Does Arizona Need IT Centers of Excellence?

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Today’s world revolves around digital customer experiences – ordering pizza, controlling your thermostat, depositing checks, making appointments and more all can be handled from the convenience of your smartphone. Some call this the Fourth Industrial Revolution – the Age of Connectivity – where we are immersed in technology. And, according to Forbes Magazine, the “Revolution is… creating massive change in a non-linear way at unprecedented speed.

By contrast, think about your most recent government interaction. It’s hard to believe, but in some government offices, constituents still have to fill out a paper form and stand in line to submit it or mail it in. I get a little excited when a government official proudly announces that an agency now provides online forms. But you still have no operational transparency on where your form is in the process. As one of my clients likes to say – you know more about your Dominos’ pizza than the status of your government application.

It’s no wonder that today’s government experience can be very frustrating, given the convenience we are accustomed to in today’s marketplace.


Is there anything government can do to modernize its citizen experience?

The federal government is moving ahead with a plan to provide improved service delivery by leveraging Centers of Excellence. Centers of Excellence (COE) is really just a more impressive term for innovation hubs that pair industry with government officials to modernize government services for greater quality and consistency.

According to GSA documents, the mission of the COE “is to accelerate IT modernization across government to improve the public experience, improve outcomes and reduce legacy IT spending across the government.” Contractors who can best achieve the technical objectives of the COEs, whether large or small, are encouraged to participate.

“The ultimate objective of the COEs is to build change management capacity for enterprise-level change in the federal government,” White House special assistant Matt Lira told FedScoop.

The COE framework encompasses two phases: discovery and implementation. The first phase is about assessing where an agency is in relation to its IT modernization and desired end state. The second phase is about operationalizing the research and bringing to life the work done in the first phase. Currently, there are five COEs: cloud, IT infrastructure optimization, customer experience, service delivery analytics and contact centers. The solutions developed under the COEs will be shareable across the government.

On this blog, we’ve talked previously about the state’s challenge with mounting technical debt and desire to work with startups. The question is whether a state-level COE may be a means to leapfrog our aging state agency IT footprint. It’s worth exploring.

Taking a page from the federal playbook, here are some steps the state could put into motion:

Determine Areas of Focus. 

To begin, it’s important for government to think about its journey to improved citizen service and IT modernization. The Arizona State CIO’s Office is already working on communities of practice focused on particular technologies. We also know that agencies have developed cloud strategies and are discussing bring-your-own-device, mobility as a service, master data management and artificial intelligence. By leveraging this work, the state can accelerate its efforts to pick focus areas across the enterprise.

Identify Agencies who can be Leaders. 

There are plenty of interesting ideas percolating within state agencies. The challenge becomes figuring out which agencies have the executive sponsorship to meaningfully work with private sector partners to develop best practices. At the federal level, the USDA served as the host agency forming teams centered around the five COE areas. Each team has an office in the department and assigned departmental and procurement employees – about 50 people in total. According to the USDA CIO Gary Washington: “It helps tremendously to have somebody with an objective point of view come in and help you.”

Establish Governance and Oversight. 

At the federal level, the IT Modernization COE has a dedicated PMO and procurement support. Arizona would need to dedicate some level of resources to manage this type of effort. The good news is that Arizona already has a well-established oversight process called the Project Investment Justification (PIJ) process. Statutorily required, the PIJ process requires agencies to submit business justifications to the state CIO’s office for any IT project expenditure valued at over $25,000. The PIJ process can play an important role in coordination and collaboration across the COEs.

Establish Timelines.

A typical federal COE Phase One effort is approximately six months. However, the actual duration depends on the agency’s needs. Arizona should adopt a similar timeline to make sure progress is being made.

Use Cooperative Contracts. 

While Arizona officials could develop, release and award solicitations for assessment and implementation services, contract administration could quickly become a burden given the need for speed and flexibility. State contract terms and conditions are also unfriendly to IT startups. Cooperative contracts offer the state outsourced management. One example of a cooperative contract is the GSA Schedule 70, Information Technology. The federal government expects the awards resulting from the COE Phase 1 Discovery Blanket Purchase Agreement will be against GSA Schedule 70 – a contract that is available to Arizona state and local government. The GSA Schedule 70 also encourages startups to apply in the IT Schedule 70 Startup Springboard.

Leverage the AZ Institute for Digital Progress. 

The AZiDP is a local collaborative applied research and implementation partnership between public-sector, academia, industry and civic institutions to drive the creation, advancement and adoption of smart region technology. With a network of Innovation Sandboxes focusing on the research and testing of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and projects, the AZiDP can help the state to propose, evaluate and procure smart technologies.

By centralizing tech talent, leveraging private sector best practices and taking a teaming approach to cross agency collaboration, Arizona could help agencies identify needs, recommend a solution, find contract vehicles and oversee implementation. Doing this gives Arizona an opportunity to pursue change management in IT on a grand scale.

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