From government chatbots that respond to citizen queries to municipal infrastructure that predicts necessary repairs, the public sector of tomorrow has the potential to be significantly smarter than it is today. But improvements will not happen soon or extensively enough unless policy makers insist on these changes.
While some government agencies have taken early steps towards smarter government, all levels of government face significant obstacles that limit their ability and willingness to embrace data-driven innovation. Given the magnitude of the benefits at stake—more responsive government, new and more efficient public services, and increases in public safety, public health, and quality of life—policymakers should take steps to overcome these obstacles and accelerate the transformation to smarter government.
On December 5, 2017, the Center for Data Innovation hosted a conversation with public and private sector leaders about how data, artificial intelligence, and connected technologies can make all levels of government smarter and the steps policymakers should take to enable these changes.
Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation and vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, opened the event by outlined the day’s three themes: how to create more inclusive innovation, how government agencies can make better use of artificial intelligence (AI), and how government—which is often seen as slow to innovate—can become a tech leader.
Panel 1: Building Smart Communities
Panelists: Barney Krucoff (Chief Data Officer, District of Columbia), Andel Koester (Associate Director of the What Works Cities, Results for America), Preston Read (Senior Director for External Affairs, Verizon Smart Communities).
Moderated by Joshua New (Policy Analyst, Center for Data Innovation).
The growing web of connected devices is creating many opportunities for government agencies to collect and analyze vast quantities of data to improve services, make better decisions, and automate processes. But while there have been some successful early initiatives, most communities still have a long way to go before they will have fully integrated smart systems at every level of government.
In this panel, the speakers discussed what governments could do today to better prepare for a more connected future. In particular, the panelists focused on how policymakers can ensure the benefits of smart communities are enjoyed by all citizens, from dense urban centers on the coasts to rural towns in the heartland.
To begin, the three panelists agreed that the term “smart cities” is a major buzzword right now. Andel Koester, associated director of What Works Cities, stated that while mayors and city managers know they should be using technology, many don’t know how to effectively implement these new tools. Barney Krucoff, chief data officer at the District of Columbia, said that it’s good that it is such a buzzword, since it is indicative of good government. In his words, all good governments adopt new tools and apply them to their missions.
Preston Read, senior director for external affairs at Verizon Smart Communities, was less inclined to fully label “smart cities” as a buzzword. Rather, he said that he is optimistic that the nation is moving more toward a complex understanding of the phrase and is focusing more on problems to solve, such as congestion, public safety, or energy efficiency. He views this as shifting from a “technology for technology’s sake” movement to focusing more on improving the quality of life.
Throughout the discussion, Krucoff emphasized the importance of sharing data. In his view, that will help improve everything—from parking to security.
Though many officials might perceive smart cities as being too new, risky, or expensive, the panelists all stated that cities can make changes now to become more effective and efficient. Krucoff recommended that cities start employing more data-driven techniques into their operations today. Koester and Read reiterated the need to share data. She also said that this shift is a culture of change issue, but she believes there is currently a real generational change in leadership—not necessarily in age, but in experience—will make the change.
Koester does not believe that smart city technology is something that only large cities can pull off, especially since her organization works with a lot of mid-sized cities. However, she noted that smaller cities and towns will face one challenge in particular: employing enough staff with the skills needed to operate smart cities. However, she also noted that smart city techniques do not just need to be run at the city level and can be operated at the county or regional level, which may help in these situations. Read believes that smart city technology will greatly benefit rural areas, particularly through the use of telemedicine and new farming technologies.
Overall, more city governments are becoming aware of the benefits of new technologies and interoperability. These technologies will greatly change how governments operate, likely increasing the quality of life for many citizens.
Panel 2: Using AI to Automate Government
Panelists: Alec Chalmers (Director, Public Sector Vertical Sales, Amazon Web Services), William Eggers (Executive Director, Center for Government Insights, Deloitte), Justin Herman (Emerging Citizens Technology Program Lead, General Services Administration).
Moderated by Daniel Castro (Director, Center for Data Innovation).
Advances in AI are creating opportunities to increase productivity while increasing value, in part by automating routine processes and extracting insights from complex datasets. However, this raises important questions: Where are the initial opportunities to use AI in government, and what impact will this have on government agencies? Moreover, what steps should government executives take to integrate AI into their agencies to make them smarter, more efficient, and more effective than ever before?
This panel began with all speakers acknowledging how revolutionary AI will be on government operations. In fact, William Eggers, executive director at Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights, claimed that no technology will have a greater impact on government and society over the next 10 years than AI.
In particular, the panelists discussed how AI will allow the government to automate tasks that take up a lot of employees’ time—most notably, paperwork and other administrative responsibilities. For example, Alec Chalmers, director of public sector vertical sales at Amazon Web Services, shared that caseworkers only spend one-third of their time actually serving constituents. AI would free up their time so they could help more people. Castro, who moderated the event, pointed out that increased automation could positively impact the perception of government jobs, since many people dismiss them as having too much of a paperwork element.
Justin Herman, who is the Emerging Citizens Technology Program Lead at the General Services Administration, believes that people focus too much on the intangible future of AI. Rather, he said there are technologies and solutions that can directly impact any mission within the federal government right now—and this is true for all agencies, since they all have data that can be used more effectively. However, he noted the importance of convincing government workers to see themselves as stakeholders in this change, so that they feel more invested in its success.
To illustrate this, Chalmers shared an example of one police officer in Washington County, Oregon, who was able to employ facial recognition software to make law enforcement operations more efficient and effective.
Eggers mentioned that increased use of AI and automation will require a major redesign of work. He highlighted an AT&T program which is aimed at teaching 100,000 employees new skills to increase their digital savviness. He also believes that design will be a very marketable skill for future employees. On the same note, Herman shared that there is a demand for training more federal employees.
Overall, AI and automation has the power to dramatically change how the government operates and functions, potentially making it more effective and efficient at its tasks.
Panel 3: Establishing Government as a Digital Leader
Panelists: David Bray (Executive Director, People-Centered Internet), Meagan Metzger (Founder and CEO, decode42), Andrew Trueblood, (Chief of Staff, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, District of Columbia Government).
Moderated by Daniel Castro (Director, Center for Data Innovation).
When it comes to technological adoption, too often government agencies lag behind the private sector, instead of setting the pace of change. However, this does not have to be the case. This panel discussed how the government can reclaim the mantle of digital leader through rapidly embracing emerging technologies, how some agencies managed to incorporate data-driven innovation into their mission, and how others can replicate their successes.
To begin, the panelists acknowledged that it will be difficult to transform the government into a digital leader, but it will be possible. David Bray, executive director of People-Centered Internet, specifically encouraged citizens to pressure the government to innovate. He also pointed out that many people aren’t willing to allow the government to experiment, since that could lead to failure which often entails wasted taxpayer money.
Meagan Metzger, founder and CEO of decode42, stated that one major issue with governments is that they are not willing to take risks. However, many could take small steps right now to innovate and operate more efficiently—for example, updating outdated systems. In addition, she pointed out that while the government is working hard to acquire new talent, many employees do not feel they have the technological tools to effectively do their jobs.
The panel as a whole reiterated the importance of being willing to take risks. Metzger emphasized that an important part of risk-taking is being willing to close down some failing projects, even though it may look like a failure.
Andrew Trueblood, chief of staff and deputy mayor for planning and economic development for the District of Columbia, spoke about how governments should share more data with the public. While the District of Columbia hasn’t shared a lot of its technological strategies publicly (though it has posted some on GitHub), he thinks the interoperability and transferability of new technology is very important. In addition, he stated that partnerships with private and non-profit firms, as well as using contracts to get revenue and test new concepts, could spur innovation.
Leadership is an integral part of innovation, and all panelists agreed that a top-down form of leadership is best. However, that does not mean that the leader micromanages or dictates every action. Rather, the leader sets an objective or goalpost, and the changemakers below work to achieve that goal.
The panel also discussed how to confront biases, particularly since people may be willing to dismiss data they feel is wrong. Bray believes that people should have their biases pointed out to them, so that they can confront them and change. Metzger said that it’s imperative to ensure that the data sets and the people creating the models are diverse, in order to get the best and most representative results. Trueblood also emphasized that great data combined with the human element go hand in hand. In other words, data can enhance human performance, and vice versa.
Ultimately, government can become a technological leader. It doesn’t have to create innovative, new technologies, but rather, it needs to become an early adopter to more better serve its constituents.
StateScoop is the exclusive media partner for this event.