With unique environments and disparate needs, government agencies have widely varying modernization requirements. In particular, agencies with especially heavy or fast data processing needs can find it difficult to modernize and move to the cloud. We sat down with Larry Reagan, vice president, Federal financial, at Maximus, to explore how pragmatic modernization, flexible roadmaps, legacy technology know-how, and mission expertise can help agencies along their modernization journeys.
MeriTalk: Federal agencies are actively working to modernize their IT infrastructure and applications to cope with increasing data volumes, cybersecurity challenges, and new mission requirements. Where are the biggest opportunities for IT modernization today?
Larry Reagan: Cloud is the biggest opportunity. In particular, many agencies are looking to modernize legacy applications in order to optimize data processing for better citizen service. However, determining which applications should be modernized first and which have the potential to leverage cloud technologies is not always obvious.
The real challenge is that data is often processed through a series of applications that have been connected and finely tuned over the years. Untangling this highly functioning environment can be difficult, and replicating it in a whole new system is nearly impossible. In many cases, agencies trying to modernize often end up with two systems running in parallel, with no significant enhancement of the citizen experience. This is where our incremental approach, which we call pragmatic modernization, works best. As we untangle that complex environment, we identify new ways to combine the various components, capture the required business processes, and develop a plan for modernizing one piece at a time.
MeriTalk: How can agencies with heavy processing requirements successfully leverage the cloud?
Reagan: Interactions between employees and citizens are the easiest functions to move to the cloud because they are typically post-processing functions. Most agencies will modernize those experiences via web interfaces where citizens and employees interact.
The intersection between the employee and citizen interface is where the most complex data processing occurs. This is where modernization can become difficult. In many cases, data processing needs to be continuous or updated frequently, and the processes must be secure to protect the data. To verify that a modernization activity meets all these data processing requirements, agencies will often run new and old systems in tandem for a while. While this ensures that processing continues uninterrupted, it adds costs to modernization efforts. As a result, the technical debt continues to increase until the old system is finally retired, which can be years later.
Most agencies with heavy data processing requirements are driven by policy mandates that can be updated frequently, and they provide a good example of how pragmatic modernization is so effective. For example, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is required to update its systems to align with changes in the tax code that happen every year, and those changes often cascade throughout a complex systems environment that impacts many processes. Any time we touch a piece of code or system to bring one of those processes in line with new legislative requirements, we ask, “How can we modernize this?” We’re not performing “Big Bang” modernization; we’re modernizing elements of a system and making improvements along the modernization journey. Because agencies will most likely replace the whole system at some point, pragmatic modernization helps reduce the impact, limiting the risk of system change, and incrementally improving operational sustainability, which impacts citizen services.
MeriTalk: Can you tell us more about Maximus’ pragmatic modernization approach?
Reagan: We have been very successful with a pragmatic modernization approach for more than 30 years. Pragmatic modernization leverages the Strangler Pattern, which is like peeling an onion. By peeling off distinct layers of a system in a logical manner, you can modernize and modularize those pieces so they’re easier to move around. Running new and old systems in tandem can be minimized, and the old system can be turned off once that new system is accepted. Sometimes you move those new systems to the cloud; sometimes, you keep them on-prem. But you modernize each system until you reach the core, which is the only piece that you have to duplicate and run in parallel to validate that the modernization is successful. This allows organizations to prioritize their modernization efforts while simultaneously reducing the risk of system failure.
MeriTalk: How have you seen agencies successfully integrate new mandates into their modernization roadmaps?
Reagan: Agencies that successfully navigate these changes are the ones that actively involve business subject matter experts (SMEs). They bring in technical experts, of course, but they also consult with business experts who can identify the impact of these changes throughout the entire enterprise. These agencies are asking forward-thinking questions such as, “If we make a change here, will that hurt something upstream or downstream? And if it does, what is the impact?” The business subject matter experts have those answers. By working with the technical solutions teams, their input significantly reduces risks.
With pragmatic modernization, agencies can continuously assess interdependencies that may impact both the business and overall data processing. Identifying potential impacts and engaging those key stakeholders immediately is essential to designing a solution that is achievable within schedule and cost constraints. Finding people who understand the various aspects of an agency’s mission is very difficult because few people have a full enterprise understanding. At Maximus, we build a team of experts who know each part of our customers’ enterprise and together can provide consulting to the stakeholders considering the whole mission spectrum. These SMEs and mission experts are critical to successful incremental modernization.
MeriTalk: How can agencies successfully leverage the cloud to manage data interdependencies as they modernize?
Reagan: One way to modernize is to partition, or separate data in the cloud – creating smaller data warehouses or sets. This becomes even more important for agencies like the IRS that interact heavily with the public. The good news is that an auditor at the IRS, for example, who’s interacting with the public can quickly get the data they need because they’re not processing all of the agency’s data for one application – that smaller data set in the cloud is just as fast as processing a larger set on-prem.
MeriTalk: That’s interesting. Separating data is usually considered a bad thing, but in this case, it serves an important purpose.
Reagan: Correct. The question isn’t “How do you prevent the separation of data?” It’s “How do you partition data to maximize the processing while ensuring there’s no duplication of data records?” If you have duplicate records, you need to know the authoritative data source. At IRS, for example, if an agent does an investigation on their laptop, is that the record that gets used? Or do they have to upload the data into another system to “make it official”? Those are the challenges agencies face with disparate complex environments; data governance and management become extremely important.
MeriTalk: Some government agencies are trying to reduce operational costs and maintain effectiveness while using existing system architecture. How have agencies been able to accomplish this?
Reagan: One of the biggest challenges is developing a workforce that understands the end-to-end data requirements to support the mission. Domain expertise is as necessary as technical expertise. Unfortunately, for many agencies with complex IT environments, it could take technology experts a year to get up to speed, and by then, the technology has changed. Because of that, agencies often create a team of implementers and analysts and bring in technology-specific experts as needed. That’s where an integrator that understands the agency’s mission becomes invaluable.
MeriTalk: What advice can you offer to agencies as they build their modernization roadmaps?
Reagan: You build a roadmap so you know where you’re going, but there will be difficulties along the way. The key is to continuously assess and update the roadmap, for example, every six months or more. We used to live by two- to five-year strategic plans. But technology and citizen expectations advance so fast that you can’t wait years to do another plan. It has to be routinely updated, so build a plan with areas where you know you can expand or adjust quickly. Agility has to be built into the system design.
MeriTalk: When building a modernization roadmap, it’s important to look at where you’ve been, where you are today, and where you want to go. How does Maximus help agencies through this process to build and continue to modify their roadmap?
Reagan: Agencies usually have a strategic planning process in place, so we build off that. If they want to modernize two systems, we’ll say, “Here’s what you can get with pragmatic modernization and when you’ll be able to reach the core. Therefore, you should start planning for that now.”
We bring both skill sets: a deep understanding of the legacy data processing solution and business processes along with current technologies and best practices. We collaboratively engage with the agency’s strategic planning processes to better inform those plans with how to transition from a strategic vision to actual implementation. We understand the details and the desired state and design pragmatic implementation plans that are forward-leaning and achievable. We leverage our lessons learned from other agencies and build on those successes.
We lay that all out in a DevSecOps approach so they know what will be released into production at given times. Then, if they are faced with budget cuts or priority changes, we can help them adjust because we have peeled back the layers.
MeriTalk: Are there any other considerations for agencies as they look to modernize?
Reagan: Get started. Modernization provides many benefits, including improved operational efficiencies, enhanced customer experiences, and greater mission outcomes. For IT leaders, planning incrementally and remaining flexible is key to successful modernization efforts.