Technical debt inhibits speed, agility and innovation

Modernization of federal IT systems is an imperative due not only to security and cost factors but also mission capabilities. For every day that upgrade decisions are deferred, agencies are less able to deliver improved, citizen-centric or mission-critical services. The Accenture Federal Digital Decoupling Survey uncovered two primary threats:

  • An inability to move as fast as the mission requires. Speed, agility and innovation were overwhelmingly identified as being “severely hindered by your legacy systems.”
  • Significant risk of a cyber incident or outage. Forty-six percent reported that outages within their legacy system involved a security breakdown, with 85 percent of IT leaders believing that their agency’s future will be threatened if they don’t update their technology.

However, not all legacy systems are alike in terms of the constraints that they place on agency operations. The challenge for many of their IT organizations is accurately assessing the costs and risks buried in their systems caused by accumulated technical debt.

Technical debt reflects the necessary trade-offs made when running large complex organizations trying to balance multiple priorities. It is not bad per se, but just like financial debt, it must be properly managed and leveraged. Otherwise, these deferred decisions and accumulated debt can lead over time to discontinuity points where systems slow down or break down entirely and become constraints on the broader organization and strategy.

Key survey findings related to technical debt:

  • IT Leaders are well aware of technical debt. Ninety-six percent of IT leaders understand how technical debt is being managed within their agency.
  • Technical debt stands in the way of innovation and migration to New IT. Eighty-three percent believe technical debt limits innovation, 80 percent say it severely limits their ability to enhance current systems and 81 percent cite the need to remediate technical debt before migrating to the cloud.
  • More can be done to manage technical debt. Leaders haven’t developed a clear consensus on how best to deal with technical debt, with the top method—tracking when new systems are taking on technical debt—listed by less than half of respondents.

Dave McClure

Principal Director – CIO Advisory ​


Technical debt explained
Measuring technical debt

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