Jul 08 2024

From Technical Debt to Technical Wellness: A Guide for State and Local Agencies

Government IT leaders can address technical debt with a holistic approach to technology investment.

State and local governments have for years toiled under the burden of technical debt, commonly described as the cost of maintaining outdated software and systems instead of investing in modernization.

Technical debt is still a key issue for government IT leaders. According to the National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ 2023 State CIO Survey, the most technical debt resides in human resources, health services and corrections. The least technical debt resides in functions such as transportation, education and emergency services. 

However, recently a new paradigm has emerged that seeks to reframe technical debt and focus IT leaders on the concept of “technical wellness.” In this framing, “the focus is placed on preventive care—in this case, using enhanced tracking, measurement, and predictions to address suboptimal legacy technologies before they become larger issues for the business,” according to Deloitte’s 2024 Tech Trends report

A key element of technical wellness is to avoid looking at modernization through the lens of one kind of upgrade, from mainframes to the cloud, for example, or even in terms of modernizing applications. 

“We’ve got decades of investment in technology, and part of the wellness idea is that we have to have a holistic view of all the different pieces of the stack,” says Bill Briggs, CTO and principal at Deloitte, one of the key proponents of technical wellness. 

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How Does Technical Debt Impact State and Local Governments?

There are many ways that technical debt can weigh on state and local government. They include a lack of agility in the face of sudden challenges, growing gaps between existing IT and emerging technologies, increased cybersecurity threats because old systems cannot be patched, and higher total costs.

“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,” National Association of Counties CIO Rita Reynolds told StateTech in a 2022 interview. 

Typically, state and local governments invest in modernizing applications but there are many that aren’t over time, Briggs says. 

“We find ourselves with increasing amounts of the technology budget going against yesterday’s concerns, and probably even worse, that’s the foundation upon which new is built,” he says.

It's important, Briggs says, not to vilify debt. After all, as financial services professionals might tell a company or an individual, not all debt is bad, and sometimes taking on debt can be strategic.

Unfortunately, he says, when IT modernization projects do get funding in the public sector, they are often addressing one symptom of technical debt. Perhaps a mainframe renewal contract is expiring, and a government or an agency will use that as a trigger to migrate to the cloud

However, that might forestall government IT leaders from taking a more expansive view of their technology portfolios and developing, say, a comprehensive data strategy to clean data so that it can be used in artificial intelligence applications

READ MORE: An application assessment can reduce technical debt.

How Can Government IT Leaders Measure Technical Debt?

Some IT leaders measure technical debt as part of their portfolio management strategies as they try to measure how much they are spending incrementally updating pieces of their technology stack, Briggs says.

“IT investment management is a critical part of an effective enterprise management portfolio,” Eric Sweden, NASCIO’s program director of enterprise architecture and governance, writes in StateTech. “Essentially, state government officials must ensure they are making the right capital expenditures and acquiring appropriate services to support the goals of the enterprise. State governments should establish a framework for enterprise portfolio management that includes IT investment management.”

Some IT leaders might go a step further and recognize that when they use a policy engine — software that lets them make, review and enforce rules about how network resources and data can be accessed — they are losing money because the business logic of a certain system might need to be remediated, Briggs says

“Over time, you can start measuring that there’s almost a penalty factor of, ‘Oh, if that has to hit our billing system, there’s dragons in those hills, and we can start measuring the expected overage that’s going to cost us money,’” he says. 

The best way to measure technical debt is to plot a graph, Briggs says, that measures the scalability, reliability, extensibility or security of a system (day, data storage) against mission areas and messier concepts, such as how costly it is to customize business logic or not have clear architectural patterns.  

Bill Briggs
Every project in flight right now has a chance to be adding to or eliminating technical debt.”

Bill Briggs CTO and Principal, Deloitte

“And you put those two together and you start getting a better sense of where to focus instead of making it ‘mainframe bad, cloud good,’” he says.

The vast majority of technical debt, Briggs says, arise from IT leaders who had good intentions, knew they were making what they considered a justifiable trade-off when they made an investment, and thought they’d be able to update a technology in the next budget cycle but then didn’t.

“And now, the generations that follow are left holding the bag, and everyone points fingers, but it was strategic at the time,” he says.

LEARN MORE: IT modernization can improve digital services for citizens.

How Can State and Local Agencies Manage Technical Debt?

There are many steps government IT leaders can take to manage technical debt. Those steps include investing in low-code and no-code software development to speed up innovation, using DevOps to automate workflows and prevent technical debt from building up, and streamlining business process.

Deloitte’s Tech Trends report highlights the importance of investing in the developer experience, focusing not just on the application development layer but the entire pipeline, from infrastructure through to deployment.

Typically, addressing technical debt is a backward-looking process, Briggs says, but the focus should be on doing no net-new harm.

“Every project in flight right now has a chance to be adding to or eliminating technical debt,” he says. The way to stop adding is to shift to a more disciplined approach to engineering, which includes automated provisioning, having policy and control points embedded in the development tooling and process, automating release and build management maintenance, and more. And this should apply not just to applications but to infrastructure networks, data and business technology as well.

DISCOVER: Scaling cloud services tops state government priorities.

What Is Technical Wellness vs. Technical Debt?

Technical wellness aims to avoid silos and allow IT leaders to think more holistically, which Briggs acknowledges is hard for them to do when they have a mission to deliver against.

CIOs in state and local government have very good senses of the government projects and programs that have been funded. Wellness involves moving from a single-project lens to architectural lens, he says, including infrastructure, networks, IT delivery and user experience. Then, leaders can add program and mission elements and see where they are seeing the most requests for customization.

IT leaders, with a little time and focus, will start seeing that most program areas are hitting specific parts of their technology stack, Briggs says, and can start to see how much complexity and time it takes for each and how that is compounded. That can help determine how much budget is being devoted to just maintaining those processes.

“The last step would be, if you go to the two and map it against where mission and growth is coming, it gives you a really great starting point of where there might be a problem or where we should be focusing our energy,” he says.

The key is to focus on “preventive care” for IT as opposed to treating symptoms, Briggs says. This involves moving to an automated process for updating networking, data and security policies. That way, if changes do need to be made, it’s not a massive exercise.

“And then, you’re getting more of the things that were driving complexity in software from the outset,” he says.

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