Turning modernization upside down
Last week, I presented in Illinois about approaches to application modernization in government. The room was packed. I think this is a reflection of the multiple trends in government making modernization both more pressing yet even trickier to navigate. Agencies need to modernize because systems are old, budgets are slim, and demand for services is higher than ever. I routinely talk to agencies that are running enterprise system built in the 70’s. These systems are tricky to update to reflect policy changes and it’s getting harder to find qualified people to do the updates. Systems are strained because the economic situation has driven case loads through the roof—as an example; some states have seen TANF caseloads increase 20-30% in the last year. Yet, budgets have gone the other way—state budget shortfalls of 10%+ are the norm. This means agencies are looking to modernize technology to both save money and to more efficiently deliver services.
The challenge is that enterprise software often becomes very system-centric not user-centric. Front-line staff is left interacting with numerous back end, often green-screen, applications. Caseworkers and other staff are bouncing between numerous systems and manually looking up or duplicating information across systems. Users of systems, whether they are citizens or front-line staff, aren’t interested in enterprise software. They are interested in efficiently getting or delivering a service.
So a new and different perspective on modernizing is to approach it from the top down; from the end-users perspective—effectively turning modernization upside down. The idea is to put a new layer, a citizen interaction layer, between the end user and existing back end, legacy systems. This layer is to empower citizens with a more intuitive self-service interface and staff with integrated tools that better reflect how they work. The citizen interaction layer presents a more intuitive, holistic interface for the service. And it is accomplished by integrating and presenting information at the citizen interaction layer, not by necessarily rip-and-replacing a slew of existing back end systems. In addition, by abstracting away from back end system with this layer, it allows later upgrading of back-end systems in a more controlled fashion while maintaining the existing interface for users.
A good example of the top-down approach was a modernization effort by Southwark, a Borough in London. Southwark provides over 230 services to over 250,000 citizens for everything from housing benefits to parking permits. And some of the issues that drove the need to modernize were a web of systems that took a long time to learn how to use for call center reps (up two 2 years) and slower than desired benefits delivery (36 days in some cases). To deal with this, Southwark put a layer in front of their existing CRM and legacy applications that provides an intuitive, integrated interface for users. This layer reduced costs by $1.7 million and sped up service delivery. Services that used to take 36 days on average now take 1 day. In addition, training time for call center reps has sped up to 2 days because of the simplified, streamlined handling of service applications.
Now, I don’t want to imply the traditional bottom up view of modernization is bad. It’s not. But there is more than one approach that might make sense. When thinking about modernization to reduce costs and improve service delivery, don’t forget that one approach can be to turn modernization on its head. Start from the users in (not systems out) and modernize how front-line staff and citizens access and interact with systems. This can minimize the need for rip-and-replace yet still get you closer to your end goal—efficient delivery of government services.