Agency Reorg Plan Adds to IT Modernization Momentum, Former DoC Official Says

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Underneath its more headline-grabbing aspects such as the proposed merger of the Departments of Labor and Education, the Trump administration’s Federal agency reorganization proposal issued on June 21 marks another step in the wider push toward greater Federal government IT modernization, a former Department of Commerce (DoC) official told MeriTalk.

At its core, the agency reorg plan features a strong push to better use technology to modernize the delivery of government services to citizens, and in that light links arms with previous Federal government plans of the last several years to accomplish similar aims through modernization.

We spoke this week with Matt Erskine–who is now an executive advisor at Booz Allen Hamilton and from 2011 to 2017 was deputy assistant secretary of Commerce for Economic Development and chief operating officer of DoC’s U.S. Economic Development Administration–about the agency reorg proposal floated last month, who gave it a generally positive review based on its aims to further government IT modernization.

He said that while most of the initial press attention on the plan focused on the proposed agency merger and the renaming and restructuring of the Department of Health and Human Services, “government technology modernization is the common thread” that runs through the plan.

“To the plan’s credit,” it focuses primarily on improving the government’s “service delivery model,” and that focus is a “good guide for IT transformation efforts,” Erskine said.

He declined to handicap whether and to what extent the reorg plan might succeed in its aims, but said the plan rightly focuses on mission, service, and stewardship, and said that in his experience in government, successful modernization efforts are where “everyone gets that mission and service have to drive IT.”

“The IT folks are facing such a challenging environment,” Erskine said. “In so many cases dealing with outdated legacy systems … there is always the risk of putting the IT solutions cart before the mission and service horse.”

On a more nuts-and-bolts level, Erskine emphasized the importance of collaboration in any successful modernization effort.

Speaking of his time in government service, he said, “the most successful efforts I saw … are where the program leaders and technology leaders are really in close collaboration,” and have a “transparent, frank, and trusting relationship.” That type of relationship, he added, becomes a “sustained collaboration.”

The plan’s focus on customer service improvements is one of its key drivers, and “incredibly welcome,” Erksine said, while cautioning that getting to that goal through network modernization is no easy task.

“The challenge of replacing and overhauling outdated legacy systems in an environment that is so demanding, you have such critical customer applications, I think is one of the particularly interesting things going forward,” he said.

Of particular interest he said, will be how Federal agencies “look for different models for doing this without disrupting the critical customer service piece.”

“In this time of change, and in doing more with less, the focus on customer service internally is even more essential now,” he said.

Speaking to the importance of internal service, Erskine emphasized that “successful transformation happens through people,” and when they trust each other and make sure to provide a high degree of internal customer service, then the chances for a successful IT transformation effort improve.

“Big IT initiatives can flounder if the fundamentals are not taken care,” he warned.

The Trump administration sees the agency reorganization plan as a three to five-year effort under the best of conditions. While Erskine did not offer specific comment on the timetable, he said the proposal “absolutely is a long-term plan” with key areas of focus that will become “a bigger part of the conversation among agency leaders.”

He added, “It is nice to see in the plan that they talk about building on previous bipartisan reform ideas and efforts, and some shared and common themes from previous proposals.” Because of that, “there can be common ground and shared understanding, and that is important.”

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