Responder Agencies, It’s Time to Replace Your Ad Hoc Tech Infrastructure

Responder Agencies, It’s Time to Replace Your Ad Hoc Tech Infrastructure

Non-technical stakeholders within emergency response and similar public sector organizations may not be familiar with the words ad hoc, but they are almost certainly familiar with the nettlesome concept behind the term. From Latin, meaning “for this,” or “to this end,” the idea in technological context essentially means what is needed, when it’s needed. The IT staffers who complain about their employer’s ad hoc infrastructure do so because it was developed and amassed in pieces, and its fragmented structure is creating problems with access, connectivity, and modernization.

This problem is particularly burdensome in the public sector, where challenges include divergent organizational goals, elastic year-to-year budgets, and the reluctance to replace systems that still work. These factors combine to create an environment in which many technology projects come out of the gate “six times more likely to experience cost overruns and 20 percent more likely to run over schedule,” per one McKinsey/Oxford University study. Compared to a private organization’s relatively narrow mission statement, even a laser-focused public agency is likely to require tools meeting a multitude of functions, roles, and needs. It will likely need to share information with other agencies, which may use a different combination of software. Due to these factors and others, a public safety agency may be less likely than a private-sector enterprise to spend money on technological tools until it has “bottomed out” the current set of solutions, stretching them beyond the limits of useful function.

According to the McKinsey/Oxford University study, these factors have led to a “trillion-dollar challenge” to modernize public sector IT in a way that marries financial efficiency with the operational. This figure reflects the massive value the world economy might see via “improved cost and operational performance,” researchers say, if governments across the board were to harness “the full potential of digitization.” The study’s broader points are further bolstered by stories out of countries like the United Kingdom, where problems with ad hoc systems can at times read identically to those commonly found in the U.S.

Of course, overcoming the piecemeal nature of the average public safety IT infrastructure is but one slice of the supposed trillion-dollar pie. Even amid concerns over upfront costs, the potential benefits of a more holistic upgrade could prompt agencies to explore the possibility in their future planning. Consider the following as your agency looks to build out and unify a more cohesive set of technology systems, both within and beyond the organization’s walls.

Examining the causes and outcomes of ad hoc ­infrastructure

In Managing Information in the Public Sector, author Jay D. White spells out a triangle of personnel most public safety agencies can expect to play roles in IT decisions. Broad enough to suit the needs of every public-sector entity imaginable, the roles still hit close enough to the average individual organization’s roster to stay relevant.

  • Elected or appointed high-level officials may hamper innovation due to a lack of understanding, concerns over budget, and general misunderstanding of IT in public agencies, the author says. While this stereotype is likely less common in the current era, the less a high-level supervisor understands technology, the less likely they may be to approve funds for what they view as an unnecessary upgrade.
  • Members of the IT staff, another corner of the triangle, naturally understand what technology can do for the organization but may be hampered by less understanding of the organization’s goals, roles, and duties. Misunderstanding the needs of boots-on-ground staff and management alike can create a communication gap that proves extremely difficult to navigate, and high-level supervisors in particular may fail to grasp that a functioning IT system, whatever its faults, means staffers are doing a good job.
  • “Mainstream staff” straddle the line between the first two entries. These are non-management personnel who tend to make up the core of the workforce. While they tend to be more tech-savvy than higher-level officials, they may conflict with the IT department and the control it exerts over various technological tools. Similarly, they may resort to practices like “shadow IT”—that is, using unofficial technology solutions for official work purposes—to meet various ends, further straining the relationship with IT.

This description ultimately only serves the individual agency. Throw in the complexities of negotiating a data exchange between two or more public safety entities, and it is easy to see how even baseline communication may become bogged down. In terms of ad hoc computer system upgrades, this basic three-pronged take can lead to disagreements that stall the acquisition of technology, leaving segments of the infrastructure to be upgraded only when absolutely necessary.

However important these causes may be, the effects of an ad hoc acquisition plan are even more daunting. At a high level, an agency that fails to modernize its computer systems with a relatively broad net is one that prevents itself from enjoying the converged benefits of modern solutions. At a lower level, this could mean an agency’s expensive new booking system fails to interface with an aging law enforcement internal affairs case management database. A change in infrastructure can create information silos in which sharing data is difficult, which in turn creates additional communication woes. New systems (a scheduling and training management tool, for instance) may advance at a far greater pace than interrelated tools (such as inventory or accreditation tracking), creating logistical logjams, duplication of data entry tasks, and unnecessary opportunity costs that could be avoided with a more consistent approach.

A centralized approach: Now more than ever

The ongoing “consumerization” of public sector services, as they join private companies in attempting to meet the desires of a tech-immersed public, also plays heavily into the ad hoc question. Because the public is less likely to accept needless waits and unnecessary red tape, agencies must strive to offer greater convenience, faster responses, and better overall technological experiences, or face the wrath of their increasingly choosy constituents.

Thus, no matter what motivation a public safety agency brings to the boardroom, piecemeal infrastructure is likely to aggravate the problems it seeks to address. A glaring inefficiency stemming from incompatible systems is as harmful as scores of citizens griping at the hoops they must jump through to obtain government services. In the end, it all comes down to the ability to maintain public order in a financially responsible manner.

Fortunately, agencies need not embark on the first steps of a 10-year technology plan to attain some consistency between systems. While every agency’s needs and challenges en route to a “digital transformation” are necessarily its own, the key to almost any situation is this: the more tasks a single systems upgrade can consolidate under a single banner, the more efficient systems tend to be at the end. A single tool has a far greater chance of improving efficiency, interaction, and productivity than multiple pieces, purchased as needed throughout recent agency history, for several reasons.

Consistency: Simply put, a single tool designed to carry multiple tasks is more likely to empower cross-functionality than multiple tools developed by different providers. This is of special concern when the tools are integrated years apart from one another, further reducing the chance of effective interconnectivity.

Less “role bleed” in decision-making: In regions without benefit of a chief technology officer (CTO) or similar executive-level technical oversight, technical decisions are routinely left in the hands of non-technical decision-makers, who must weigh the merits of a potential upgrade against real and perceived economic drawbacks. Even those with a CTO may see another supervisor with greater clout cancel a planned upgrade. By contrast, choosing a single tool and extolling its benefits in a “what’s in it for me” context makes the process easier to communicate and understand for everyone. “Pitching” agencies can tailor their approach to technical, financial, or productivity merits, depending on audience, primarily because consolidated systems excel at improving all three.

Easier futureproofing: Imagine an agency that wishes to upgrade its aging inventory-tracking system. Importantly, contractual obligations keep them from moving away from their newer budget forecasting system, despite the tool being for general-purpose use and thus lacking in response-specific features [PDF link]. When contracts and budget allow, picking a system that integrates a variety of functions—often in the form of standalone modules, purchased at time of implementation or a la carte—allows the agency to safeguard against future requirements. The more the tool’s offerings align with agency needs, the more valuable it will be in the future.

Better public-facing services: Returning to the idea of “consumerization,” there is something to be said for a tool that quickly bridges systems on the public-facing side. A law enforcement agency that makes a small collection of its records available online, for instance, may use more integrated systems to expand its slate of online services or to reduce the number of logins needed to access them (a common complaint facing organizations with multiple disparate systems). Compared to the relative cost of stitching together multiple old systems, the advantages past initial cost are clear: less reliance on programmers, architects, and other software personnel, for one, and a better-served public for another.

Decreased friction with outside agencies: The more aligned a tool is with the industry it is meant to serve, the more likely it is to support multiple roles, missions, and job types. That can immediately make interactions easier than trying to compromise with an outside agency that may hold little in common with the one seeking an upgrade besides a narrowly shared avenue of data. In turn, that makes it easier to purchase tools that benefit the whole system, not just the individual organization.

Better support: One company supporting multiple products will always respond better to problems that arise than multiple companies with tools that may not be designed to work together. With the stress even a brief outage can cause responder organizations in particular, the benefits of a single point of contact here should not be overlooked.

Quicker eradication of an ad hoc past: Most organizations grappling with disparate legacy systems and their relative drawbacks are not to blame for the situation they find themselves in. “Building as you go” was simply how things were done until recently. Today, however, more comprehensive systems encompassing a larger base of interrelated needs have become the trend. Agencies find that such a transition tends to be easier, cheaper, and faster than selecting tools that work together by happenstance.

Think of the way aging computer systems have begun to slow down in the past several years, and it is easy to see how collections of the same tools are now similarly showing cracks in a productivity-obsessed, experience-first era. Your organization might need to replace a siloed collection of ad hoc tools or may simply be searching for a centerpiece for larger integration down the line. Whatever the case, don’t let the advantages of a single technological ecosystem pass you by.

Posted on Feb 11, 2020