The Pandemic Is Turbo-charging Government Innovation: Will It Stick?

As the U.S. government steps in to address the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, “solutions can and should be designed that realize long-term benefits and capture the full potential of technology innovation in the years to come,” write the authors of this opinion piece — John Goodman, Chief Executive Officer of Accenture Federal Services, and Ira Entis, Managing Director of Accenture Federal Services Growth and Strategy. The trick for making these solutions stick, they say, is transitioning from a focus on modernization to a culture of continuous innovation.

The world’s getting more crowded, more interconnected, more complicated. Not surprisingly, the challenges the U.S. confronts today are increasingly complex, fast-shifting, and harder — if not impossible — to tackle with traditional tools and methods. Just consider persistent challenges like cybersecurity, healthcare, and the one we are all most concerned about right now: the COVID-19 pandemic and its many troubling repercussions. As government steps in to address these issues, solutions can and should be designed that realize long-term benefits and capture the full potential of technology innovation in the years to come.

Challenges like these really bring into focus the many critical roles that government agencies play in our lives. The current environment underscores how important it is that our government operate with the latest innovations and capabilities in hand. Government leaders need data-derived insights at their disposal and advanced technology tools that allow them to move rapidly and collaboratively as their mission-focused workloads require.

For policy makers, today’s COVID-19 crisis is heightening the urgency for government modernization: The massive $2 trillion coronavirus aid package passed by Congress in March includes $340 billion in new government appropriations, much of which will go toward government telework, telehealth, cybersecurity, and network bandwidth initiatives.

Just as many companies are employing artificial intelligence, machine learning, and advanced data analytics to rapidly model potential COVID-19 vaccines and anticipate where the pandemic is likely to spread, so too is government turning to innovation for assistance. To cite just a few examples:

  • The Army is developing a cloud-based health information management system to create “virtual critical care wards” at new field hospitals being built around the country.
  • Three federal agencies — the Food and Drug Administration, Veterans Affairs Department, and National Institutes of Health — are teaming up to test 3D-printed personal protective equipment and other medical supplies needed to fight the pandemic.
  • The Veterans Affairs Department is accelerating telehealth initiatives to treat veterans remotely during the pandemic.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are employing advanced data analytics capabilities to synthesize vast sets of disparate health data to understand how the novel coronavirus is spreading.
  • The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a congressionally chartered, independent commission, is urging Congress to double federal research and development spending on artificial intelligence in fiscal 2021 and then double it again the following year. Eric Schmidt, the commission chairman and former Google CEO, said this increased funding is even more important now to help address the coronavirus pandemic.
  • The Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory is leading a national coordinated effort to employ supercomputers in producing and assessing epidemiological models to simulate and improve understanding around how the COVID-19 virus spreads.

As government increasingly adopts and applies innovative technologies — whether in response to specific crises or to address other mission needs — we all reap benefits down the road, many of which are often unforeseen at first. Innovations that are ubiquitous today, including the Internet, GPS, touchscreen display, smart phones, and voice-activated personal assistants, all stem from government investments.

Yet this impressive legacy of government-driven innovation often gets overshadowed by the outdated technology and archaic business processes that are still embedded across the government. Many federal agencies still rely on legacy IT systems and business processes — some of which are decades old — to run their day-to-day operations and businesses – critical to national security and quality of life.

Government leaders need data-derived insights at their disposal and advanced technology tools that allow them to move rapidly and collaboratively as their mission-focused workloads require.

Until recently, government agencies have been relatively slow in adopting emerging technologies and commercial best practices — cloud computing, artificial intelligence, robotic process automation (RPA), human-centered design, and customer experience, to name a few — that have been powering positive disruptions in the commercial sector for years.

In the government’s defense, there have been legitimate reasons for that delay. Federal agencies have been slowed in their efforts to embrace modern technologies and practices by archaic procurement systems. They have tried to adapt commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) software to rigid, complex, decades-old internal business processes that are often rooted in law and shaped by highly prescriptive compliance regulations. Given the highly sensitive nature of their data and missions, they have legitimate privacy and security concerns to sort out with many commercial technologies. The changing nature of work has also added workforce reskilling costs when onboarding new technologies and practices. And then consider the scale and complexity of many government operations and missions that would make the application of new technologies challenging under any circumstance.

It turns out that the government’s delays in technology adoption in the last two decades may have worked to its favor. Commercial tech companies during that time have steadily improved the security, portability, scale, ease of use, and interoperability of their offerings. Emerging capabilities such as software-defined everything, virtualization, containerization, open source software, API connectivity, advanced encryption, advanced data visualization, robotic process automation (RPA), and machine learning have evolved in recent years to the point where commercial technologies today are exceedingly more adaptable to government needs and use cases.

And, to their credit, federal agencies throughout that period have been busy overhauling their outdated bureaucratic approaches, refreshing their modernization goals, and overcoming many of the tech adoption hurdles they previously faced. Federal leaders have persistently and effectively pressed for reforms, experimentation, and workarounds to smooth out the many points of friction that have slowed modernization progress.

Government Transformation Is Already Under Way

Consequently, government today is truly poised to achieve transformational change. In fact, we are already seeing progress toward this.

Most importantly, federal agencies are turning the corner in their adoption of commercial cloud services. Cloud computing has emerged as the centerpiece of federal IT modernization efforts, and agencies now fully recognize the power of the cloud to help them improve and expand their mission capabilities, increase agility and responsiveness, contain costs, and enhance security. In short, federal agencies correctly view cloud adoption as pivotal in their ability to leap-frog from being technology laggards to technology leaders.

As a result, we are seeing agencies make unprecedented investments in cloud services: Federal cloud spending, which totaled $2.4 billion in 2014, has steadily accelerated to a projected $7.1 billion for this fiscal year, according to Bloomberg Government. Agencies, such as the departments of Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, and the Air Force, are leading the charge on cloud, while others, such as the departments of Education, Treasury, State, and Agriculture, are embarking on enterprise-wide IT modernizations today.

Importantly, these cloud investments are now unlocking billions of dollars in spending on cloud-enabled digital services, artificial intelligence (AI), and other capabilities that can help agencies translate their vast, accumulating stores of data into mission-advancing insights and operational efficiencies. Civilian and defense agencies across government are steadily expanding their annual investments in AI and web and mobile-based government services from roughly $4 billion in 2016 to a conservative estimate of more than $6.6 billion projected for this fiscal year.

Government today is truly poised to achieve transformational change. In fact, we are already seeing progress toward this.

With cloud capabilities in place, agencies are positioned to use emerging technologies to tackle case management backlogs, improve citizen services, and deliver more holistic responses to today’s emerging and complex challenges, such as multi-domain operations in defense, public health, cybersecurity, and the transitioning economy.

Government agencies are also beginning to apply private sector concepts like human-centered design, customer experience, and behavioral science in their service deliveries. For example, more than two dozen agencies — ranging from the IRS and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to the Office of Federal Student Aid — are designated as “high-impact service providers” which means they must measure and improve the impact of the customer experiences they deliver to citizens. Likewise, agencies this year plan to accelerate their adoption of robotic process automation (RPA) — or “bots” — to automate and modernize repeatable business processes, so they can transition employees to higher-value work.

We are also now seeing steady rollouts of modernized citizen-facing digital experiences. For example, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is developing AI-enabled research tools to help its staff process patent and trademark applications more efficiently. Likewise, Health and Human Services plans to employ AI, intelligent automation, blockchain, micro-services, machine learning, natural language processing, and RPA to support services like medication adherence, decentralized clinical trials, evidence management, outcomes-based pricing, and pharmaceutical supply chain visibility.

These rollouts represent meaningful advances in the way government is stepping up to the challenge of modernization. But perhaps the hardest challenge lies ahead, which is this: Government agencies will need to think about and metabolize innovation in fundamentally different ways going forward. Cloud, AI, and automation cannot be thought of as a “one and done” modernization project or even as a series of projects. Technologies will constantly advance, so agencies need a different mindset that views innovation as a non-stop journey of continuous evolution and adaptation. This means government agencies need to re-orient their strategic planning, budgeting, and cultures to think and plan in those terms.

Other new challenges will emerge as well. For example, the government needs to address how to maximize the use of its data and ensure that the data-driven capabilities they deploy are ethical, unbiased, and intuitive to use. In fact, we already see new tools in law enforcement, housing, commercial banking, and human resources that address the ethical use of AI. The Defense Department has also issued its own draft set of principles and recommendations on ethics and AI for department leaders to consider.

The Next Chapter in Government Innovation

So, what comes next in the government’s innovation arc? As emerging technologies become more normalized within government environments, we expect to see agency leaders fundamentally shift their thinking about the role of technology in their agencies’ mission success, just as we have seen occur in the private sector.

To illustrate this point, think of the most innovation-driven companies. Most if not all of them fundamentally view themselves as technology companies first, regardless of what business they are in. Amazon.com, for example, views itself as an information technology company that employs digital capabilities to produce a tremendous user experience and highly synchronized logistics operation to support a large-scale retail business. Numerous other companies, including Federal Express, Disney and Capital One, to name just a few, invested in more robust digital capabilities so they could reinvent their own businesses and service-delivery models for a new era.

Likewise, government needs to do this as well. But this can only happen when policy makers and agency leaders begin to view IT as a foundational investment in their future mission performance rather than a line item business expense. Once this happens, this critical shift in mindset will set off a chain of new thinking among government employees and the public alike. As government begins experimenting and seeing successes as they invent new approaches to deliver services, conduct their business, and meet their missions, we will see the culture shift as well.

Technologies will constantly advance, so agencies need a different mindset that views innovation as a non-stop journey of continuous evolution and adaptation.

For example, as modernization efforts advance, technology will remove much of the repetitive, manual work now done by government employees, freeing them up to take on higher-impact work where they will be more empowered with access to data and modern tools so they can contribute more independently and directly to their agencies’ performance. However, to sustain this, government workplaces will need to build cultures that prioritize continuous, dynamic reskilling and training to keep pace with the velocity of change.

If managed well, we should see government begin to prioritize continuous innovation and use private sector best practices to produce a steady stream of future-focused pilot projects that can be iterated further and eventually scaled to wider applications. This can involve creating sandboxes and field labs that run innovation trials and pilot new technologies and approaches.

These efforts will lead to AI and data analytics becoming embedded in day-to-day enterprise operations and applied to massive amounts of structured and unstructured data. This will enable federal agencies to dramatically reduce the latency of information, produce greater insights, and better inform their policy and decision-making.

Eventually, government will move more aggressively beyond project-focused innovation efforts and transition to more scalable delivery frameworks and ecosystems. This means adopting open, standards-based technology platforms that enable agencies to be more future-ready, flexible, and capable of scaling innovation to far larger use cases. This is especially critical in an age where government agencies — and the mission solutions they employ — operate increasingly within a broader ecosystem of other government agencies, nonprofits, academia, start-ups, digital-savvy companies, and crowd-sourcing platforms.

Regardless of where the government’s modernization journey leads from here, the important point is that the federal government is now poised to embrace the emerging technologies and innovative thought driving much of today’s advances and make dramatic leap-frog advances as a result.

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