Today, my smart home can give my dog treats while I’m at work and preheat the oven while I’m on my way home. So why is it that I can still expect to fill out – and mail in – endless forms in order to apply for unemployment? My smart phone can tell me how long I’ve slept and how well. So why do I still need to bring paper copies of my health record whenever I visit a new doctor, to ensure I receive proper care?

It is no secret that the public sector in general and governmental agencies in particular have fallen behind in the global push towards digitalization. Last December, the Biden Administration issued an executive order entitled “Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government.”1 It was the latest in a string of modernization mandates over the past several years built to change the way federal, state, and local agencies manage and deliver digital citizen services.

This pressure, from both citizens themselves as well as the executive office, has certainly had an effect. State and local governments spend more and more of their budgets on information technology every year – from $103 billion in 2017 to $118.7 billion in 2021.2 And last year, the National Association of Chief Information Officers ranked digital government services among its top priorities for 2022.3

Yet to make a digital-first approach a reality in the public sector, an operational model shift is necessary to give governments the tools for the future. In other words, agencies cannot provide impactful citizen services without an integrated, digital workflow. The swift action we witnessed in the early days of the pandemic proved that progress of this kind is possible. It’s time to double down on that momentum in order to bring citizens the type of outstanding digital services they’ve come to expect as consumers.

State and local governments spend more and more of their budgets on information technology every year – from $103 billion in 2017 to $118.7 billion in 2021.

2021 State and Local Annual IT Spending

Industry Navigator, Mar. 2020

Pivot to work-from-home

Before the pandemic, most governmental agencies ran nearly exclusively on a traditional office model. In spring of 2020, however, many were forced to pivot to a work-from-home approach. Faced with inarguable necessity, these organizations rose to the occasion, moving meetings and hearings online and organizing the tech needed to give their staff the means to work both remotely and securely.4

Meanwhile, front-line organizations quickly formed new and productive partnerships with the private sector in order to bring stability and clarity to unprecedented times, from governmental contracts enabling companies such as GM to produce ventilators5 to the CDC’s interactive, AI-powered clinical assessment tool, developed using Microsoft’s Healthcare Bot service6.

These were vital advancements, which answered pressing needs. They were also, for the most part, short-term solutions. I believe we can learn from the success of that early pandemic push towards digitalization, leveraging these new insights towards a truly digital-first approach – one that will maximize agility, boost national security, and improve the lives of citizens.

Because, while we’ve witnessed great strides in digitalization over the past few years, we’ve also had a front row seat to the downfalls of traditional operational models. The agency websites that crashed when citizens were scrambling to gather information about what to do or how to act in the early days of the pandemic; the setbacks in productivity and performance that occurred due to unsteady work-from-home infrastructures; the devastating delays7 in unemployment payments to those who needed them the most. We are living through times of great instability – of global security threats; of economic flux; of environmental crises. Our governments need to be able to adapt, evolve, and react to this volatile political and societal landscape to remain competitive and secure.

Shift in mindset

An operational shift of this scale, however, requires a shift in mindset, too. This is about fostering a culture of close collaboration between all stakeholders involved – from operations and IT to HR and finance – and preparing your team for what can seem a formidable, even unsurmountable task. In short, we must work from the outside in to develop a customer-centric model that can guarantee uninterrupted delivery; enable workforces to adapt in the face of uncertainties; and perhaps, most importantly, anticipate the needs of customers and citizens.

I firmly believe that the public sector has no other choice than to makes these shifts to achieve the digital transformation needed to future-proof our governments and agencies – and, by extension, to give citizens the incentive they need to take full advantage of public services for their careers, health, and happiness. Getting there, however, takes time, patience, and the support and guidance of an IT services partner.

Start small

The key to a successful digital transformation journey is to prevent challenges – many of those inherent to this process – from becoming roadblocks. Here’s how.

We know that embarking on this journey can be daunting. Which is why I often encourage our customers to start small. Start with education and open communication, readying your team to embrace this new model and structure of operations. Once this understanding becomes integrated into the fabric of the workplace, future teams will be able to spend less time down in the weeds and more time thinking about what digitalization will allow you to achieve.

Costs of inertia

After our customers have set sail, there arise more tangible concerns too.

When it comes to the public sector, funding – or lack thereof – often stands in the way of progress. Today, however, with programs such the American Rescue Plan Act or the Infrastructure Investment and Job Act – granting federal, state, and local governments the chance to invest in modernization technologies – agencies and organizations can access the funding they need to get started.

At the same time, it’s equally important to consider the costs of inertia. In other words: What does your team stand to lose, if you choose not to innovate?

For example: One of our customers, the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES), knew how important it was for them to be able to offer citizens access to its online services at any hour of the day, seven days a week. If they couldn’t, requests for assistance might get lost, their service centers might have to turn to paper processes, and delays would become inevitable. After several, extended outages, however, the agency realized that attempting to achieve this on their legacy mainframe was a fool’s errand. With our help, their team decided instead to migrate to a mainframe-as-a-service solution, which allowed them to deliver on their goal of uninterrupted social services, while granting them the space to grow and scale.

Cross-functional teams

Of course, progress such as this doesn’t happen overnight. (In the case of DES, for example, migrating the mainframe took no less than eight months.) In order to mitigate unnecessary delays, agencies need to tackle these efforts by way of cross-functional teams. Part of that general mindset shift required of this process is to encourage teams to work across departments. Free from traditional, competency-based structures, organizations can avoid those siloes that so often plague large, agency-wide transformation efforts.

Meanwhile, by “working backwards” from the ultimate technical solution to the front-end user experience, agencies can execute collaboratively – to produce the best result for those who rely on the services they provide.

Take, for example, one of our other customers: An underserved public school system striving to provide digital equity to its students both before and during the pandemic. By keeping a customer-first approach, we worked with the different stakeholders involved to modernize the network infrastructure for each of the schools – tailoring each environment for the individual school’s needs. Now, the school system has a wireless network with 100% coverage, giving every student and every teacher access to the internet via a secure, robust, and reliable wireless connection.

No matter the scenario – no matter the stakes – one thing remains clear: the public sector must transform their traditional IT operating models to remain effective, relevant, and secure. Learn how Kyndryl is partnering with government agencies and public-sector organizations shaping the future of our schools, cities, and country today.