Monolithic to Modular with HHS Mobility
by Abe Lee
Back in January of this year (2016), I had the opportunity to present to state agencies governed by the Administration of Children & Families (ACF) on the topic of modular design. I thought it would be fitting to resurrect some thoughts from that original presentation with a bit of a twist as two of the three major themes of this year's Annual American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) - IT Solutions Management (ISM) Conference appear to be modularity and disruptive technology. This blog will discuss what I believe is the best way to move away from the monolithic to the modular, using mobility.
The attendees of the presentation in January attended primarily because there is a movement in government to be nimble and responsive – moving away from the traditional monolithic approaches and system implementations towards more agile, modularized implementations for everything – from reporting modules to authentication modules to data warehouse modules. Everything is becoming a module, and (hopefully) a whole lot less expensive as a result. During the presentation, I explained that a modular (or agile) approach assumes that development requires flexibility. Modular development necessitates a view of the big picture, but that big picture must be broken up into smaller functional chunks that can be developed, implemented and shared across agencies. A modular approach must consider interactions between modules. In other words, the big picture is the sum of smaller pictures working together.
Consider the traditional (grand design or waterfall) approach. This is the approach that organizations like 18F in the US, Government Digital Services (GDS) in the UK and the Danish Business Authority (ERST) in Denmark are opposed to. The belief is that a monolithic mentality to system implementation (rip & replace a legacy system in its entirety) is overly costly, requires sweeping reinvention, is ultimately untenable and wrought with risks and pitfalls. An article in Federal Computer Week called for the demise of the grand design approach since at least 2010. John Zyskowski stated that "costly, massive IT projects that aim for sweeping reinvention of agency computer systems and business processes — the so-called grand-design approach — found themselves in the Obama administration's crosshairs this year."
Many agencies are already displaying a move away from the old way of doing things and working in a more agile environment that responds to the user’s needs, making technology a tool versus a barrier. The GDS, responsible for the "digital transformation of government,” Service Manual emphasizes the user's needs first. The GDS focuses on "building and testing in small chunks," allowing for a responsiveness to user's needs and experience that couldn't happen with the previous approach. On my side of the pond, The US Digital Service out of the White House intends to redefine the experience of government by looking for simple solutions one problem at a time. Their Playbook also highlights the need to understand where the user is… "Understand what people need" by focusing on how the people interact with the government. Whether it's from their tablet or their mobile device or some other method, understanding the user's interaction allows for the identification of the right systems of engagement to address each module.
Mobility absolutely can serve as the bridge between the monolithic and the modular. Mobility provides an opportunity to act as an integration layer. Mobility can tie prior investments together while opening doors to leverage to new technologies (or modules). The intention of using mobile solutions to act as a bridge never intends to negate the need for an improved system. It intends to provide a means by which smaller parts of the puzzle can help lead to the big picture. Mobility provides a strategy that will unlock the value of prior investments while providing rapid relief to frontline staff who need help now and future proofing the agency's technology investment. Modularity through mobility is about getting the most back from the past in the present for the future.
A great example of an agency taking a modular approach to design is the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) and their NYC HRA Document Upload app that was delivered using a mobility solution. HRA manages one of the largest Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) in the United States, serving more than 1.7 million people and handling more than 40,000 new SNAP applications each month. HRA wanted to remove an inefficient, painful, and error-prone process of application. Within the space of 6 months after deployment; more than 20,000 New Yorkers had downloaded and installed NYC HRA Document Upload on their phone and the program was seeing about 6,000 new downloads per month. That number is significantly growing today. Would you like to find out more about NYC HRA Document Upload?