Modularity has been heating up in government—starting with Medicaid Enterprise Systems (MES) and now cascading throughout the public sector. Government agencies are increasingly embracing modularity as a way to modernize legacy systems without creating the need for a massive multi-year program.

First, a quick refresher: Modularity is a development approach for creating large, complex systems through a collection of self-contained yet interoperable parts. The premise is that each part can be continually tested, enhanced or replaced without disrupting the “whole.” When modularity works, an organization can achieve great speed and agility in continually understanding and meeting customers’ needs. When it doesn’t work, an organization can end up with a slow-moving mishmash of modules that not only fail to meet customer needs—they can also cost a lot more to build and maintain!

At best, we can build “modules” of services, processes, systems and partnerships that can be readily adapted to meet each citizen’s or client’s needs. This approach can enable teams to leverage agile methods for writing and assembling modular code that respects the complexity of the public sector mission across a variety of interrelated systems.

Lately, however, I’ve begun to question whether modular system development should be the default answer for the public sector. Unlike commercial businesses, government entities are bound by vast and complex regulations. So, while ongoing testing and refining is a great idea, the public sector still must meet compliance requirements from Day One. Because of that, what often happens in government is what you might call “Agile Fall.” It’s a Frankenstein concoction of Agile methods and traditional waterfall development that risks being the worst of both worlds.

These ideas started to take shape during two events I attended at the end of last year: the ISM Annual Conference in Seattle and the Health and Human Services Summit at Harvard. One event was focused on technology, the other on ecosystems. That combination made me realize any organization with a fixation on modularity may be misguided.

That isn’t to say modularity is a bad idea. I believe it does, in fact, have tremendous potential for government. But it shouldn’t be the default answer simply because it is the buzzword of the day. Modularity as an approach doesn’t bring you any closer to the outcomes desired. In other words, government shouldn’t fixate on the HOW of a new system by believing that a modular approach alone will drive the desired results. Instead, it needs to be obsessed with the WHY: the outcomes that the system is intended to support. Tuning how we create IT systems won’t get us there. But applying modularity to transform the way we think—and how we act—just might.

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Ryan Oakes

Senior Managing Director – Strategy & Consulting, Global Public Service

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