Modernization Requires a Balance of Everyday Operations With Innovation

Modernization Requires a Balance of Everyday Operations With Innovation

Leaders from NIH, HUD and DOT discuss strategies in balancing improvements during shifting priorities.

Balancing modernization and everyday operations is a challenge agencies consistently face. In the face of that, many departments across the federal government are focusing on shifting organizational and workforce needs, testing and agility to strike a balance.

At the National Institutes of Health's Center for IT, COVID-19 showcased this necessity to triage IT resources and personnel to continue work amid new pandemic-induced challenges.

This led to a "strategic pause" for the office's 2020 strategic modernization plans to support ongoing operations amid the pandemic, noted its Deputy Director Stacie Alboum.

“It’s actually better that we took that pause, because now we’re looking toward the future of work and supporting that vision and our people,” Alboum said at an ATARC event Tuesday. “We’re going to be shifting to some form of hybrid environment, and you can do hybrid well. You can do hybrid poorly. … We need to really take some time to assess and evaluate and experiment with what that looks like for NIH.

Alboum said that the new hybrid work environment that NIH is embracing has made her reconsider plans for both normal operations and modernization. This has included expanding and tweaking current operations and work, such as digital services, while also introducing new solutions to address upcoming needs, like making a hybrid work environment equitable through technology.

“This includes equitable access to the tools that people need to do their jobs and really thinking about all the populations as we implement more digital workplaces and shift to some form of hybrid,” Alboum said. “We are creating our vision for the future of work. … We’re really focused on flexibility because we have people where their work is not flexible.”

While most telework models are based on where employees are located, Alboum said NIH wants to move toward human-centric telework, meaning that the institutes want to not just enable flexibility about where their employees work, but when and how they work. This future-facing direction, she said, has required IT operations and transformation to meet NIH’s organizational and personnel needs.

Other agencies are also setting up their agencies to harmonize innovation and everyday enterprise support. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Ginnie Mae is doing this by testing innovative ideas in a testing environment before deploying new solutions across the agency.

Ginnie Mae has more specifically supported innovation testing with its Innovation Lab. The agency’s Emerging Technologies and Innovation Director Omar Bouaichi explained that the lab has enabled Ginnie Mae to continue normal operations while encouraging new ways to modernize.

“We have three distinct areas. One is running our operations. That needs to run without any disturbance, without any challenges,” Bouaichi said. “The other one is modernization, so modernization is bringing Ginnie Mae to the cloud and making sure that there is enhancement and that we’re keeping all the standard patching security requirements of our current systems. … The third area that we added is innovation. For us, we started our Innovation Lab, where we welcome the vendors, we welcome solutions that have not been tested, that needs to be assessed by Ginnie Mae so we can understand its impact.”

Bouaichi added that the Innovation Lab acts as a “safe area zone” for new solutions and technologies to come in. The lab applies innovative technologies to different use cases across Ginnie Mae to understand whether to deploy at scale across the agency. Since launching two years ago, the lab has tested and introduced new technologies to Ginnie Mae, like robotic process automation and machine learning.  

While Ginnie Mae has its Innovation Lab, the Department of Transportation is using Agile methodology as its avenue for introducing new technologies while maintaining normal IT operations. The agency's Principal Solutions Architect Edward Dowgiallo said that before COVID-19, his agency was relatively modernized, with its infrastructure largely in the cloud and applying Agile frameworks. With this in mind, his team dedicates time in their sprints to innovative.

“We make sure that there’s technical debt incorporated into every single spring, but 20% of the team’s work ideally goes towards other things, which can be, for example, innovation,” Dowgiallo said. “We might decide, rather than to spin out another contract, to use some of the existing cycles in that sprint to do RPA integration. That’s where we tested RPA for the first time to see how it would work with two systems talking to each other.”

Dowgiallo said that many of the innovative technologies his team introduces in their sprints start with smaller investments and grow iteratively with each cycle, allowing them to learn and respectively scale each time around.