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Now is the Time to Reinvent Legacy Government Processes

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
August 2, 2016

mark-516278_640A University of Maryland colleague likes to tell this story about his previous career as a federal government employee. Back in the 1970s, he worked at the newly formed Department of Energy. He is an architect and was hired to help create the standards for energy-efficient buildings. In his work, my colleague had to procure building materials, appliances and testing equipment. After experiencing some frustration with the federal procurement process, he decided to map out the entire procurement process to understand where the bottlenecks were.

He sketched out the process on a roll of newsprint. When he finished and verified the process, he scheduled a meeting with his boss. When the boss came into the meeting room, my colleague had the newsprint taped to the wall. Actually, the newsprint covered all four walls as it circled the meeting room. The boss, having immediately seen the problem, worked with my colleague to streamline the procurement process down to 15 steps while still maintaining the accountability and fairness of the procurement process.

I tell this story to illustrate the point that the real focus on dealing with legacy information technology (IT) systems in the federal, state, and local governments should not just be on the IT systems themselves. The focus should also be on the legacy processes that the legacy IT systems currently support.

The May 2016 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that 75 percent of the $80 billion spent on Federal government IT went to operating and maintaining legacy systems. For example, large mainframe COBOL systems that handle the personnel information and payrolls for the federal government workforce or the 8-inch floppy disks that control America’s nuclear arsenal. There have been calls from the White House and the Congress to modernize these systems. However, the calls seem to recommend replicating the systems from the legacy mainframes to a cloud solution. There does not seem to be much consideration given to re-engineering the processes first to determine if the process is still needed and then, streamlining the process while taking advantage of the new capabilities offered by the new digital technologies.

There are new methods and technologies for re-engineering processes that can help modernize government processes both internal and external. We can also look to examples, such as Estonia, that have an amazingly efficient and effective digital government infrastructure. In the sections below, I describe four methods and technologies that can be used to overhaul current federal, state and local government processes.

Process Mining

Process mining is a relatively new analytical technique that is born out of big data analytics. Using an event log that records how information and transactions flow between steps in a process, a process miner can map the actual processes in a system. Process mining is similar to my colleague’s mapping of the procurement process on newsprint but with data that are more detailed and the ability to map processes in real time.

Adaptive Case Management

Another method that has been used successfully in re-engineering government processes is adaptive case management (ACM). Simply put, ACM starts with a very simple process supported by collaborative tools. As workers deal with cases, the lessons they learn from each unique case are captured and used to refine the process. ACM’s advantages over traditional business process management are that ACM processes evolve upward based on real experiences with cases rather than being a top-down imposed process that was created based on assumptions about ideal cases.

Chatbots

Chatbots have been around since the 1970s. Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, voice processing and deep learning, chatbots have become more responsive and sophisticated. The best example is IBM’s Watson, which won on Jeopardy and is now being used in a variety of medical and business applications. The major advantage of chatbots is that they provide a friendly and intuitive interface that hides the complexity of a process. Therefore, instead of a citizen having to navigate several screens of forms to request a government service, the citizen can use a chatbot to hold an interactive conversation to more easily apply for and receive a government service.

Blockchain

Blockchain technology uses a distributed trust model to manage and verify transactions. Blockchain was created to support the bitcoin currency and is now being used to manage transactions such as registering copyrights, recording academic credentials and verifying identities. The advantages of blockchain technology are that users control their information and transactions, no need for a third party to ensure trust. All transactions are transparent, faster and cost less.

The government has a great opportunity to increase citizen engagement and citizen satisfaction by taking advantage of the new digital technologies and the new process management methods. Citizens are used to great digital experiences thanks to Amazon.com, Facebook and Google. Other governments such as the United Kingdom and Estonia have used digital technology to re-engineer their processes. The federal, state, and local governments are taking the important step in overhauling their IT infrastructures. This is also the best time to take advantage of new technologies and methods to reinvent government processes.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Maryland (College Park) and the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. He can be reached at http://about.me/bbrantley.

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One Response to Now is the Time to Reinvent Legacy Government Processes

  1. John Pearson Reply

    August 13, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    I would like to throw out my perspective on this. I was heavily involved in legacy systems as well as new development in my last years before retirement.

    The federal government must have literally thousands of computer systems. Many are legacy systems going back decades to the ’70s and ’80. My program area had about 30 legacy systems of varying ages.

    I observed that it is extremely difficult to replace the legacy systems. Here’s why. The agency’s IT budget is always limited. The business side wants new systems and new capabilities for old systems. They want their most serious computing problems addressed. They want a strong return on any IT investment dollars. The IT side is increasingly concerned with security issues and wants to spend to strengthen defenses against cyberattacks. Everyone wants to spend the necessary money to maintain existing systems. You don’t want system failure, which would be very harmful to daily operations at the agency.

    Replacing the legacy systems is at the bottom of everyone’s priorities. If a legacy system is doing it’s job fairly well, there’s no great incentive to replace it. Replacement costs can be huge. You have to define the requirements for the new system and that is an excruciating process. IT staffs cannot “reverse engineer” these systems. The methods for gathering requirements mentioned in the column might be helpful. But my experience was the program staffs typically did not have a detailed understanding of what the existing systems did and could not easily reengineer their business processes even with help from contractors. I suspect that it’s failure on the requirements side that causes so many IT projects to be so expensive or fail all together. If you give the IT professionals the wrong requirements, they will build something that does not solve the problem. I believe most managers are maximizing utility for their organizations — and that leads to a lot of older legacy systems staying around.

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