We sat down with Rob Buhrman, a principal with Grant Thornton Public Sector, to evaluate the billion-dollar potential in the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) and what this influx of support could mean for agency digital transformation efforts.

MeriTalk: What’s the billion-dollar potential of the TMF? What could be achieved with this huge influx of funding through the American Rescue Plan Act?

Rob Buhrman: The TMF can help agencies achieve true digital transformation. Typically, IT modernization is viewed as a risk mitigation tool. Agencies are dealing with legacy infrastructure that isn’t as secure as it should be, and it’s costly. Modernization is primarily a cost and a risk mitigation.

The TMF uses that concept as a starting point, and then seeks true digital transformation: using the new solution to improve the user experience and the agency’s ability to fulfill its mission. That’s a different use case, and one that usually provides a better return on investment (ROI). The TMF is removing risk, not just mitigating it. Coupled with automation of manual processes, you see an enormous return on investment with TMF.

MT: What stumbling blocks for agencies pursuing TMF projects have you seen so far?

Buhrman: Through our work in support of TMF projects, we’ve seen that the TMF criteria created a playbook for agencies looking to build a really solid business case for modernization or transformation. At the same time, the criteria raised challenges for agencies, particularly related to ROI analysis, agency sponsorship, and repayment.

If agencies assign that work to their IT people, the skill sets required to do it well may not be the strongest those employees have in their toolbox. Agencies need strategic communications, leadership engagement, prioritization support, and governance support to ensure that they’re getting the value they’ve planned for. Multiple industry groups recently asked the General Services Administration to change the repayment requirement and also offer more help to agencies. GSA said it would offer more assistance – in acquisition, management, innovation, and cyber.

That’s good, because money alone won’t alleviate the stumbling blocks. I suggest that they allocate a very small amount of the TMF funds, maybe 1 percent, to an innovation fund that would help agencies do the foundational work on their TMF applications and prototype to ensure the new solution is feasible, desirable, and viable.

MT: What kinds of projects should agencies begin with to get some quick wins with TMF, or other modernization efforts?

Buhrman: The 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act has put an emphasis on improving customer experience – and creating equitable customer experience. Making sure everyone can use the digital products agencies are focused on delivering is a great example of a big win with a short development lifecycle.

Right now, the government is figuring out they need to get the voice of the customer (aka voice of the user) to identify the things they most need to improve. For example, Grant Thornton examined the call center logs at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), particularly the comment fields. Using text analysis, we were able to bubble up the biggest, most frequent pain points customers experienced when accessing website content. We gave that insight to the agency, and they immediately changed the website, essentially making it so customers didn’t need to contact the call center in the first place. They were able to self-serve, which reduces frustration for filers and saves time and money for the agency. Those kinds of “innovations” are very quick, easy to make, and have a huge impact.

MT: What are some of the best practices agencies should employ to pay off this desire for better customer experience?

Buhrman: It comes down to empathy. It’s about getting an understanding of whatever an agency defines the customer to be and understanding their journey. Agencies should strive to look at their service through the eyes of the person consuming it, and work to understand the “moments that matter” and the customer’s feeling about those moments.

For example, if a customer is applying for a passport and gets stuck at one point in the process, they’re probably not happy, regardless of the reason.

If I’m looking at the journey from the eyes of the customer, I’m going to work to bridge organizational silos and sticking points, because the customer doesn’t care about organizational boundaries. She just wants the job done. If agencies start looking at it that way, they can create processes or automations that improve those moments that matter. It’s not always a digital solution, but digital interactions are much more cost effective than in-person interactions.

MT: You’re right about the cost effectiveness of digital solutions, but many citizens can’t take advantage of them. How have you seen agencies working to overcome equity issues?

Buhrman: Many people in rural areas don’t have access to the technologies we use every day. There’s an older population that also might not be experienced with digital solutions. Equity has become a really big part of the government’s thinking on customer experience. Historically, state and local governments tend to be closest to the customer. Some high-impact service provider agencies at the Federal level have substantial interaction with citizens, but state and local governments do it all the time – through the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), licensing and permitting, and providing government benefits. They are doing some really neat things around providing localized access to technology through libraries and schools.

The State of California is another great example. Its DMV created a mobile truck that served areas without great access to technology. Federally, USPTO has regional service centers staffed with experts in both patent and trademark applications, so citizens can get free help close to home.

MT: How can agencies involve end users in determining where to focus their modernization time and money, while ensuring that those efforts are successful?

Buhrman: NASA is doing a lot of crowdsourcing – asking people for ideas on how to solve engineering problems that they have. And they have prize money set aside for that. At USPTO, we implemented an ideation platform. It’s used for much more than I think the agency envisioned – for ideas about new capabilities for the agency’s digital platform, for lunch-and-learn programs, and to request feedback on any number of things.

In the private sector, companies outsource user testing a lot. This allows them to get continual feedback as they progress through product development. USPTO has designated a group of examiners to support user-centered design and testing. They have time set aside for them to support this function each week in addition to their normal duties.

MT: What advice can you offer to agencies wanting to use the TMF?

Buhrman: An agency seeking to use the TMF must understand citizen and user needs and pain points. They can leverage that understanding to drive change, get buy in, and get sponsorship for the effort from agency leadership.

Developing realistic cost estimates, the business case, and the ROI analysis to meet the payback requirement is an art that typically requires a skill set that bridges the CFO and the CIO.

And then, in order to make sure you’re getting your bang for the buck, agencies need to go beyond project management metrics such as schedule and cost. They need to capture key performance indicators and outcome measures.

Last but not least, to truly transform mission execution and to provide a better, equitable customer experience, agencies need to embrace techniques and technologies around design thinking, agile development, and DevOps. These are essential because they’re going to help increase speed and agility, improve quality, and optimize costs in the short and long term.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.