Mitigation begins with measuring and monitoring

While agencies need a systematic means for measuring and managing their technical debt, most (70 percent) report that they do not have a fully-integrated approach. As a starting point, agencies need to distinguish between application-level and structural-level technical debt. Application-level debt can often be addressed discretely while structural debt generally requires more integrated remediation.

Application level debt

Methods like Application Portfolio Management (APM) can provide analysis and benchmarking for understanding where application-level technical debt exists in the organization. APM is typically used to assess mission and business alignment, functional performance, technical health, cost-to-maintain, cloud and modernization readiness, and potential security vulnerabilities for each application in the enterprise. APM can also be used to determine total technical debt and cost-to-remediate, and to evaluate the impact of possible fixes on overall performance.

Structural level debt

The interdependencies inherent within infrastructure and related systems creates challenges in assessing their technical debt. Modeling future capabilities and cost structures can play an essential role in assessing current structural debt. By mapping your target architecture against your current baseline capabilities, structural gaps can be identified.

Mitigation strategies

The management and avoidance of new debt is as important as remediating past technical debt, but currently, less than half (46 percent) of agencies track when new systems take on technical debt. Practices like Agile software development make technical debt more visible, as the tradeoff between increased velocity and functionality versus potential added debt is an everyday decision. Also, strategies like enterprise cyber hygiene enforce a systematic approach towards maintaining systems to current standards, which could include acceptable technical debt levels.

Reaching discontinuity points

A discontinuity point occurs when accumulated technical debt causes mission-critical systems to either chronically break down or decline to a point where the organization is forced to halt or significantly slow down investments on innovative new systems. According to the survey, 96 percent of agencies have experienced one or more discontinuity points in the past decade, including 58 percent that experienced two or three incidents and 9 percent with three or more.

The leading causes of these events are aging legacy systems, lack of skills to upgrade and modernize, and the inability to integrate systems as well as data. Other contributing factors include poor maintenance, inadequate investment, the inherent complexity of the systems, and changing mission requirements.

Dave McClure

Principal Director – CIO Advisory ​


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