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The public sector modernization paradox — and how to overcome it

With multi-year budgets and tight controls, public sector modernization projects need to deliver value fast. So, how can teams make big complex changes happen?

Modernizing systems and software in the public sector isn’t easy. Compared to the private sector, budgets for digital change are harder to secure, the stakeholder landscape is more complex, and there is the high degree of scrutiny associated with spending public funds to factor in to your plans.  Finally, there are different levels of policy and regulation from one public sector organization to the next, so there is no easy ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Over the last 18 months we have seen the rise of a new kind of responsive government, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the shut-down of in-person services meant organizations had to adapt quickly to online and mobile delivery. Initiatives such as ‘track and trace’ meant multiple government bodies needed to integrate data more closely. Finally, the rise in cyber threats has brought increased attention to providing  best-in-class security.  However, many of these changes have modified user facing aspects, without addressing some of the underlying frameworks that will make public sector organizations more adaptable and secure in the future, such as managing legacy technology. 

The need to change is clear. But, many of the barriers to progress that have held the public sector back for decades remain.

In the race to value, strategy loses

Public sector projects suffer from the time pressures of political cycles such as parliamentary terms, or are often focussed on supporting a policy launch date. This means they have to deliver measurable value to a constrained time frame. Budget holders understandably want to see their policy outcomes delivered, so they can demonstrate that they are delivering to the organization and the people it serves.

But, that pressure has created a serious problem across the sector. The focus on deadline driven, demonstrable value means that many modernization projects only tackle the issues closest to the surface to achieve the outcome of the policy, and fail to address any of the underlying infrastructure challenges or organzational changes required to make changes stick.

Take something like the modernization of a local council’s citizen service portal, for example. It’s a major project that demands significant investment, with the aim of improving citizen experiences. Done right, the council should see strong efficiency and citizen satisfaction gains. But, without modernizing any of the infrastructure behind the portal — the data structures and systems that support the services delivered through it — the potential for improvement is extremely limited.

The result is a new portal that citizens like and find easy to engage with. That’s a win for citizens. But, from a modernization perspective, their huge investment hasn’t really brought them any closer to being able to offer smarter services, use data in new ways, or respond faster to changing citizen needs.

The public sector modernization paradox

Let’s zoom out for a moment and consider the broad goals that most public sector organizations want modernization to help them achieve. Overwhelmingly, teams want to:
 

  • Make better use of their data, and offer new data-rich services
  • Keep up with an ever-changing regulatory landscape and evolving citizen expectations
  • Improve scalability to cope with demand spikes
  • Increase security and stay ahead of evolving cyber threats
  • Streamline the maintenance of core systems and cut the cost of keeping them running

The kinds of projects that offer clear, immediate value on a limited budget often don’t bring public sector teams any closer to meeting any of those goals. And that’s the paradoxical problem. They need to modernize core systems, but they can’t do that quickly or easily because their legacy monoliths are so complex.

So, the big question is: how can public sector teams start delivering modernization that tackles the deep-rooted issues with their legacy estate, while also delivering rapid value for users and citizens?

Thin-slice: Balancing fast value with long-term improvements

Thin-slice is an approach that ThoughtWorks has been using for years, and has become a key part of the ThoughtWorks and Amazon Web Services (AWS) Enterprise Modernization program. It helps ensure modernization and development projects deliver rapid value, while also kickstarting long-term transformation and providing the first steps towards achieving bigger, broader IT goals.

The process begins with a detailed discovery exercise. We dig into what organizations want to achieve, cast a wide net to find the best ways to do that, and work back to the technology needed to make it happen — uncovering the barriers between the team and its value-driven goals.

That enables us to design a very special kind of project; one that has the potential to deliver fast value for both organizations and users, while also going deep, making targeted changes at the lower tiers of IT. That’s the thin slice — a carefully chosen, discrete flagship project that’s also a powerful first step towards solving underlying legacy IT challenges and driving the organizational change needed to make modernization stick and deliver long-term value. 

Thin-slice delivery helps public sector teams do things that they’ve found challenging (or even impossible) for years. It gives them the opportunity to:
 

  • Practically demonstrate the value of deeper modernization aimed at the lower tiers of IT
  • Start somewhere, and build an iterative plan for further modernization around an already successful starting point
  • Move towards having tougher conversations around things like the need for complete mainframe modernization — projects with intimidating scope that can’t be ignored forever

ThoughtWorks and AWS: Enabling public sector modernization together

Because thin-slice aims to deliver rapid business value while supporting long-term strategic modernization, it demands both deep technical capabilities and a strong understanding of the needs of public sector organizations and the people they serve. That’s where the collaboration between ThoughtWorks and AWS comes in.

ThoughtWorks brings decades of modernization experience, skilled cross-functional teams who can identify thin slices in even the most complex landscapes, process and culture expertise to help your people embrace the technology you deploy and adapt to new ways of working. AWS brings best-of-breed cloud services and capabilities, and a commitment to helping public sector organizations meet rising citizen expectations, address the new needs of modern society, and become more responsive to regulatory and systematic change.

Our collaboration brings together the technology, expertise, and insight needed to discover, plan, and execute public sector modernization projects that deliver measurable value today, while kickstarting long-term transformation. 

To find out more about how ThoughtWorks and AWS Institute can help you break down the barriers to effective public sector modernization, visit our partnership page, or speak to an expert today.

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