The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been a pathfinder in putting human- centered design at the heart of its IT strategy. Its efforts were recognized, most recently, by the Technology Modernization Fund (established in 2017 to provide public seed money to federal agencies with promising IT projects), which selected USDA as one of its first awardees.
USDA’s embrace of human-centered design is visible across its front-end (i.e., user- facing) tech stack, including its online presence (on the USDA’s revamped job posting webpage, for example, better search and application tools encourage visitors to linger longer, boosting traffic time by 45%, on average). The agency has also made use of a cloud platform to develop internal IT capabilities, to better understand customers. One example is the creation of dashboards, which integrate customer data from 29 sub- agencies, to offer insights to USDA executives.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) has worked hard to make its services more digitally accessible. For example, FSA revamped StudentAid.gov to make it easier for students and parents to access needed information and complete necessary steps to receive grants, loans and work-study funds. The redesigned mobile responsive website consolidated business functions from across four disparate websites into an integrated, personalized customer experience. Still more recently, FSA launched "Aidan", a virtual assistant that can instantly answer more than 800 common questions about federal student aid, on its website; in 2020, FSA will offer Aidan on its mobile app as well.
"DevOps" refers to practices that connect software development with an organization’s IT operations, to allow continuous delivery of high-quality software. But extensive legacy technology infrastructure and operations, as well as cumbersome procurement processes, can limit the effectiveness of DevOps, as the U.S. Air Force (USAF) discovered.
To navigate these hurdles, USAF developed "DevSecOps", which relies on authority-to- operate controls (i.e., permission for a product to be used in an existing system), cloud and software factories, and rapid IT migration. Thanks to DevSecOps, USAF is both meeting its software acquisition requirements and speeding up the delivery and use of high-quality software.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has also embarked on a wide-ranging IT modernization program. "We’re really looking at how to re-architect our network ... we don’t want to replace, we want to improve," says Dominic Cussatt, the VA’s Deputy Chief Information Officer.
The program’s ambitious initiatives include moving half of the VA’s technology portfolio (comprising roughly 350 applications and systems) to the cloud by 2024; and committing strongly to AI, by creating a National Artificial Intelligence Institute (launched in December 2019) and by appointing a Director of Artificial Intelligence. The VA will use AI to reduce patient waiting times, to identify patients at high risk of suicide, to help doctors interpret cancer lab tests, and to advise doctors on the most effective therapies, among other uses.
Follow the leaders
Many federal agencies are not getting the most out of their IT investments. A change in strategy is needed.
To continuously scale innovation and respond faster to rising citizen demands, agencies should shift away from viewing technologies as a patchwork of single-point solutions. Instead, they should prioritize the development of holistic Future Systems, which boost organizational agility and allow innovations to be scaled with ease. To do this, they’ll need to cultivate both the methods and mindsets of IT modernization Leaders.