The Impact of Technical Debt on Citizen Services: A Look at State and Local Governments

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Technical debt is the cost of maintaining and updating outdated or poorly designed technology systems that are critical to government operations. This can include legacy systems that are no longer supported by vendors, systems that are difficult to integrate with newer technologies, or systems that have been poorly designed or implemented. According to a 2022 forecast, analysts predict that global IT spending, which includes money to rid governments of technical debt, will rise to an estimated $588.9 billion in 2023. 

The U.S. government is estimated to spend half its technology budget, totaling $100 billion, on keeping existing IT systems going; some of which are over 20 years old.  Because these systems no longer support modern needs and require constant reworking to cope with demand, the costs of keeping them functional are skyrocketing. If not addressed, this technical debt will cripple state and local governments and make innovation not plausible.

How Technical Debt Harms State and Local Governments

Technical debt in local government causes long-term negative consequences that may include:

Lack of Reaction To Sudden Changes or Evolving Situations

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Everyone was caught off-guard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and both governments and businesses had to find ways to adapt. The first hurdle many state and local governments had to overcome during this time was how to provide information and services to its citizens. . When a government institution keeps up with its systems and software, they are able to embrace IT innovation that can  quickly respond to citizens’ needs.

Lack of Resources

Technology has come a long way in the last two decades, and the IT personnel that maintained and operated the systems years ago are now reaching retirement age. . While new personnel can be taught to maintain these legacy systems, it is an expensive process that only adds to existing technical debt and overall costs to run them. Moreover, these  systems are hard to update and integrate with new technology.

Growing Cybersecurity Threats

The cost of maintaining the current technical debt also stands in the way of effective cybersecurity. In 2021 the White House called for a  move toward zero-trust architecture in government agencies. This requires state and local governments to move toward improved IT systems and more effective cyber defense capabilities.


However, currently, around 75% of the federal budget goes toward maintaining old systems lacking protection against advanced cyberattacks. Maintaining this cost makes moving towards zero-trust nearly impossible as state and local governments need to be able to free up budget to invest in newer and more secure systems.

Growing Gap In Integrating Innovative and Emerging Technologies

Frequently, legacy systems are unable to integrate with modern platforms, resulting in their data being isolated and incompatible with other data processing systems. When foundational IT systems are outdated, new updates take longer to apply, and when critical updates fail to install, these systems will continue to fall behind, creating opportunities for data breaches.

Increasing Total Cost of Ownership

Not only is there an increased risk of cyberattacks, but the overall cost of ownership can also impair a government agency’s ability to provide essential services. Additionally, the escalating costs will prevent agencies’ ability to  react to global incidents with innovative technology. As long as old IT systems stay in maintenance and recovery mode, government agencies could face a complete system failure. 

Where Technical Debt Originated

People at work looking at paperwork.

Government agencies have been made aware of and warned about technical debt since 2015. In fact, the General Services Administration reaffirmed that the growing costs associated with aging IT systems often prolong failures and outages and invite cyber breaches.

Managing Technical Debt

Technical debt leaves a  government agency vulnerable  and requires a risk-management strategy. To tackle technical debt, state and local governments need to follow a series of connected steps, starting with defining what constitutes technical debt.

These steps include:

  • Linking IT applications to the resources they consume
  • Deciding on and implementing a set of rules that allows for the alignment of decisions and prevents conflict of interest
  • Using specific resources to reduce technical debt and earmarking a defined budget to pay down technical debt 
  • Building a greenfield stack for technical debt that exceeds 50% of its asset value

Escalate Technical Debt as a Business Priority

Local and state government agencies should never relegate technical debt to the back burner as a technology issue. Instead, agencies should employ a dedicated IT team to observe the profit and loss patterns of each IT application and system. The team should then link the ownership of technical debt to their findings. This data will allow for the escalation of technical debt reduction to a strategic agency priority. 

Identify the Interconnectivity of the Technical Debt

After you have escalated the priority status, you need to focus on creating a roadmap of how large of a project this is, where you need to start and why. To do this, first prioritize  IT systems that currently work with each other and that will work with the new technology , such as infrastructure, individuals and departments. It may prove helpful to provide a framework for these systems that divide them into groups for investment, maintenance and winding down.

Tackle Technical Debt in Phases

Once you have created a roadmap for where your technical debt currently stands and how it is interconnected with other systems/people/departments you need to start tackling it. Doing so in a phased approach that includes a plan to continue to look into and evaluate things over the next 5,10,15+ years will prevent excess technical debt from building up, especially during times of uncertainty and emergency. 

Find Solutions to Your Technical Debt With Hartman

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If technical debt is encumbering your agency with inefficiencies and cyber threat risks, contact the state and local government experts at  Hartman Executive Advisors. We can help you implement solid strategies to protect and improve your legacy IT systems, and set up a lasting strategy to reduce technical debt.

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