Jun 06 2022

What Is Technical Debt in State and Local Governments?

Supporting legacy technology carries costs that often go unrecognized, particularly in complex systems.

At the recent midyear conference of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, state and local leaders agreed the pandemic had revealed the price of carrying legacy technologies, particularly those that may not have been implemented with best practices.

“Across the states, the maturity gap and the technical debt some of us had been holding onto were really exposed,” said Texas CIO Amanda Crawford at the NASCIO conference.

Technical debt refers to the costs associated with having to rework old solutions to support new needs, or the expense of carrying systems that require excessive care and feeding. By taking a hard look at their outdated IT infrastructure, state and local authorities can work to reduce their technical debt.

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What Is Technical Debt?

Technical debt can be measured in many ways. “There’s the need for modernization or replacement of IT capabilities or IT systems,” National Association of Counties CIO Rita Reynolds says of technical debt.

“State and local governments accumulate debt when they’re not able to regularly invest in major maintenance of their IT capabilities. Maybe the application or software is not supported any longer, but you keep running it because it works,” she says.

Government can build up such debt in a number of ways. It happens “when you quickly develop something, or you develop something to fix a hole, or you develop technology, but it might not meet all of the specifications,” says Afua Bruce, adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College.

RELATED: How states are handling technical debt.

“Even though it may work to stop a gap, it may work in the moment, at some point you will have to invest time to fix it or to develop something new. That’s putting off for tomorrow what you didn’t do today,” she says.

Debt ultimately translates into budget effects. “The need for additional resources — individuals, staffing, consulting — that’s also going to cost money,” Reynolds says. “It can also be strategic debt: Am I growing my knowledge and making good strategic decisions? You could have retirements, where the individual who knows how to operate or update these the older technologies is no longer is available.”

Do Shared Databases Pose Technical Debt Challenges?

Government has turned to shared databases as a means to enhance collaboration and improve citizen services. But this strategy can also add to the load of technical debt. “There’s potential for any type of tool or solution, or database in this case, to create technical debt,” Bruce says.

At the state and local government level, “people really want to get it right,” she says. “But because of time pressure or budget constraints, or the perceived importance of a specific shared database, shortcuts can be taken. Instead of spending all the time needed to accurately design what that shared database might look like, having enough time to define all of the fields, you start with some minimum viable product. That’s where you get the technical debt.”

Operational issues around the use of shared databases can potentially compound the debt problem. “There are questions about who owns which data within those shared databases, who is going to maintain the database overall and also the components of it,” Reynolds says.

LEARN MORE: How remote court hearings expand justice system access.

Say you have a unified case management system in the criminal justice sector. “You might not have a staff on board or the resources, like consulting services, to continue to grow it,” she says. “You’ve got the shared database in place, but now you’ve got technical debt around it because you need to maintain it over the long term. You also have to be very careful about who can see what, and if that’s not addressed properly, that is another form of technical debt.”

If you don’t have the resources or staffing in place to support a shared database, “then you’ve got huge technical debt,” Reynolds says. “That definitely should not be a hindrance for shared databases. In the long term, you can address the technical debt a lot better with a shared database than with individual stand-alone databases.”

Rita Reynolds
It’s important for an organization to know what they have. It’s not just a data asset inventory, it’s an application asset inventory.”

Rita Reynolds CIO, National Association of Counties

Does the Use of Microservices Increase Technical Debt?

Microservices empower governments to deploy large, complex applications quickly and effectively across varied user groups. It’s a useful strategy for driving efficiency and cost savings, but it can have an impact on technical debt.

“Tools like Microsoft Power BI, for example, can be used across a multitude of applications,” Reynolds says. But IT leaders also need to consider the culture of their departments and whether employees will use microservices. “If they don’t, then you are increasing technical debt.”

DIVE DEEPER: How microservices can help enable applications to be globally available.

With the shift toward microservices, “you’re updating systems that already exist, often because you’re trying to fix technical debt. But maybe you don’t have the right technical staff to manage it, or the feature list might have been shortened,” Bruce says. “You get a technology that can work in the short term, but in the long run, you’re adding to the technical debt.”

When it comes to microservices, technical debt may also arise if the right personnel are not in place.

Agencies need to have “the skill set readily available in a cost-effective way so that one can actually utilize these microservices and implement,” Reynolds says. “If the organization doesn’t have enough knowledge or enough funding to acquire individuals or consultants to utilize microservices, or if you have three or four departments having difficulty working together, you are ultimately not being as efficient as you could be.”

How to Solve Technical Debt

A number of strategies can come into play to help state and local governments reduce their existing technical debt and avoid taking on more.

“It starts with upgrading systems,” Bruce says. “A lot of the large legacy systems were built by well-meaning people who designed the right solution at the right time, but technology has evolved. The missions of those agencies have evolved. What was correct for a time is no longer correct.”

Collaboration and information sharing can also help to move the needle.

At the state and level, “we’re seeing increased levels of interest and excitement about fixing technical debt, increased efforts around building a public digital infrastructure,” Bruce says. “As a result, there are more and more information-sharing groups — not just technical groups, but people in state and local governments who are chief data officers or IT practitioners. It helps to be part of the formalized ways of getting together, to share what’s working across states and across cities.”

At a technical level, reducing debt starts with taking an inventory.

EXPLORE: How city leaders are breaking down data silos to improve services.

“It’s important for an organization to know what they have. It’s not just a data asset inventory, it’s an application asset inventory,” Reynolds says. “Then you need to perform a risk analysis, looking at those areas and identifying where your vulnerabilities and threats are, especially with aging systems. What’s the cost or debt of not changing or not improving in that particular area?”

Technical debt has financial implications, and IT will need to work with the finance side to address these issues. In order to do so effectively, IT will need to seek out a common vocabulary. “Let’s speak the language of the budget officer,” Reynolds says.

“Words like ‘technical debt’ and ‘major maintenance,’ for example, translate readily into their language. They understand that dollar signs are related to renovation costs and replacement costs,” she says.

Through strong communications and a focus on modernization of legacy systems, state and local IT departments can alleviate technical debt and put themselves on a stronger footing for the future.

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