Podcast: Transforming Government Operations Using IT, With Bill Eggers

June 29, 2020

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COVID-19 has forced governments at all levels to implement changes in their operating structures that probably should have happened a decade ago. A worldwide shift toward remote work and a more distant lifestyle now means governments will need to find different methods of delivering public services long term. Rob and Jackie discuss e-government opportunities and how flipping orthodoxies can (and should) reinvent government operating models with Bill Eggers, executive director of Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights.





Rob Atkinson: Welcome to Innovation Files. I’m Rob Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. We are a DC based think tank that works on technology policy.

Jackie Whisman: And I’m Jackie Whisman. I handle outreach at ITIF, which I’m proud to say is the top ranked think tank for science and technology policy.

Rob Atkinson: And this podcast is about the kinds of issues we cover at ITIF from the broad economics of innovation to specific policy and regulatory questions about new technologies. In this episode, we’re talking about e-government and how to improve government services all the way from the federal level, all the way to the local level, through information technology. Office closure, social distancing, and health concerns have forced governments all around the country and the world to accelerate a digitization process that might otherwise have taken years to test out. And so now we’re seeing how that’s all going to play out and where we need to go forward.

Jackie Whisman: It was only a couple of years ago that our ITIF report on benchmarking US government websites found that more than nine out of 10 of the most popular federal government websites fell short of government and industry standards for design and development.

Rob Atkinson: Right. And in another study that we focused on state government websites, which are some of the most heavily used on the internet, we also found many of them failing to meet best practices. Today’s guest has been thinking about and writing about this for years all the way back before the year 2000. So I’m really excited to talk to him about his ideas for a path forward.

Jackie Whisman: Bill Eggers is the executive director of Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights, where he is responsible for the firm’s public sector thought leadership. His most recent book is, Delivering on Digital: The Innovators and Technologies That Are Transforming Government. Welcome, Bill.

Bill EggersBill Eggers: It’s so great to be with you here today. I’ve been reading your work since the very inception, and then I’ve been reading Rob of course, for even longer than that back when he was at Progressive Policy Institute. So it’s a real honor to be here today.

Rob Atkinson: Well, thanks Bill. One of the things, I think we got to know each other when you were advising the Bush campaign and the in 2000. And you were instrumental in getting the campaign to adopt a very forward looking e-government agenda, including creation of the federal CIO and an e-government fund that actually ended up getting put in place and we still have it today. So that was great work.

Bill Eggers: Originally coming from you. So you are the [inaudible 00:02:49]-

Jackie Whisman: Well, that’s why he thinks it’s so great.

Bill Eggers: ... the father of the CIO and the e-government.

Rob Atkinson: Thanks, Bill. So you and a couple of colleagues recently released a really intriguing white paper called, “Transforming Government Post COVID-19.” And I thought of the most interesting things in the paper, you write about what you call “flipping orthodoxies” when it comes to the way governments operate. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Bill Eggers: Sure. So right now, governments all over the world they’re beginning to reopen not just the economies, but also their own offices and operations. And because of social distancing or some variety of things, they really can’t go back to business as usual. They have to change their operating models to adapt to this very new operating environment. And in many respects, that’s a good thing because the response to the pandemic I think is highlighting many of government’s orthodoxies, which are these deeply held beliefs about how things really should be done. Oftentimes they’re unstated, they’re unquestioned, and by flipping them could lead to significant improvements in government and they should use COVID-19 as a forcing function to transform operations and service delivery regulation, procurement. And we’re starting to already see major transformations of government working in almost real time from the instant move to telework, to the digitization of scores at physically provided services.

I like to think of it as a lot of these things would have taken maybe years and years of pilot to do and to scale is always very, very difficult. But now we’re seeing these things having to scale, and we’re seeing some really ... a lot of innovative things happening. In India, they’re piloting AI app driven driving exams because they can’t have instructors. The UK has seen digital court cases heard by video or teleconference rise by 800 percent since the pandemic. And I think about this ... when you think about the disastrous launch of healthcare.gov a number of years ago, it actually ended up being the best thing that ever happened to digital government in the United States, because it forced the president, his top advisors, cabinet heads and members of Congress to all directly consider how a website should function, how digital services should be delivered.

And they ended up making some major, major fundamental changes that led to the introduction of the US digital service, and 18F and a variety of other things. And I actually think the pandemic is going to have that same sort of an impact if not greater actually in dramatically accelerating introduction of digital transformation, both in the US and also all over the world.

Rob Atkinson: So one thing, Bill, I hope it accelerates this other thing, which is ... you made a really good point, which is, in the old days, pre-COVID days, you might have somebody who is bold enough to do an experiment, but it’d be a very small experiment. It would take a long time and five out of 10 times maybe more, it doesn’t get replicated, it doesn’t get scaled. And I think we’ve shown that you don’t have to do it that way anymore. You you can be bold. You can scale things up. You can take big risk and transform very quickly and it can work quite well.

Bill Eggers: Absolutely. And people keep asking me whether they believe that things will go back to the way that they were, will these sort of changes stick? And so forth. And I think the fact is we actually have all this data now. We have a lot of data that you can actually telework, that millions and millions of workers can telework without it massively decreasing productivity. In fact, productivity is increased in a way we’ve shown that you can do a lot of these physical services, you can kind of provide them digitally, dematerialization of these services. And I think that those proof points are going to prove really, really important. A senior executive at the VA has told us that two months and three months essentially, they were able to accelerate by five years the adoption of telehealth in the VA. And so we’ve seen a lot of examples like that. And so I think when we look back historically, in digital government and AI and so forth that this will have been a real key defining moment.

Jackie Whisman: What are some examples of orthodoxies that still need to be flipped?

Bill Eggers: Well, one of them is just as I mentioned, that most government services must be delivered in person. Think about driving tests, court proceedings, inspections, social worker visits, they’ve always been conducted in person. And in fact, despite two decades now of digital, we still have a lot of government transactions are not through digital means. And I think what we’ve shown now is the pandemic is kind of forcing governments to shift on array of these online. And so many countries have moved to virtual courts, to motor vehicle departments have accelerated the availability of digital services. California can now do 95 percent of them digitally. We’ve had offices, USDA, Social Security, Motor Vehicle, all of these field offices have been closed now since March. And so they’ve kind of forced these sort of things. And I think we’re going to see a lot more innovation in there.

And another one is that physical presence is needed to authenticate identity. For decades, governments have insisted on a physical presence to identify, verify and authenticate people. And what we’ve seen now is the flipped orthodoxies, the digital ID is the new passport really. And many governments have found that these digital identity programs have been immensely beneficial during COVID-19. They’ve come solving the last-mile problem when individuals have needed them the most. The biggest one in the world is in India, where basically every citizen in India has a digital identification. It was I think probably the biggest digital project we’ve seen in history. And it links bank accounts to citizens’ mobile numbers and digital identity credentials. And it’s being used to disperse COVID-19 cash relief. And we’re seeing a variety of other countries really accelerate their movement to digital identification like South Korea and others.

And this is an area where the US is really falling pretty far behind right now. And it’s because of kind of jurisdictional issues, who owns the identity? And so forth. But you can’t have seamless 360 degrees sort of citizen online services without digital ID. So I’m hoping this will accelerate that movement here in the US which has been slower than other parts of the world.

Rob Atkinson: You mentioned that ... I remember back when I was at PPI, we came out with a report after 9/11 tragedy, and we called for the creation of a voluntary digital ID that you could get with your driver’s license. And we actually had a ... it was a bill introduced by, at the time Congressman Jim Moran and Congressman Tom Davis, a Republican and a Democrat, both great members when it came to thinking about technology.

Bill Eggers: Tom Davis is a former colleague and a very good friend and one of the, I think the leading members of Congress in the last couple of decades in terms of government IT issues.

Rob Atkinson: Absolutely right. And so this bill unfortunately it was demagogued by groups like the ACLU—“the national ID.” It had nothing to do with the national ID. It simply gave States the support and incentives to create state level voluntary digital IDs. That didn’t go anywhere. 2009 my colleague Daniel Castro wrote a big report on what countries are doing the best on digital identities, Estonia at the time being the best, as you mentioned India now, and we were doing nothing. But a year and a half ago, we proposed an initiative where, again, voluntarily you should be able to get your passport and pay an extra $20 and get a digital ID through that. Partly just to sort of get the market going and then other people would demand it. Do you think maybe we’ve turned a corner and maybe we’ll start to see some movement, even in certain states ... I think we saw Iowa was playing around with this?

Bill Eggers: Yes. There are actually five states right now that are working on this right now. And Colorado is another one. We also at the federal level, GSA has a big initiative around digital identification. I know it’s really, really a very high priority for them right now. I think the biggest problem is kind of who’s going to lead in this? Because at the federal level, you’ve got GSA, you’ve got Social Security Administration, which you could say that they could play a role. You’ve even got US Postal Service wanting to be involved in this in some respect in terms of having the retail outlets, but then there’s the state DMVs. And I think that’s been one of the big barriers in the US compared to other countries. I’m guessing in the end that this will probably lie with the state DMVs, but almost every country in Europe has a pretty aggressive program around not only digital ID, but mirroring a Estonia in terms of once only, which is wonderful.

It means that you only have to give your information government once. And then it’s shared among other government agencies and other levels of government with of course, a different kind of precautions and so forth and standards. And that would make a very, very big difference. And I think we’re a little further away in that area also.

Jackie Whisman: I think anyone who’s had to apply for a driver’s license, or a passport or get a new Social Security paper card would applaud these suggestions, but what are the most important things to consider in implementing these digital applications for government services and digital IDs?

Bill Eggers: Yeah. There’s a variety of things. I wrote a whole book on this called, Delivering on Digital, which looked at the government’s digital transformation, which is the second book I’ve written on that I’ve written one 10 years earlier or so, Government 2.0, where I looked at the e-gov movement. And this was really to see, this book, I look back and I said, “Why did a lot of the things that Rob, myself and others who had been big cheerleaders for digital transformation, why hadn’t a lot of this happened before and so forth? And why is it more likely now?” One of the things I talked about in this book was that most people think of, it is about the need to hack bureaucracy. And what I mean by that is most people think of hacking in a more pejorative sense, breaking into computer systems.

We can have the gun companies, but in the digital world, hacking has a different meaning, it’s to use ingenuity, digital prowess to fix a problem. And that’s really the sort of mindset they need. We need to hackers in this positive sense, productively disrupting and curious and so forth. So the argument is that for most established government processes, you’ve got hiring or training, project delivery, procurement, security, what have you, they’re mostly incompatible with the digital way of working and they need to be transformed and redesigned or hacked in the best sense of the word to achieve digital transformation. And that’s what’s really key is that you need to find ways to creatively perform and modernize these longstanding, bureaucratic process because they don’t work right in the digital world. And then what governments need to do is kind of look at how can they use these digital technologies and other emerging technologies to completely rethink how they deliver services and achieve their missions.

And that’s around just re-imagining and redesign of these. An example, moving from prisons to electronic monitoring for nonviolent offenders, for example. That’s a re-imagining of how you deliver a service and I think that’s where we’re at this stage, where we’re starting to see some of these things are happening. And that’s the really exciting point. And it just, goes well, well beyond government websites.

Rob Atkinson: Bill, your point about me reminded me way back when that famous book by Michael Hammer on reengineering the corporation, which, it was a little bit of fluff, but it had a fundamental core point, which is what you just said is, you can’t pave over the cow path. You’ve got to do something different.

I was on a NASCIO call a while back, National Association of State CIOs. And before the call, we were talking about this challenge and one of them was DMVs. And one of the things that struck me was you don’t see many states, at least I haven’t, who go in and they say, “Okay, what are we actually ... what are the functions we’re actually doing here? And how could we turn all of those functions or 95 to 99 percent of them into digital? It’s more happenstance. And I think what you are saying is, you need a more systematic approach that really looks at the functions rather than starts with the technologies, is that right?

Bill Eggers: Absolutely. And then we do talk about that in the “Challenging Orthodoxy” piece, and actually we point to, Clay Christiansen talked about in his work on disruptive innovation as looking at, what’s the job to be done? And you fundamentally look at what is the actual job to be done? What do you want to accomplish in the end? And then you come up with a new way of actually getting that job done rather than starting from where things are today. And an example of that is, something like what Netflix said, the job to be done is not just to have people go to a video store and so forth, they just want to see a movie. How can we stream that directly into their house? Or getting a flu shot used to be going into a doctor’s office and so forth and doing that. But all we cared about was really just getting the vaccine. And so now we can do that at a CVS.

And so really focusing on the job to be done then allows you to do a lot of these things very, very differently than we’ve done them before. And that’s where you get the sort of much more transformational approaches.

Jackie Whisman: What are some of the most exciting things you’re seeing in government these days using IT?

Bill Eggers: Well, just in the pandemic, we’ve seen some really interesting things. Robots and drones and other technologies have been used for thermal screening and disinfection, remote patient monitoring. We’ve seen in China robots monitoring patient health, delivering meals and even disinfecting services and so forth. I do think-

Jackie Whisman: I need that in my house.

Bill Eggers: I am going to be first on the list when they have multipurpose a robot. But I think that what ... I really do think of one of the certainly technologies that’s going to have the biggest impact on government over the next decade is artificial intelligence. And you guys have written some wonderful, wonderful papers on this and especially around the regulatory issues and ethical issues of AI, but one of the reason why AI can work well for government is that it needs huge volumes of data.

Governments have lots, plenty of volume and the US federal government has already digitized hundreds of millions of pages of government records. And when you do all of that, you can have an enormous sort of impact. So we did the first ever analysis of how federal employees spend their time using a variety of data sets. And we found that they spent 4.3 billion hours doing a whole variety of tasks and activities. And it turns out no big surprise that a lot of those tasks and activities were paperwork-oriented. For instance, 450 million hours spent just recording and documenting information, and very little time actually spent on things like training, and coaching others and developing others. So we found that you can free up 1.3 billion hours, 1.3 billion hours just by using digital automation, technologies or robotic process automation that are available today.

And that’s a day a week from almost every federal employee. So it really pretty incredible sort of things you can do with AI in all its forms, it could generate new abilities in national security, food safety regulation and healthcare. There’s really no area it’s not going to have an impact, but the problem is, and this gets to what we’re talking about with digital, you need a strategy, you need a strategy or else it’s going to be just done in fits and starts and it’s not going to be done in a significant way. And this is what we saw early on with e-government. It basically was paving the cow paths as Rob said. So you can’t graft AI onto existing organizations and processes. You have to have kind of an integrated set of decisions and actions, a strategy, complex choices are involved with applications to be prioritized.

Which technologies do we use? How do we articulate its value to the workforce? How do we manage AI projects? And without this sort of overarching strategy, I’m worried that it would ... these complex technology initiatives they often drift. They can fix easy problems in silo departments or sometimes they just automate inefficiencies, putting lipstick on a bulldog. And so that’s I think the key thing, and we found that with digital transformation very, very clearly. And I think we’re going to find the same thing with AI today.

Rob Atkinson: So Bill, and maybe my last question, your point about strategy reminds me of great Yogi Berra quote, where he said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else.” And here, to me, one of the things about ... one of the core questions is where should government go? And I’ve written on this and I know you’ve written on this. And one of our core points is, especially now in this period where we’re going to face government fiscal austerity for a long, long time, because of the COVID crisis, to us, one of the places where you want to go is efficiency, is cost savings, is higher productivity. This is what corporations have done. They’ve driven out costs by using digital. And yet government seems ambiguous about that at best. Where do you see government going with that? And that’s also goes to this other point of government can never get enough money to modernize because well, it costs money, the legislature says.

But if you could make a case, yeah, it costs money, but your ROI over a period is going to be a lot bigger because you’re cutting costs and improving quality. How do you see that all playing out now?

Bill Eggers: Well, first of all, you’re absolutely right. I’m writing a piece right now looking at how state and local governments are going to address the massive, massive budget deficits that they’re going to be facing. And digitization is going to be one of the most important ways of doing so. Because sometimes you can see cost takeouts of up not 10 percent, but up to 70, 80 percent. So it’s going to be absolutely critical. Now, as to the getting the money part, I hear that all the time and want to kind of address it. So first of all, governments need to spend what they have better. And this means shifting the spending from legacy operating systems. Right now on these legacy systems, they’re holding agencies back from using these new technologies from creating these modern experiences. The US government will spend about $90 billion on IT just in the civilian sector this fiscal year.

And that’s more than many fortune 50 companies earning revenue in a year, but about 75 percent of all that is spent on non-major investments. So it’s basically just operating these legacy systems. And what you’ve seen, what we see in the private sector is they’ve been shifting data applications to the cloud, they’ve been hosting services on the cloud environment, which allows a lot more flexibility. They’re using agile and DevOps to design, build and maintain these services and solutions. And so they’re able to take a lot of the money out of that kind of the core sort of dis-operating systems and put it more into productivity-enhancing solutions, the sort of thing that you guys have written a lot about.

So that’s I think one of the key things. Secondly, many of these productivity enhancing digital and AI applications are not necessarily budget busters, they can be produced in agile sprints. Third, I think much of the AI capabilities governments needs will be able to be accessed through software-as-a-service. AI intelligence is already being built into all the next generation of countless software that governments are already using. The last thing I would say for state and local governments is they get a lot of money for technology systems and so forth from the federal government. And they can use those to bring a lot of sort of the modern IT to bear. And I think we’re going to start to see that in areas like Medicaid systems and others.

Jackie Whisman: Well, thanks so much for being here, Bill. I feel like we could talk for another few hours, but we have a limited time. So can you tell our listeners where they can find you and follow your work?

Bill Eggers: Sure. On Twitter, I’m @WDEggers. I’m on LinkedIn and you can also find me on-

Jackie Whisman: Buy all your books.

Bill Eggers: ... either Amazon ... yeah, go on Amazon, buy the books and we will be launching a podcast series in a couple months on the future of government.

Jackie Whisman: We will link to your books in the show notes. And Rob looks forward to being a guest on your podcast.

Bill Eggers: Absolutely.

Jackie Whisman: Thanks again. And that’s it for this week. If you liked it, please be sure to rate us and subscribe. You can find the show notes and sign up for our weekly email newsletter on itif.org. Feel free to email show ideas or questions to [email protected] and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn—@ITFdc.

Rob Atkinson: That’s it for now. We have more episodes and great guests lined up, and new episodes will drop every Monday morning. So we hope you’ll tune in next week.