Digital Modernization in Government: Updating Legacy Systems

August 23, 2022
Digital Modernization in Government: Updating Legacy Systems

See all three parts of this series on our VAS Federal page

It is no secret that many government agencies use digital systems past their end of life. Many of these programs were developed decades ago, and have become so ingrained in the agency’s digital architecture that it becomes tempting not to make any major disruptions. However, just how much are these legacy systems costing the agency? 

Part two of this three-part series looks into why legacy systems have become problematic and breaks down the true expense. Our team of experts shares different options to consider when updating legacy systems and common challenges with internal and external compatibility. 

The Cost of Legacy Systems

A 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that just 10 legacy systems used in the U.S government are costing $337 million per year to operate. The report analyzed 65 computer systems government agencies use that are out of date. The report then broke down the most at-risk systems to give a rating on criticality and security risk. In some cases, the systems these agencies used were over 50 years old

These legacy systems cost taxpayers in more ways than one. The first is obviously financial. In 2016 the GAO released a report outlining that while the federal government spent $80 billion in 2015 on IT, more than 75% of that budget was spent on operations and maintenance and only 25% was spent on development, modernization, and enhancement efforts.

Secondly, many of these legacy systems are classified as obsolete by the various companies that help establish them in the first place. These legacy systems not only limit capabilities for the operators but also become difficult to update for bug and security updates because many of the coding languages used in these systems are no longer taught or commonly used. One system in the Air Force runs on COBOL, a language with a rapidly diminishing developer base. Maintenance on such a system costs a premium because so few IT experts are capable of working on the system. 

The report also found that the Interior Department uses an 18-year-old industrial system to control dams and power plants. While operating these systems provides a certain level of convenience, at the end of the day any issue could create catastrophic long-term problems. So while upgrading a system is costly and time-consuming, it pales in comparison to a total system failure. 

Deciding How to Upgrade Legacy Systems

Now we turn to the more complex question of how these different systems should be upgraded and what exactly will these modern systems look like. When making the decision to upgrade a system, it’s important to first ask, “what problem are we trying to solve” rather than, “what technology should we implement”? 

The first step in answering this question is to partner with an expert who has experience in defining pragmatic solutions and creating an actionable clear path forward when it comes to modernizing technology. In order to accomplish this, the journey starts with gaining an understanding of the technical operations of the current system and the agency’s political operations. Understanding both is key, as these systems are not just computers interacting with one another, they are humans interacting with each other through computer networks. 

Next, a review of both internal and external systems needs to be completed to understand what integrations apply. With varying budgets, priorities, and needs happening within large agencies everything won’t always align and not all systems will be upgraded at the same time. Therefore, the leaders and project managers facilitating the upgrade must have a high level of understanding of the external systems of other agencies. 

Finding the Right Solution

After these initial questions are answered, we must then define a solution that is able to work now and move with your agency well into the future. First, “are we rebuilding the foundation or just adding new capabilities”? Next, “is there a Commercial Off Shelf (CoTs) solution we can implement, or do we need to build out these new solutions from scratch”

If a CoTs is possible, that alleviates a lot of unnecessary work and clarifies the technical expertise needed to develop the solution. CoTs solutions typically have a lower price point than custom solutions for this reason and are backed by proven quality and support teams. Working with a partner, configurations can often be done to customize the solution for your agency's needs.

In some cases, a CoTs solution won’t be feasible to future-proof a government agency. Custom solutions encompass a wide range of options and are original pieces of software the agency can design. However, with this usually comes a high price point and these solutions become quickly overly complex when they are heavily customized. A common solution for those looking at custom solutions is to merge a CoTs with a custom solution, creating an all-encompassing piece of software that can scale into the future.

Real-World Examples

Transformation isn’t successful unless you set clear expectations and actively engage the organization to help drive the change. For example, the federal health exchange wanted to transition its systems to the cloud, which included more than 20 back-end IT systems and over 80 lifecycle environments. This large-scale migration required a strategic communications plan with consistent messaging tailored for different stakeholders. The disparate, on-premises data centers were successfully migrated to a unified cloud hosting environment, a major transformational change that has created more efficiency, security, and future scalability.

The Welsh Government also looked to modernize its technology, migrate to the cloud, and develop a strategy that was more aligned with the UK government’s policy. The project team planned how to deal with their legacy technology and services, keeping it well maintained and stable while designing the new architecture to take over the old architecture. With partner-guided cost optimization planning, the Welsh Government is now saving money and gaining from staff efficiency.

Future-Proof Your Agency

Updating legacy systems requires a breakdown of complexities, the ability to define measurable milestones, and move quickly to execute, learn, and iterate. The team at Van Allen Strategies works to provide future-proof solutions, guided by the needs of your agency and its users in order to impact relevant areas and organization functions.

Taking a holistic approach to system transformation, our team considers everything from agency culture to customer experience. Wherever your agency is on your technology journey, Van Allen can help you scale current investments, empower innovation, and build modern architecture for the future.

Learn more about our government solutions

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