Looking to Upgrade Your IT System? Try Standing Up a Digital Services Team

The pandemic has underscored the need for states to modernize the IT infrastructure.

The pandemic has underscored the need for states to modernize the IT infrastructure. SHUTTERSTOCK


Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | Governments are running on IT systems that are too antiquated and complex to be effective. In light of the pressures caused by Covid-19, digital service teams are needed to help government officials upgrade their IT systems to better serve the public.

Imagine having to operate critical government IT systems so obsolete that only programmers in retirement can update software. This is the situation public sector IT administrators at the state, local and federal level are experiencing during the Covid-19 pandemic—putting immense strain on government IT infrastructure.

Public servants across the country are facing major roadblocks as they work to respond to public needs with operating systems, hardware and software that haven’t been updated in decades. Many government servers used today were brought online between 2003 and 2008. And those servers aren’t being updated as traditional mainframes are phased out. These systems are so antiquated and complex that to get them up to speed would require complete reengineering and business process redesign.

This technical deficiency has real world security and continuity implications. In April, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy put out a public plea for volunteers with COBOL experience, a 60-year-old programming language, to help the state respond to the growing demand in unemployment claims. 

New Jersey isn’t alone. Similar calls to action are going out across the country. Digital services teams—in-house, rapid response technical teams working in partnership with government agencies and the IT industry—are popping up to assist governments at the state, local and federal level to modernize their IT systems and better serve the public.

Traditionally, digital service teams are multi-disciplinary teams using human-centered design principles, as well as agile and innovative technology solutions in order to help government agencies upgrade and scale outdated systems. Digital service teams often save government money because they help identify solutions that lead to smarter, budget-conscious decisions and help provide stringent procurement contract oversight. Bringing these human-centered design methodologies into government leads to less waste, faster software delivery and a better ability for leaders to consult with stakeholders and serve public needs.

Further, these teams are often made up of skilled IT employees already working within government who are repurposed with the specific task of offering advice on IT modernization, helping to further cut back on the costs of hiring a third-party or adding more employees.

States like Colorado, California, North Carolina, and Massachusetts, as well as some cities like Austin, Texas and New York City, have set up their own digital services teams. These teams are working to re-architect outdated technical infrastructures to improve efficiencies as well as mobile and remote access. Similarly, at the federal level, organizations such as the United States Digital Service and 18F, a digital services agency within General Services Administration, are demonstrating success in system modernization, procurement innovation and cloud adoption while ensuring sensitive data remains secure.

The growing Covid-19 crisis highlights the importance and necessity of technology as a vital tool for government agencies to serve the public. Many issues that look like technology disasters are ultimately business process reengineering opportunities, and digital services teams need executive-level support to make difficult choices. These teams can also seed groups of IT experts in cities and states across the country that aren't traditional IT hubs, providing more opportunities for technical jobs throughout the nation.

Creating digital services teams is one important way that states and local governments can prioritize digital transformation and IT modernization while repairing mission-critical systems and delivering quality citizen services throughout the nation. And in the current budget-constrained environment, in-house technical talent can help states stretch taxpayer dollars even further. More states should consider setting up their own digital service teams and giving them broad mandates to innovate and bring public sector IT systems into the 21st century.

Robert Callahan is the senior vice president of state government affairs for the Internet Association

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