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Forget the Dire Headlines. Federal IT Modernization Could Be Closer Than you Think, Part 2

Roland Alston, Appian
February 21, 2022

In a world in which digital transformation is spreading like wildfire, it’s hard for the government to win public trust with bad digital services. In fact, the federal government lags the private sector on customer satisfaction, scoring lower than any other industry or sector studied according to research firm Forrester. But federal CIOs are tapping into a low-code trend that could turn things around, which brings us to the final installment of our two-part conversation with Kirke Everson, Principal, Low-code Practice Leader, US Government and Public Sector at KPMG.

The promise of digital government never dies. These days, it caroms around the internet with remarkable use cases and trends that signify success. But for an inside look at the current state of digital transformation in the public sector, stay tuned as KPMG's Everson breaks down the rise of human-machine collaboration in government, decodes how low-code is helping agencies optimize customer experience, and spills the tea on why federal CIOs are betting on low-code to streamline acquisition and operations and innovate faster than ever before. The questions have been edited for clarity and brevity. 


You’ve argued that digital transformation—artificial intelligence, back-office automation, and the rest—have become a driving force in federal IT modernization. But you've also reminded us of the importance of re-engineering bad processes and not automating processes that are broken. So, I wonder what you make of the convergence we’re seeing now in process automation and low-code development in government and elsewhere?


I think they're almost synonymous—low-code and process automation. I would say that when you’re looking at automation, you don't want to just prove the technology works. Many agencies are getting past proof of concept and going right to a limited implementation. In the past, you documented the processes you wanted to automate, did a gap analysis, and then filled the gaps. But it was all very much a manual process with humans involved in the workflows.

Today, process automation is about human-machine collaboration.

And so, now when I'm looking at automating a process, I may look at automating the front end via RPA or ingesting different data sets from what used to be a manual process with someone logging into five or six different systems. Then I can use low-code to re-engineer the processes based on threshold-based approvals. That approach reduces the infrastructure and human labor cost of automating processes. It just makes sense to automate and re-engineer your processes at the same time.


Let’s switch gears and talk about the explosion of artificial intelligence (AI) and the impact it will have on the federal workforce and how government agencies will operate in the future. What are your thoughts on that?


The government is organizing around AI. For example, the DOD (Department of Defense) just reorganized and combined their AI with their data analytics efforts. So, they basically created a chief data and AI officer position that oversees AI, digital, and data across the entire organization. I think agencies are making the investments and the organizational changes to keep up with the growth of AI and automation. 

So, I think as you create those constructs at the very highest levels of government, it sends a message to the workforce that this is an important part of achieving our mission and strategy. The way that that impacts the workforce, especially with a low-code platform, is that you’re seeing the democratization of AI and data analytics.

With low-code, you don’t have to be uber technical to use AI and other technologies to develop solutions that five or 10 years ago would’ve required a team of developers to implement. 


There’s also a lot of expert commentary about the citizen developer trend.  I wonder what you make of the argument that getting non-developers involved in application development—with governance and guardrails—could drive the future of digital transformation. Has citizen development caught on in the federal government?


We’re seeing the standup of citizen development programs at federal agencies. In fact, we were on a call today providing some suggestions on how to do that by looking at the current cohort of employees in your government agency and finding ways to get them involved in leveraging automation via low-code solutions. And that kind of engagement creates excitement. It boosts workforce morale, and it allows workers to rethink how they’re getting work done. Each agency is reevaluating their digital strategies annually because the pace of change and enhancements to solutions is changing almost on a quarterly basis. And so, having a digital strategy that's looking out five years won’t cut it. 

It’s almost like you have to revisit your digital transformation strategy every year. And that includes the human element—the workforce. So, I go back to the citizen developer trend, the democratization of AI, all of these things are permeating the day-to-day operations of government agencies and employees. And I think it's an exciting time to be in the federal workforce.


Which leads to another question I wanted to touch on which is the argument that the biggest barrier to digital transformation is cultural resistance to change. As you think about that argument and about what you just said about low-code and the democratization of application development, how does low-code fit into the change management conversation?


I would say the idea of change management and resistance to change impacts every organization. We see it in the private sector as well. Anytime you bring transformation into the picture, there's going to be an aspect of change management. So, I would say that's going to be a factor with any large organization looking to do low-code development and digital transformation. 

But what we've also seen is that as we start to educate the workforce and get them involved in the process—like the programs I mentioned earlier around citizen development—people get excited about how these solutions can make their lives easier with workflow solutions.  I think one of the biggest actual resistances to change is just the long procurement cycles you see in government. 

But the good news is agencies are getting creative. For example, you've got the Navy’s Information Warfare Research Projects where low-code is being used to prototype workflow solutions.

The Department of Commerce has the National Technical Information Service’s joint venture program that leverages digital innovation procurement in a rapid way. These are just some of the ways that government agencies are trying to streamline acquisition and operations and get innovative a lot quicker. Finally, another barrier to innovation in government is more procedural, like getting a platform approved, getting the authorities to operate on agency networks, getting security accreditation and the like. But once you get a low-code platform approved, building applications on them is so much easier than before.


We’re in the home stretch. But before we call it a wrap, I want you to look over the horizon and tell me if you're hopeful about the future of IT modernization, low-code and digital transformation in the public sector in 2022 and beyond. 


I’m hopeful. The way forward on developing applications for government agencies is rapid prototyping and implementation of solutions like low-code to quickly optimize delivery of citizen services. The days of taking five or 10 years to stand up a large enterprise-wide system are over. Today, agencies can't wait that long. So, having the ability to stand up a mission-critical application in a week to satisfy a new requirement, or to meet a new demand, you can't wait years for that, you can't even wait months in some cases. 

Again, I think the executive order the president signed recently underscores the urgency of accelerating digital transformation in government.

I think public sector CIOs recognize their agencies really need to prioritize customer experience. It's long overdue. The roadblock is legacy IT. So, how do you overcome that challenge and get speed to value? It's going to be through technologies like low-code.

It’s going to be through automation. And it’s going to be through leveraging AI. These solutions are like arrows in the quiver that agencies can use to improve customer experience. I think low-code is here to stay, and I'm excited about the solutions low-code will bring to agencies in the future.

(PS: if you missed part one, you can read it here.)