Jun 23 2021

The IT Infrastructure Needed to Support Modern Digital Government

There is no single solution that can enable agencies to deploy digital services, but IT leaders and industry analysts say a clear strategy is needed.

The ideal vision of government services many IT leaders are moving toward is a digital one, in which residents have a single identity to access government services, which are intelligently linked.

Agencies would know that a resident uses multiple government services and would be able to offer more tailored services based on that data, or there would be a single portal residents could access that covers requirements and forms from multiple agencies. All of this would be mobile-friendly and not tied to paper-based processes.

Many state and local governments have used the coronavirus pandemic to expand their use of digital services, and many more want to. The technology needed to enable these services largely leverages cloud resources but is varied and includes everything from tools to connect application programming interfaces to database technologies and analytics.

The adoption of these technologies is complex and likely will not happen overnight. Yet IT leaders and industry analysts say that it is important for governments to have a clear strategy and keep their goal in mind, which is to connect with and provide better services to citizens.

RELATED: Explore the technology and approaches needed to quickly enable digital government.

The Foundational Technologies Needed for Digital Government

The pandemic brought into stark relief many legacy government applications that have existed for decades on mainframes or on-premises data centers without the flexibility or scalability to meet rapidly ballooning demands from citizens. This was most evident in state unemployment insurance systems that got crushed in 2020 by a tidal wave of demand and could not keep up.

“There’s still a big chunk of it that’s mainframe,” says Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at StorageIO, an IT consulting firm in Stillwater, Minn. “How much of what’s on the mainframe will get moved onto something more modern, something more open, whether it’s on-prem or in the cloud. I think you just see that continued trend of things moving and migrating off.”

Many government IT leaders continue to see the cloud as both the foundation of and gateway to modern digital service delivery. This is due to its scalability and the fact that it frees IT staff to focus less on managing networking and storage and more on the applications themselves.

“We’re a cloud-smart organization, where if it can go in the cloud and it makes sense to go in the cloud, we’re putting in the cloud,” says Vermont CIO John Quinn.

Quinn says state IT staff “have no business running a data center” because of a lack of funding and skill sets to run a top-tier data center. The state’s goal, he says, is to find and work with cloud companies that can protect state data such as Criminal Justice Information Services data or data protected by HIPAA.

John Quinn Vermont CIO
We’re a cloud-smart organization, where if it can go in the cloud and it makes sense to go in the cloud, we’re putting in the cloud.”

John Quinn Vermont CIO

In Colorado, last year the state unveiled a program dubbed Reimagine IT, designed to enact Gov. Jared Polis’s vision “to build increased agency IT accountability and ownership, collaborative IT governance and oversight, and a more nimble and process-oriented IT organization.”

Colorado CIO Tony Neal-Graves says the program, which got underway in the third quarter of 2020 and has a timeline of 24 months, covers everything from how the state deploys new digital services to the decommissioning of legacy systems. It also encompasses elements such as IT talent development, IT financial management, cybersecurity, and IT leadership and governance.

“I believe cloud has to play a very important piece in this,” Neal-Graves says. He adds that while the state’s position is that it wants to move as much data to the cloud as possible, there will be some data that needs to reside in on-premises environments for security reasons. “So, it probably will be some kind of a hybrid thing,” he says.

While many agencies have shifted data and applications to the cloud to cut down on capital expenditures, Schulz says many have seen their operating costs balloon and are not seeing a reduction in management costs. In other words, it’s not a panacea.

“Go back in and look at optimizing your cloud spend,” he advises. “Do you have the right resources for the application? Are you starving it or are you saturating it with too much? Go back and look at where you are really spending that money. How much of it is being spent on management? Because even if you go to the cloud, you still have management costs to take care of it, to feed it and all those things.”

Connecting Data Across Disparate Government Services

One of the holy grails of digital government services is to give each citizen a single experience and ID to access services and interact with the government entity. That involves breaking down data silos at different individual agencies, making service delivery more streamlined and giving citizens a single sign-on experience.

States are moving in that direction. For example, former Ohio CIO Ervan Rodgers tells StateTech that the Buckeye State has developed an identity management solution called OHID. The identity platform runs on IBM’s SAML platform.

“Each resident of Ohio has a single account to access all government services,” he says. “Our goal is ultimately to enable residents to conduct all business with the government without ever having to enter a government office. So far, it’s been a great success. We cannot keep up with the demand for the service.”

In Vermont, Quinn says that as the state builds digital licensing and permitting systems, as well as new front-end digital government service portals, it is using tools such as those from Mulesoft to connect its APIs together and create “a consistent architectural design.”

Vermont is also using Salesforce tools to share data across the state and have granular control over the data and fields on state applications.

That allows the state to “put these things together behind the scenes to give not only the customer a single pane of glass into what they’re trying to do, but our business partners across state government as well.”

Colorado is still trying to define the architecture that would enable data to be linked across all of its agencies.

Tony Neal-Graves, Colorado CIO
The underlying technology to do these kinds of things isn’t that hard.”

Tony Neal-Graves Colorado CIO

“What we haven’t done is an effective job of being able to share that information in an appropriate way that maintains confidentiality and those kinds of things, so that you can think about creating new services,” he says. “Because there’s a direct linkage between whether or not somebody is getting health benefits and may need food assistance.”

Currently, residents need to connect with individual agencies for different government services, he notes, “as opposed to us being able to provide those services, because the person can approach government one time and say, ‘Here’s who I am.’”

Neal-Graves, who spent 16 years at Intel before joining state government in 2017, says that in the private sector it’s natural to treat data as something owned by the entire enterprise. In state government, agencies are “the masters of their domains” in terms of the data they own and manage, he says.

The architecture Colorado is developing needs to clearly grant permission to users and applications to access certain data sets, since not every user or app will need to or should access all other state data.

“The underlying technology to do these kinds of things isn’t that hard,” Neal-Graves says. “I think the hard part is really setting up the appropriate policies and controls so that you know how to manage that data. That’s the part that we’re trying to sort through.”

The technology needed to make those linkages could be as simple as adding an export or query capability to an old application or modifying databases such that external queries can access them, Schulz says. That can be done in a “safe, secure manner where you’re not actually introducing new threats or compromising that data,” he says, via programmatic APIs and other similar capabilities.

“The capabilities are out there, maybe not as elegant as some would like, but it really does come back to the policies around who can access” the data, Schulz says. “What, when, where, why and how can you grant those rights, those accesses, and how can you revoke the access in those controls so that you don’t have an inadvertent breach?”

Schulz adds: “Good news is if everything is connected. The bad news is if everything is connected, just think of the remedies.”

COMPLIMENTARY RESOURCES: Get the tools you need to modernize your IT infrastructure.

The Path Ahead for Digital Government Service Creation

The road to the holy grail of digital service delivery is a winding one, and many state and local agencies are still in the early stages of the journey.

“It’s a long, tough road to get to where we need to be,” Neal-Graves says. The state has had some early success with its myColorado digital ID, but Neal-Graves says this is “just scratching the surface.”

“The challenge that we have with those types of applications is that we’re trying to do new things on a very old legacy infrastructure. That’s why that investment to try to bring that stuff forward is so important,” he adds.

Schulz says IT leaders should take a step back and consider what factors are preventing applications from being moved off legacy mainframes and architectures. Maybe there isn’t reliable source code or the app is too fragile or there aren’t enough people with the right skill sets to modernize the apps. Over the years, developers may have put in place hooks or APIs that tied apps to particular systems.

“That’s the bad news,” Schulz says. “What’s the good news? Don’t do it again, unless you’re not going to worry about what happens in 10, 20 years from now.”

RELATED: States can follow Montana’s lead on moving off of mainframes. 

IT officials and workers may be tempted to repeat the same approach and tie themselves to a newer service from a vendor partner due to a really appealing feature, Schulz says. “So, there is that opportunity of moving forward and learning from the lessons of the past,” he says.

Quinn says everything Vermont is doing “is done by design to be able to make it easier later on to put these systems together, to integrate and provide a platform to the citizens that will always be up to date and won’t have to be supported on the back end by a workforce here at the state.”

Vermont IT staff will be able to “be experts in the actual application, but we won’t be having to do things like updates to the servers. We won’t need to be doing updates to the application, necessarily, from a security patch standpoint,” he says. “We won’t need to be upgrading our data center.”

“These are all things that will give us the ability to focus in on our customers, the business users, Vermonters,” Quinn notes, “and to really focus on becoming experts on those applications to provide the best service possible.”