The Innovative Edge of Smaller Federal Agencies

An issue often facing federal IT modernization efforts is the question: Is my agency too small to modernize? The truth is that smaller agencies can turn their position into an opportunity to be the tip of the spear in government modernization.

You have some unique opportunities for leadership. Adopting the mindset and perspective of a private sector disruptor can open the door to making change far more quickly then can larger, more bureaucratic peers who are subject to very detailed oversight and lengthy approval cycles. Think of the Ubers, Lyfts, and Airbnb’s of the world. They disrupted the market because their size allowed them to be more agile than their competitors. Smaller agencies can take advantage of this same lack of institutional inertia to drive modernization. Smaller can mean streamlined approval chains compared to big agencies and organizations, and while agencies must continue to adhere to regulations, smaller agencies can be more agile than larger ones thanks to this streamline methodology. This can mean taking lower risk opportunities for a little experimentation.

Ultimately, a key factor is maximizing your existing resources. Asking yourself, “How can we maximize what we have available?” Smaller agency budgets often don’t support funding for IT development, modernization, and enhancement – DME funds as they’re often called. Yet your need to modernize still exists. Assess your existing budgets and couple your priorities with your mission needs and identify creative opportunities to use operations and maintenance, ONM funds, versus DME funds. Exercise the full potential of different colors of money. Industry has responded with promoting the as-a-service model, which enables smaller agencies to procure and benefit from leading-edge solutions, turning development and modernization spending into ongoing operating expenditures that allow you to modernize without such a significant investment. This enables you to leverage technology advances without having to bear the cost, time, and skill burdens of new development efforts.

Additionally, you can focus on incremental upgrades such as new software advances that incorporate automation of daily tasks. Applying these advances as upgrades to solutions already used in technology in your technology stack will help you quickly benefit from technological innovations as part of your ongoing operations and maintenance budgets. Automating many capabilities will also streamline the learning curve for the next generation of government workers, many of whom are accustomed to adopting new technologies in their lives.

When looking at how to modernize, execute incrementally and deliberately. Approach new ideas through pilot programs that can make changes far more manageable. Start by focusing on the benefits that particular innovation can bring to an individual department. Identify that department’s users, understand their main mission needs, and make incremental modernization efforts that improve their ability to meet them. Smaller agencies enjoy the advantage of needing fewer people to buy in. Take for example a scenario where the IT team at the Department of Agriculture may pilot an innovative idea with the Farm Service Bureau, making notable improvements to those operations, leading to happy FSA customers. As word spreads across greater departments, more sub-agencies will see the possibilities and benefits. 

Ultimately, think critically. Innovation depends upon expanded thinking. One useful technique is to ask yourself, how do I deal with this in my personal life and how can I do it here? Does it require me to spend six months in order to make a purchase online? No! If I need groceries, I order them from an approved vendor, my Amazons of the world, and it is delivered to me almost instantly. Keep in mind that no plan needs to be bulletproof. Focus on positive outcomes that are possible through innovation, that will not only bring a beneficial impact to your users but will also improve your IT organization’s own operational efficiency. What’s important is to think critically and objectively about how things can be done better and avoid the mindset of “we’ve always done it this way” syndrome. Attending conferences is a great way to get an overview of industry and technology developments that can inspire creative energy. 

Additionally, look to scenarios where you can share services and combine resources. Shared services and joint purchasing arrangements offer additional paths to modernization. Smaller agencies have often struggled with the best way to procure new technology, but today we have government-wide acquisition contracts such as NASA’s Solutions for Enterprise-Wide Procurement or SEWP that are available to streamline the acquisition of equipment and services from a pre-authorized list of resellers. Another option is to consider applying to the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF), where projects are reviewed by a board of government leaders with proven expertise in technology, transformation, and operations. Approved projects receive incremental funding outside of their traditional budget and technical expertise to ensure overall modernization success.

In addition, consider combining forces with another agency that wants to make a specific change in its own IT modernization effort. Reach out to peers and identify opportunities to pool resources. Even if the same solution impacts both missions differently, there can still be benefits from sharing a common service, like multi-tenant data infrastructure, analytics platforms, cybersecurity monitoring, or on-premises file sync-and-share services. Consider government private cloud solutions, provided by organizations such as USDA’s Digital Infrastructure Services Center (DISC) and GSA’s Quality Service Management Office (QSMO).

Ultimately, the goal is to do more with less. This doesn’t mean losing the resources you need; it means being more efficient with the resources you have. Even with limited DME budgets there are many paths to affect positive change. A cultural shift can propel smaller agencies to be innovation leaders that set a new bar for agencies across the federal government and beyond. 

In short, your IT modernization efforts should focus on building a foundation for modern mission infrastructure. Seek solutions that support any workload, that are flexible, that can right-size to your needs and service levels. Solutions that are focused on capabilities – not products. Futureproof your investments and find options that can grow with you to ultimately unlock the value of your mission data.