How to assess your digital transformation journey

Author: Rose de Fremery

Date published: March 22, 2024

Federal and state governments provide programs, services, and information to over 400 million individuals, families, businesses and organizations every year. The total amount of digital interactions that people have with their government annually is in the billions. What’s more, according to, more than half of all digital visits occur on a mobile device.

The exponential growth of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, artificial intelligence (AI), and the need for more personalized and digital self-service options are only accelerating the demand for the government to become more innovative, deliver better services and enhance a digital transformation journey.

Today, people expect digital government services to provide a high-quality digital experience on par with the consumer apps and technologies they use in their personal lives. The White House has recognized the importance of improving customer experiences in its Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government.

"People have three requirements that make digital transformation very painful for government agencies,” according to Scott Andersen, a distinguished solutions architect at Verizon. “The first requirement is that they expect it now. The second is that they expect it to be reliable, and the third is that they expect to be able to consume it on whatever device they're currently connecting with.”

Legacy infrastructure reduces the effectiveness of government services

Unfortunately, federal, state and local government agencies are hard-pressed to meet these expectations because they are still struggling with legacy infrastructure. "They might have legacy systems that are 30 or 40 years old and still written in the COBOL programming language," explained Brett Barganz, senior principal for public sector sales at Verizon. These legacy systems are difficult and costly to maintain, hard to scale and vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Legacy infrastructure is also notorious for breaking down during periods of peak or unprecedented demand. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor and many state government unemployment systems quickly became overwhelmed when people began applying for benefits en masse at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. State governments even put out a call for COBOL programmers, who are in extremely short supply given how rarely COBOL is used nowadays, in a frantic attempt to fix the problem. Despite these efforts, according to GovTech, only 27% of unemployed people got benefits during this period, while 41% received them in the wake of the 2009 recession.

Technical debt is especially difficult to overcome at the federal level, where the scope of services can be vast.

"Medicare has 330 million people registered in the system. Not all of them get Medicare, but that's a massive system. When you start talking about hundreds of millions of people, that changes the aspect and the impact of the systems that you build," Andersen said. In addition, the federal government has a very unique budgeting and procurement process that is more strict and open compared to the private sector, where purchasing decisions tend to move faster. While there are often good reasons for these requirements, they can inhibit the government's ability to digitally transform at the same speed as for-profit institutions.

Why government digital transformation is critically important

When it comes to government digital transformation, the stakes can be quite high.

"There are a lot of things the public sector does that are matters of life and death that a typical for-profit corporation just doesn't have to worry about," Barganz explained.

For example, if a public utility like a water treatment plant doesn't stay current with software updates or continues to use the same administrator password provided with factory settings, it could be unwittingly vulnerable to a silent form of cyberattack that could have grave implications for an entire community. "If a bad actor can breach a water treatment plant’s network and alter the amounts of sodium hydroxide that are being added to the water, people could be harmed," Barganz explained.

Not only is legacy technology especially vulnerable to cyberattacks, but it is also expensive to maintain. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the federal government spends more than $100 billion on IT and cyber-related investments each year. Agencies typically spend about 80% of this amount on operations and maintenance of existing IT, including legacy systems. Modern IT solutions are often much more budget-friendly by comparison. In addition, it's often comparatively easier to find the right IT resources and skills to properly administer them.

Ultimately, government agencies that do not maximize the benefits of digital transformation face the cost of missed opportunities that only increases with each year.

"If you don't have a strong game plan for digital transformation, your organization will not be as agile as it needs to be to address security threats and constituent needs,” emphasized Scott Andersen. “The value of digital transformation is that you can accept and adapt to change much faster, and apply the right technology to your needs so you can successfully deliver on your mission.”.

Know where you’re at: the 4 stages of the digital transformation journey

The typical digital transformation journey includes four stages: a basic or traditional network, moving to an efficient network, moving to an enhanced network and moving to an innovative network. These stages are essential to know, so your agency can identify where it is in its journey. Here is a brief outline of each stage of government digital transformation along with its common characteristics and challenges.

Stage 1: A basic or traditional network 

As you might expect, an organization with a basic network is in the early stages of their digital transformation journey. Connectivity is still managed through physical access points, switches and routers that the customer administers on-site. The agency may also have internet dedicated services or private IP solutions such as multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) circuits—especially if it has operations in multiple locations. This traditional network design poses several challenges. For starters, it offers limited versatility and optimization for the variety of cloud services and apps that organizations often rely on today. In addition, any time the organization wants to make significant changes, the IT team usually has to update and sometimes physically move individual physical network components.

Since the agency directly manages its equipment and does not have a partner or a managed services provider, it must stay on top of regular replacement cycles. This means, among other things, that the organization will have difficulty acquiring, training and retaining IT professionals who have the requisite network and security expertise. This problem will worsen as the organization's IT function struggles to keep up with these increasingly complex fields over the long term.

When it comes to security, this kind of agency usually still has a focus on perimeter defense with physical firewalls, intrusion detection systems (IDS) and antivirus capabilities. This traditional approach makes it difficult to detect a possible attack in a timely manner, let alone marshal a prompt response or full recovery from an incident or a breach. It is challenging to correlate trends and patterns in activity across a variety of user sessions and network devices, and the organization has limited control over the devices themselves.

Then there are the issues with ensuring proper network visibility. An organization with a basic network uses network performance monitoring and diagnostics tools for this purpose, but they are not well-suited for evaluating application performance or providing insights on the end-user experience (which ultimately demonstrate whether and how much business value is being achieved). As a result, the IT team is largely in the dark about how well large swaths of the network are performing, as well as what is taking place across the organization's entire IT estate.

An agency with a traditional network is also not taking advantage of all that automation has to offer. What automation it has in place is limited and not centrally managed. As a result, the organization experiences challenges with timely detection, response and recovery from faults and outages. It also has lengthy provisioning and policy update processes. An organization at this stage does not have the agility or capabilities to digitally transform at the speed required today.

Stage 2: Moving to an efficient network

If an agency is moving to an efficient network, they likely have considered a number of factors. It’s important to assess where an agency is in its digital journey in several respects. For connectivity, it may have a direct private connection to cloud services, or a secure cloud fabric. Backup connectivity may be delivered through 5G fixed wireless access (FWA), ensuring crucial continuity in the event of an outage. On the management and operations side, the organization may have engaged a partner to begin managing its wide and limited area networks (for example, WAN, LAN and wireless LAN) instead of entirely administering them in-house. Security is often handled via endpoint detection and response (EDR) and a security information and event management (SIEM) system, allowing the organization to more effectively recognize and address potential security threats in advance. More advanced automation can be found in the form of API-based management and administration, which streamlines IT workflows and improves reliability.

Stage 3: Moving to an enhanced network

At this stage, the organization may have already realized the benefits of an efficient network and may be transitioning to an enhanced network. Connectivity may be delivered by virtual network services or network function virtualization, and the organization is working with a partner for managed software-defined wide area network (SD WAN) and software-defined wireless limited area network (SDWLAN) solutions. The agency may also be taking advantage of next-generation Wi-Fi solutions, as appropriate. Secure Hybrid Cloud and Secure Hybrid Multi-Cloud solutions, adding Managed Detection and Response (MDR), help the organization more effectively identify, respond and recover from potential cyber threats. Application performance monitoring (APM) tools provide better visibility into application performance, ensuring a higher standard of reliability.

Stage 4: Moving to an innovative network

An organization that is moving to an innovative network model may have a 5G on-site private network in place, providing ultra-fast connectivity that is highly secure and customized to the agency's unique use cases. The organization may have maximized the benefits of its strategic vendor partnership, engaging the partner for complete network management that is delivered in an as-a-service model. The agency has implemented a zero trust network architecture, allowing it to achieve a stronger security posture across the entire attack surface. In addition to APM, the organization now also uses end-user experience monitoring to deliver a better employee and end-user experience. Sophisticated automation is in place, achieved through full integration with the network management partner.

How to assess where you are in your digital transformation journey

To figure out where you need to go in your digital transformation journey, you must first establish where you are. A trusted partner can help you assess your agency's current stage of digital maturity and work with you to determine your network vision. As part of this process, they should be able to help you assess your current network capabilities and contemplate how to deliver all aspects of your new network in a flexible and scalable manner. These aspects can include cloud-based connection services (for example, one-to-many cloud service providers); hybrid connectivity and SD WAN solutions; virtual network services; next-generation wireless limited area network (WLAN) or Wi-Fi solutions; visibility services; and security solutions.

No matter where you are on your journey, whether that's at the basic stage or well into the enhanced stage, the right partner can help you identify what you need to reach the next stage and help you craft a plan that gets you there.

Accelerate your digital transformation journey

Every government agency needs to transform, whether it's at the federal, state or local level. That said, your organization likely has its unique requirements, whether it's a large healthcare organization or a local school system. To determine where you currently are in this process, it's worth reviewing the four stages of digital transformation and deciding which one most likely describes your current environment. Then, you can more clearly identify where you ultimately want to get to. You can accelerate this journey even further by engaging the expertise of a trusted vendor that has deep experience in the public sector and best-in-class networking capabilities. With the right partnership in place, you'll be well on your way to your next stage of digital transformation and able to innovate your digital services with more agility and speed.

Take our digital transformation assessment to gain key insights and a concrete action plan for achieving your digital transformation goals.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.