September 25, 2019

Who says Shared Services are Only for Back Office Functions?

by Dave Cassidy, Vice President

The consensus answer is: almost everyone. The problem is that almost everyone is wrong.

By eliminating duplicative work and saving taxpayer’s money, federal shared services can have a huge impact on modernizing IT in the federal government. The Federal CIO Council has estimated that federal shared services can generate savings of $21 billion to over $47 billion from 2015 to 2025. Today, shared services focus almost exclusively on back office and business support functions such as finance and HR. The benefits of shared services in these areas are clear, but in defining shared services almost entirely in terms of back office functions, policy makers and agencies have tied one arm behind their backs, undervaluing the potential for leveraging shared services to meet diverse, mission-focused, and government-specific needs among federal agencies. Leveraging shared services for mission-centered functions can quickly benefit agency users, citizens, and businesses. Focusing only on back office functions forces agencies to wait (often in vain) for savings from operational improvements to trickle down to mission-critical systems and services.



Of course, shared services for back office functions are critically important. The most recent policy and shared service initiatives such as the Centralized Mission Support Capabilities policy memo and the NewPay contract reflect an emphasis on operational efficiency rather than mission acceleration. The policy aims to set standards for shared services across government, and focuses on operational support functions such as HR, finance, and cybersecurity.

This focus makes sense given that the more commonplace a business need is among agencies, the more scalable a solution is likely to be. In other words, using shared services for back office functions is going after low-hanging fruit. Picking low-hanging fruit is simpler than reaching the fruit higher up on the tree (at least until you invent something that brings all the fruit down to you). But, as I suggested in a previous post, in focusing on operational needs, agencies are missing opportunities to directly improve the quality of the services they provide to their peers in government, to citizens, and to businesses.

Implementing shared services for mission-focused needs is complex and requires adopting an entrepreneurial perspective, a point of view closer to Silicon Valley than Capitol Hill. Adopting an entrepreneurial perspective means stepping back from day-to-day work to look at the broad capability found in a service or product and how it might meet the need or solve a problem that is related to another agency’s mission. It means understanding that despite the environmental diversity that arises from the unique missions of government organizations, many services, systems, and assets are scalable across a significant number of agencies. It also means engaging with targeted agencies as potential customers and utilizing clear standards and efficient processes for managing service delivery.

I Can

For example, MAX.gov is utilized by over 224,000 users across government. Originally, MAX tools were focused on one specific problem: helping budget formulation and execution professionals do their work. As it turns out, collaboration, data collection and analytics, enhanced visualization and report creation, and cross-agency authentication are common needs in government. The creative minds at OMB realized that MAX could be used by other agencies to support their unique missions and business needs. Now, MAX.gov is used by 180 agencies, supporting recruitment, emergency management, safety checks and compliance in hospitals, and a massive range of other mission functions.

The line between mission and business functions is blurry. Grants management is perhaps the best example of this fuzzy distinction. Grants are a basic business function for many agencies but the number of different kinds of grants has made a government-wide grants systems nigh-on impossible to implement. But successful shared services solutions exist to manage particular types and aspects of grants. For example, TCG worked on iEdison.gov, a product used by 29 agencies to manage grants inventions and patents reporting; Grants.gov is a unified portal for grant application submissions; and GrantSolutions.gov helps many agencies manage several grant types.

Fully leveraging the model and creating a dynamic, innovative ecosystem for shared services means not drawing potential shared services from a bucket labeled “Business Functions.” Instead of first asking, “How can we create a scalable system to meet universal needs?” we should ask, “What capabilities do we have and how might they meet needs in other areas of government?” Many more opportunities exist to save taxpayer’s money and accelerate the business of government through federal shared services. Agencies and vendors can think more entrepreneurially, to uncover the underlying needs of agencies, to share capabilities, and improve how every agency can carry out its mission.