Research shows that approximately 80 percent of current IT resources go to the maintenance of existing IT operations and systems. The risks to holding onto legacy systems are many, but modernizing IT in any sector is not easy or cheap. The following seven tips may help ensure a successful government IT modernization.

1. Don’t modernize for modernization’s sake.

IT modernization has to be part of the organization’s overall strategy, and that strategy needs to align with the business strategy too.

"It’s very difficult to get funded for modernization if you can’t demonstrate how it fits in with the overall strategy — that’s fundamental," said Bill Kehoe, CIO of King County, Wash. "We have a lot of things we’ve had to modernize, but they’ve all been in alignment with an overall IT and business strategy for the county."

2. Ensure strong executive leadership.

Modernization projects tend to become change management projects. Change brings uncertainty and requires reassurance, and who else can provide reassurance better than a leader?

"Having visible and unequivocal support from the top is a critical success factor," said PN Narayanan, CIO for the Pennsylvania Department of Treasury, who recently helped modernize the commonwealth’s financial system on time and under budget.

3. Invest in the future, not the past.

Modernization projects often require new IT skills that existing government staff may not possess. And getting those new skills and staff may be difficult for government. Over 90 percent of government respondents to a recent National Association of State Chief Information Officers survey said that a state’s salary rates and pay grade structures present a challenge in attracting and retaining IT talent.

"Unfortunately in government, our IT skill sets are sometimes antiquated," said Kehoe "When we modernize, it might require us to develop our existing staff’s skill sets in new areas, and that requires going through a pretty extensive change management process around the new technology."

But that should not be a reason to resist new technologies and solutions, he said. For example, King County had the opportunity to replace its phone system five years ago. But instead of just replacing the phone system, the county invested in a new unified communications platform.

"That was a tremendous change for our staff, who were very familiar and comfortable with PBX and analog lines, and didn’t really understand unified communications that much," said Kehoe. "But we went ahead with it because it’s a platform that’s going to sustain the county in the future, and it gave us more than just voice – it also gave us IM, videoconferencing and the ability to integrate voice into our network. Using those modernization dollars in ways that will point the government to the future and are sustainable for the future so you don’t have to go back and modernize again in a few years is really important."

4. Be prepared to focus long and hard on project execution and change management.

From a project perspective, modernization is difficult as an organization balances new technology and new vendors while replacing old systems. Many times the new technology has to be phased in, requiring the organization to support two systems for what could be an extended period of time.

"That’s difficult on staff who are also trying to learn how to support the new technology," said Kehoe. "A lot of times you have to drastically change your support models from the old technology to the new, so there is a lot of change that occurs in a modernization project that you don’t necessarily have with other IT projects. The projects themselves have a lot of risk, and they can take on a lot of resistance from customers and staff that maybe aren’t comfortable moving to the new technology."

Make sure to plan for change management and to build the communications framework necessary to ensure changes are well-communicated.

"Modernization is all about people, process and technology, and it’s the people side that’s the hardest," Kehoe added. "Communication and laying out the vision for the staff and giving them opportunities to learn and grow is really important. You would think that modernization would be embraced, but it’s a huge change, and change isn’t always embraced."

5. Start small and build on success.

When King County rolled out its unified communication system, it did so in phases over a four-year period, learning from various deployments along the way.

"We started slow, built the infrastructure, did a few initial deployment, then slowly improved and rolled out more," said Kehoe.

The county took a similar approach with its cloud backup strategy, where it moved from manual tape backups that cost the county about $54,000 annually to cloud-based backups.

"A lot of the modernization platforms we’re putting in place for the future allow you to put the platform in place then mature it within your organization over time and adopt slowly if you need to," he added. "That allows you to build on each success."

6. Try to match the modernization timeline with election cycles.

"Elections and administration changes bring a lot of uncertainty," said Narayanan. "Public-sector modernization timelines are usually closely related to the administration’s life cycle, which depends on the election cycle."

While a change in administration does not mean good projects won’t survive (assuming the fundamentals of the project/program are good), the probability of success may be higher if the project/program is matched to that of the election cycle.

7. Be prepared to make smart compromises.

Almost all public-sector projects need to deal with stakeholders outside of the immediate circle of influence, and that means learning to compromise.

"Without smart compromises, no progress can be made," said Narayanan. "Smart compromises can be achieved by building trust through good listening and effective communication with all stakeholders from the very first day. In the treasury, we started working with stakeholders from the RFP stage."

This story was originally published by Government Technology.