Federal IT Modernization Post-COVID: The Key to Speed is Low-Code - Part 1
In the post-COVID world, the federal government spends about three-fourths of its technology budget maintaining aging computer systems including platforms more than 50 years old and even some that use floppy disks, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.
But beyond updating decades-old technology, getting digital transformation right in government and elsewhere is about cultivating an organizational mindset that embraces change. The problem is resistance to change is a major barrier for digital transformation at federal agencies according to a recent survey by ICF, a billion-dollar global consulting company and low-code implementation powerhouse in Fairfax, Virginia.
So, what’s an agency CIO to do? Enter Sergey Trosman and Jake Buikema, two ICF technologists who recently sat down with Appian and gave us an inside look at the role of cultural change in digital transformation, and why low-code development should be in the toolbox of any agency CIO who wants to live the digital transformation dream. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Appian: Trosman, why don't you kick things off. What’s your role at ICF?
Trosman: Sure, I am the chief technology officer (CTO) for the digital transformation division at ICF. I lead our technology organization, SMEs, Architects, etc., throughout our client’s various modernization efforts and, among involvement in several other areas, I also support R&D or innovation initiatives, both with our clients and internally.
Appian: And what about you Buikema? How would you describe your role?
Buikema: I’m responsible for strategy and growth for the digital transformation division within ICF which includes everything from proposals to sales.
Imagine Consumer-grade Functionality for Fed IT Systems
Appian: So, Buikema, as you think about digital transformation, how would you define the role of low-code development in the context of digital transformation in the federal space?
Buikema: Sure. So, I think if you look across our (federal agency) customer base, I think where you see the biggest opportunities for low-code is in modernizing large monolithic ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems that used to be untouchable. In the past, it could take 5, 10, or more years to replace these systems.
"But with low-code no-code platforms you can now bring consumer-grade functionality, from a look and feel perspective, to these ERP systems a lot faster."
It doesn’t matter whether it's a Maximo, SAP, or Oracle system, low-code enables us to give users a consumer-grade experience in an extremely short timeframe.
Appian: Trosman, how do you see it? What’s your perspective on how low-code benefits system modernization?
Trosman: I think about it in the broader context of transformation and general portfolio modernization. And to piggyback off of Buikema’s point, there are a lot of enterprises with numerous legacy components and complexity, essentially issues at every layer of the stack—not to mention the cultural aspect of change (change management) that’s essential for a successful digital transformation.
"I would say that low-code is an important part of the overall tool kit for implementing digital transformation in the agency environment."
It’s part of our toolbox of capabilities to help clients solve very specific pain points. It allows us to quickly address workflow issues and various other use cases that enable a customer to take advantage of modern technology, versus stagnating in a longer-term digital transformation roadmap.
Agency Pain Points Ripe for Low-code Solutions
Appian: Can you get more specific about the use cases you mentioned? Can you talk about specific use cases?
Trosman: Let’s start with adapting to urgent challenges, and rapidly deploying solutions to meet workflow needs. Specifically, domain areas in say, financial auditing, any case management and/or investigations. These types of workflows are very conducive to low-code solutions.
"A low-code platform enables these clients to quickly deploy packaged products as a part of a digital transformation strategy and then see the benefits up front."
So, overall, I see low-code capability as an important, singular component of the broader digital transformation architecture and strategy.
Appian: Talk about the challenges of integrating low-code platforms into large agencies with multiple legacy environments and interdependent systems.
Trosman: First, I think the challenges are fairly standard regardless of the vendor. These platforms are black boxes in terms of their functionality and packaged capabilities that combine to do certain things with data, application logic, and the transitions in and around user interfaces. But you also have to deal with agency systems that have multiple stakeholders, or additional enterprise consumers, etc.
There are legacy data flows between stakeholders and systems, and these may be in varying formats and moving across multiple integration points, not just within the enterprise itself, but sometimes externally between different agencies.
"Being able to maintain that support with data integrations and these disparate or outdated standards as the low-code system is introduced into the environment is critical."
From Data Integration to Human-Centered Design
Appian: So, talk about the biggest challenges of doing these kinds of low-code integrations?
Trosman: You have to understand and reconcile with the overall target architecture what business capability or functionality is being replaced—from user interactions down to the data involved, as well as the integration points that will be broken when you deploy the low-code platform.
So, the challenges are the maintenance of integrations within a disrupted technology space, and these have gotten better over the years, because most platforms have started to open their product solution architecture in terms of how external data connections can be configured within the platform, where the logic lives, how code is integrated, how to structure the data and so forth.
But the other major challenges—perhaps even more than integration—are the user interface and experience, features and potentials that low-code platforms offer. The degree to which these capabilities can match the advance of rich internet applications and modern UI/UX frameworks is key to low-code functionality being embraced across a broader group of stakeholders.
"I’d say data management control, external integration and human-centered design support are some of the biggest challenges for low-code platforms in the federal agency space."
Adapting Critical Workflows on the Fly
Appian: Buikema, in what ways does low-code offer federal agencies the most bang for the buck?
Buikema: I think it’s in helping customers adapt to high-velocity policy or process changes that come down from new policies and regulations. Recent examples include the American Rescue Plan Act or the changes to unemployment insurance policies that need to happen in real-time. You have situations now where massive agencies and departments like HUD (Housing and Urban Development), FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), and DOL (Department of Labor) have to quickly adapt to new legislation that says they have to change the way they’ve reported to Congress in some cases for decades.
But making that change means updating numerous legacy systems that are using different technologies. At best, you're talking about a 6-to-12-month effort, which is mission failure right off the bat.
"If you had built this reporting functionality with a low-code platform, you could edit the fields, you could edit the forms, you could adapt the workflows in real-time."
Non-developers could actually make those changes, as long as you've got some guardrails in place. That kind of speed and flexibility represents a tremendously high ROI (return on investment) for agencies.