – to assure that we are never putting national missions at risk. Government managers should also expect that any IT vendor has a proven understanding of unique agency missions built into their solutions. Because agencies operate in a different environment than commercial companies -- with different rules, practices, goals, security and compliance need, and expectations -- simply taking an off-the-shelf commercial product and pushing it into a government system is a recipe for failure.

Of course, the most important element in the success of any IT modernization effort is the workforce that uses the technology on a daily basis. If employees do not feel comfortable operating in a new system or a new environment -- or worse, if they actively oppose it -- we will never see the full benefits of modernization.

Supporting the workforce begins with an understanding that new IT systems are not designed to replace employees, but to help them do their jobs better by reducing repetitive tasks and preventing frustrating system outages. We have to communicate clearly and be transparent to employees about the impact of these changes, and the extensive positive outcomes in support of their ability to meet the mission. Workers must also be empowered with the skills they need to maximize any new technology. That means having a plan to engage and train employees for the tools they've been given.

We're at a critical moment in our country, and the need to upgrade our government IT is clear. We should absolutely take this opportunity to address gaps where they exist and invest in our future. By keeping in mind the important cultural components of this change, and the responsibilities both government and industry have in shaping this effort, we can maximize our impact and ensure what we all value most: success on our national missions.

Reader comments

Sat, Sep 26, 2020

MIKEM that is interesting because my agency did no such thing under Obama or anyone else. I would bet I could challenge every Agencies COOP plan and I bet I can prove the plans suck and none were Covid ready. We need intelligent leadership that values remote capabilities in IT. Otherwise as has been the example made many times over, the private sector will be advanced in remote IT capabilities and the Federales will still be working in the office stapled to their desks. Covid proved that remote capabilities is the present not the future. My current agency is far more prepared than my former agency. The shocking fact is my former Agency is "supposed" to be the leader in Federal Law Enforcement. What an insane reality.

Tue, Sep 22, 2020 MikeM

Under the Obama administration, COOP worked wonderfully because people were forced to work at home a couple days/week so the IT systems had to handle that and the people had to learn to work remotely (and know how to log in and stuff). The McConnell/Trump administration took that away and when the pandemic hit and the offices closed, it was far harder than it had to be.

Mon, Sep 21, 2020

First off, every Agency is supposed to have a COOP plan, so what happened, how well did everyone's plan work. Likely the truth is they didn't have much of a plan at all. Why because we all who work in the Fed support IT that is inflexible and stagnant. We have had the technology for years to have a mobile workforce. We have had the technology to be able to work from anywhere. But instead we choose to spend money on the same old solutions. Because of our arrogance and lack of true innovative thought. God forbid in the Federal workplace you are innovative. Dumbass leaders spend foolish money on building COOP locations and build redundant servers only to have it all gather dust when the employees are sitting at home using an Ipad and trying to get work done ? If they would of employed more Cloud solutions and mobile hardware like laptops, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

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2020 Digital Almanac

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