Why state and local government should prioritize IT standards

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IT standards aren’t sexy, but they aim to make our lives easier. They can keep costs low, improve efficiencies, and increase reliability. As someone who has worked with IT infrastructure for decades and has helped state and local CIOs shape their organizations’ technology solutions, I can tell you standards are at the top of everyone’s wish lists.

So why aren’t more state and local government agencies making them a fundamental part of their IT operations?

The catch-22 is that most state and local agencies I talk to understand that they have process standardization challenges but see no way of escaping it. They’re thwarted by the enormity of the challenge and caught in a vicious cycle.

It is time to break the challenge down into manageable chunks and break that cycle.

Challenges with agility and shadow IT

Technology is progressing faster than ever, and standards have become a moving target. Ones that were implemented 10 years ago are likely now obsolete. Yet many organizations still treat them as their oracle because they don’t have the capacity to easily adapt to change.

Shadow IT can also hinder standardization. A recent survey revealed that 20 to 40 percent of enterprise technology funding is being spent outside of IT’s purview, indicating that there are a lot of applications that are being used without the knowledge of IT managers. State and local employees want to move fast and it can be all too easy to download an application, bypassing central IT and ignoring guidelines about how IT should be introduced into their organizations. It can be difficult if not impossible to create standards around such a wide variety of solutions.

Creating a standard operating environment

Fortunately, it is possible to create a standard operating environment that can help streamline IT operations into a lean, mean, efficient and more secure machine. The key is to focus on three core principles: simplicity, flexibility, and stability.

It can be easier to standardize operations with a smaller and more manageable technology footprint. Begin by identifying the number of disparate solutions that exist within your agency and reducing that number wherever possible. Perhaps your organization houses several different operating systems or various models of server, storage, and network switches. Looking for redundancies, legacy solutions, areas of potential consolidation, and so forth, can help you create a more simplified environment that can be easier to manage.

Once you’ve consolidated your footprint, create a standard operating environment based on open source technology. Part of the problem with many IT infrastructures is that they employ proprietary technologies that were never meant to work together. An infrastructure built on open standards can be much easier to oversee than one that is not because it can enable you to consolidate many different types of technologies, including operating systems, virtualization, storage, and more. Teams no longer have to worry about managing different technologies in different ways. They can employ a more standardized approach.

Consider developing a central oversight body to ensure that your agency is operating in a standardized way. This group can verify that teams are implementing the best solutions that work for the entire agency, not just for their individual uses. The implementation and enforcement of standards should start with those responsible for oversight.

Finally, seek solutions that offer stability. Remember that not all open source technologies provide the type of reliability that agencies need. If stability is a key requirement, it’s best to go with certified software known for limiting outages and mitigating risk.

It’s about process, not the technology

Addressing the IT management and operations challenges that your agency faces is not really about technology at all. It’s about a top-down commitment to making cultural and sometimes difficult changes. There is no silver bullet to achieving IT standardization, but CIOs can learn from third parties and peer groups. They can find out what does and doesn’t work, and gain confidence to move their organizations in the right direction.

Bill Hirsch is a principal solutions architect at Red Hat.

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