Federal agencies struggling with digital transformation, study says

lightning over washington
Credit: Anthony Quintano

A report says government departments want 'digital' but say they can't afford it. They know 'more digital is better,' yet they're feeling stumped about how to adopt it.

Federal bosses admit they're falling behind the tech advances being made in the private sector, says a survey. Consequently, they acknowledge that their stakeholder expectations aren't being met.

The leaders appear to know there's a problem, yet they're having problems making the transformations and going digital, according to researchers from the National Academy of Public Administration and ICF International, the two organizations that jointly released the report earlier this month.

Problems

Money, security and privacy concerns, and lumbering acquisition procedures are among the issues the "federal leaders" who responded to the survey say are preventing them from making progress.

However, the organization that compiled the report says more could be done, and that the barriers aren't insurmountable.

No man is an island

Recommendations include that major departments, such as the Department of Homeland Security, should collaborate with others, like the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and work together on digital security issues.

Security and privacy standards should be developed jointly, the report says. The study says it's not just money, though; governments need to get more cross-agency collaboration overall.

White House

The report pre-empts a $19 billion Cybersecurity National Action Plan announced by the White House this week.

That plan encompasses security for individuals, enterprises, and federal services.

Should it be funded, it will also attempt to modernize federal IT system security and encourage joint development of secure government systems, so work isn't replicated.

The report's authors will have their wishes granted.

Keenness

The study found that there was a 10% increase (from 62% in the previous year to 72% in this year's report) in the number of respondents who thought that their agency had become more productive due to digital adoption.

"Unlike years past, when some federal managers bragged about not having a computer at their desks, now they have one at work, one at home, and another one or two in their pockets," the report says.

"They see the benefits of digital technology, and want more of it," the report continues.

Lack of skills

Other barriers to departments adopting digital include the idea that there are more pressing priorities, and that they had a lack of employees with the right digital skills.

"We don't have the resources to pay and attract the right talent," one respondent is quoted as saying in the study.

The federal leaders responding to the survey were quite candid, the report indicates. Less than half thought their agencies train workers "adequately" to effectively utilize new tech.

Again, collaboration could help here, the researchers think.

They are recommending that the U.S. Digital Service, the Chief Human Capital Officers, and Chief Information Officers Councils all get together and create a digital employee retention and hiring guide.

Progress

There has been some progress, but it's often been in such things as messaging and payroll, rather than transformative technology, such as an Airbnb, which is one of the kinds of businesses the department heads believed they weren't keeping up with.

Some departments are notably making progress, though, the researchers think.

They include immigration-related updates for users from that department, analytics at the census bureau, architecture simplification at the Internal Revenue Service, and better tools for veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

However, the researchers stress overall that just automating existing processes isn't the same as re-imagining or reinventing them.

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