Can the government outsource solutions to its problems?

Recently, IT has taken on a central role in addressing a range of federal-level problems. Now, some officials are hoping IT can open the door to a new kind of collaboration that harnesses new approaches, state and local governments and the public to get back on course.

As leadership looks toward solutions that are agile – able to be quickly tested out and deployed if they work – a number of new initiatives are cropping up that enable non-traditional, multi-lateral communication and problem-solving. The timing is critical, according to officials.

“The problems are growing…we have a lot of economic impediments at the same time that we’re being pressed to do more. Demands are coming in to act more like the private sector…and we have fewer and fewer resources,” Chris Vein, White House chief technology officer, said at the GITEC conference in Baltimore May 21. “We can’t wait any longer; we have to start solving problems, we have to be creative and we have to do things differently. It requires a paradigm change.”

One example of the unconventional approaches being employed is the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM), a customer-driven project with roots in state and local government that’s being used at some federal agencies, including the Homeland Security Department.

“Shared services require governance by customer – this program was built to be governed by the customer and respond to their concerns. It’s an opportunity for conversation between federal, state and local and industry…to make meaningful connections and solve the big problems we face today,” said Donna Roy, NIEM executive director at DHS. “When you bring the right people to the table, you start to enable government success.”

NIEM has been in use at DHS for several years, but the benefits are now tangible and serve as an example to other federal agencies.

Early on, it was used in building a service-oriented architecture at the organization. By capitalizing on lessons from state and local use – including the establishment of the Amber Alert system and a new pilot prescription drug-monitoring program – NIEM and DHS are using IT to standardize information-sharing that chips away at large-scale problems and, in some cases, saves lives. Now Congress is looking to expand the program.

The idea is to create a new platform using the government itself, according to Vein.

“The concept is that government can become a platform by looking at the assets we have available and using those assets ourselves, but also making them available to anyone and everyone so they can create economic value out of them – and help solve some of the most vexing problems we have as a government,” he said. “The smartest people don’t work for us; the smartest people work for other people. How can we harvest that talent?”

At least part of the answer is lies in technology. Using social media-style tools and interactive, transparent governmental data posted online, organizations can tap into a whole new market of insight in the public, Vein noted.

Vein termed it the lean solution: not necessarily solving the whole problem, but developing a minimum viable product, starting a conversation, releasing it to the public and building a better product through outside input.

The concept has already proved fruitful, Vein said, using the example of Pacific Gas and Electric, which posted users’ energy consumption online, allowing consumers to see exactly what they use and determine ways to adjust how much they spend. In another case, this kind of collaborative approach led to a veterans' job bank built from standardizing job-hunting applications and websites, creating a common, nation-wide resource to help vets find work.

“People care about making the government effective and efficient,” he said. "What we've done is ask people to help change policy and effect change...and this is an example of that call to action."

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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