Governmental Red Tape: The 5 Hurdles IT Departments Face

We all know the feeling of dread walking into a boardroom to pitch new ideas. Essentially, you’re walking into a battlefield of opposing views, roadblocks, and decision-makers higher up the ladder who have the power to VETO your perfect solution. A little dramatic? For the private sector, yes… for government projects, it’s not even close. 

It’s 2019 and governments have a reputation for outdated processes and systems, but it’s not IT’s fault. Here are just a few of the roadblocks innovators at government agencies face:

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Bureaucracy… 

The private sector has it unbelievably easy when it comes to project approval. At least when compared to the hoops which government departments need to jump through. Even simple requests leave a paper trail longer than a CBS receipt, get lost twice, and cost-benefit predictions are nearly impossible to make. An infamous example of this is the US Department of Defence and Veteran Affairs which spent $1 Billion on a failed health record system!

Based on how many parties (including citizens) are likely to be affected by changes, nobody can deny the need for these processes. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any unnecessary challenges along the way. With so many stakeholders needing to sign off on new software, all it takes is one decision-maker to completely block off a new project. On top of that, every department involved needs to have a say in the final product. 

Opening the lines of communication between people and departments is imperative to becoming an Agile government system. Innovating how the communication process works doesn’t need to be a challenge though. Lightweight digital reporting software and workflows could be built using no-code technologies in a few weeks without consuming millions along the way. 

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Legacy Infrastructure

Remember the whole Y2K debacle? Well… that was (roughly) the last major technical revolution for governments. Faced with a potentially devastating software crisis, major system overhauls took place around the world. Unfortunately, most of those systems are now old enough to drink and haven’t been updated since their implementation. 

Legacy systems pose a particularly dangerous threat for governments if they fail to modernize in the coming years. Just the Data storage and protection requirements alone are exploding. Simply put, fewer and fewer modern systems are designed with the capability of transferring data with 20(ish) year old applications. 

Once the private sector advances beyond governments, obsolete systems will become exponentially more expensive to replace. In order to prevent falling behind, the UK government recently deployed its new ‘spark’ program. Opening their innovation process to registered private software suppliers. Using external suppliers to accelerate alongside current trends could keep the UK as a frontrunner government for years to come.

Cybersecurity concerns

Citizens (A.K.A a government’s consumer market) have more technical understanding than they ever have. With that knowledge, people understand exactly how much of their private information exists in software and expect municipalities to handle it with care. Just one cyber attack leading to leaked data could rack up millions in lawsuits overnight, jeopardize the government's authority, and put citizens at risk.

This is why high-risk departments and systems are often the last ones to be updated. If existing systems work, most IT projects can expect an uphill battle just to approve minor changes. It’s a legitimate concern which IT is entirely aware of but the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality doesn’t work in 2019.

The older a system gets, the more vulnerable it becomes to attacks as external parties learn its vulnerabilities. Recent scandals in the US, China, and Ukraine all but offer definitive proof. Protecting data about staying ahead of threats. To do that, you have to modernize regularly and (and embrace the cloud).  

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Limited IT Funding

Governments are in an extremely unique position when it comes to funding. Almost everything available for spending comes from taxpayers which then gets allocated according to budget planning. How those decisions are made varies but the general trend is to prioritize projects which have an immediate, visible impact on citizens. This has a couple of fairly obvious drawbacks for IT departments trying to innovate:

  1. Budget is allocated according to municipal priorities
  2. Back-end upgrades aren’t visible for taxpayers
  3. Generating extra revenue for large scale projects is nearly impossible
  4. IT and software is often at the lower end of the budget spectrum

After everything’s said and done, governments allocate an average of 28% of their budget to IT. Which sounds like a decent chunk until you break it down. That 28% has to be divided between military, social, economic, and infrastructure needs which leaves very little budget for large-scale innovation. Plus (and here’s the killer), nearly 70% of that allocated IT budget goes to maintaining legacy systems

Project Complexity

Tying all the previous challenges together into one, we need to look at how projects are presented to planning and budget committees. Coming forward with a 5-year proposal to replace legacy systems is doomed to be met with blank stares and an audible tightening of treasury pockets. 

Despite the importance of digital transformation, IT departments often glaze over the fact that they’re pitching technical solutions to people without a clear understanding of the field. From their standpoint, your 5-year plan would consume a large portion of funding and deliver very few short-term benefits. Coupled with the fact that only 6.4% of large scale software projects are successful in government and support quickly falls away.

It’s up to innovators within the government to change the way they approach new developments. Embracing modern Agile strategies may just offer a real solution that makes IT projects far more approachable for decision makers. Breaking down projects into smaller (shorter term) projects with a definitive goal/delivery date is far easier to invest in. Both in terms of money and support.  

But it doesn’t have to be this way! 

Nobody is saying that there’s a miracle cure out there for government innovators. However, governments are showing signs of change. In the Netherlands alone, municipalities like Zaanstad have successfully replaced a 25-year-old legacy system (along with 7 other back-end applications) by taking advantage of new application development strategies and technology. Specifically Betty Block’s no-code development platform.

We’ll be back soon with a full roundup of the top 5 software trends which are helping governments shake their reputation though along with some tips from Zaanstad for breaking down projects into something more manageable.

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