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April 08, 2019

Defining IT Centralization

By Erin Strenio, Content Designer at 18F and Amy Ashida, UX Designer at 18F


The President’s Management Agenda rightly focuses on the need to modernize IT to better serve citizens and support agency missions in the digital age. There is also a heavy emphasis on the opportunity to reduce costs, redundancies and free up valuable work hours through increased standards and shared services. But putting people at the center of every step of these efforts isn’t just “good change management”, it is essential to find the right solution and making it stick. This guest blog series by Erin Strenio and Amy Ashida of 18F showcases the benefits of human-centered design as one of the tools to achieve the goals of the PMA.

This is the first in a series of posts on the importance of human-centered design when evaluating IT centralization. As part of a 10x project, they synthesized 18F’s learnings from agency partners that have been through centralization efforts before and have wisdom to share. The series explores how and why taking the time to prioritize users will mitigate risks and yield services that work better for the people they serve.

When you read about IT centralization and shared services, you don’t always hear how users are affected by the process. Instead, the focus is typically on reduced costs and increased efficiency, often the driving force behind a centralization effort. User needs aren’t always prioritized due to limited timelines, limited budgets, and competing agency pressures.

But allowing for users to inform centralization decisions is critical. Finding a problem or changing direction after investing six months and $500,000 into the centralization effort sure beats discovering it five years and $100 million tax dollars later. Large private and public enterprises spend hundreds of millions of dollars on centralization efforts that don’t end up delivering value to users. Many guides on centralization focus on IT as the ends not the means to achieving an agency’s mission. This often results in expensive vendor contracts that eventually get tossed out the window a few years later.

Directly engaging users while evaluating IT centralization can result in services that work better for the people they serve. This means less rework and fewer support issues down the road. An iterative process, not a waterfall approach, also decreases risk. Human-centered design methods can help every step of the way.

A good example of this approach in action is the U.S. Web Design System. With nearly 30,000 U.S federal websites and almost no consistency between them, it was crucial to create a centralized, shared design tool to benefit multiple agencies. It would allow agencies to build consistent, effective, easy-to-use digital experiences quickly and at a reduced cost. 18F joined forces with representatives from different federal agencies, and using human-centered design principles, worked to unify multiple interfaces, navigation tools, colors, fonts, and other visual identities. Since launching in 2015, over 180 government projects have adopted the system.

We’ve analyzed other instances of centralization as well, and unfortunately some didn’t go as expected. We’ve talked to users who understand how centralization has impacted their day-to-day work and collected insights about how this plays out. Our multi-part series shares learnings and best practices from real scenarios, with a focus on the following topics:

  • Part 1: Deciding whether or not to centralize
  • Part 2: Working with vendors to build a centralized solution
  • Part 3: What happens after you centralize?
  • Centralization gone right! A case study on the U.S. Web Design System

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method for IT centralization, there are helpful methods and tools you can incorporate into your process. Because at the end of the day, the goal of IT centralization should be to get your users to where they want to be more quickly, and to do so in a way that is cost-effective and compliant. It’s critical to keep a user-centered approach throughout this process.

Next in our series, we’ll help you decide whether or not to centralize and what to consider when making this decision. Feel free to reach out to the authors for more information, feedback and questions!

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