Can AI tools replace feds?
- By Derek B. Johnson
- Aug 15, 2017
The Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, is calling for increased reliance on automation and the potential creation of a "contractor cloud" offering streamlined access to private sector labor as part of its broader strategy for reorganizing the federal government.
Seeking to take advantage of a united Republican government and a president who has vowed to reform the civil service, the foundation drafted a pair of reports this year attempting to identify strategies for consolidating, merging or eliminating various federal agencies, programs and functions. Among those strategies is a proposal for the Office of Management and Budget to issue a report "examining existing government tasks performed by generously-paid government employees that could be automated."
Citing research on the potential impacts of automation on the United Kingdom's civil service, the foundation's authors estimated that similar efforts across the U.S. government could yield $23.9 billion in reduced personnel costs and a reduction in the size of the federal workforce by 288,000.
Rachel Greszler, one of the report's authors, told FCW that the foundation interviewed dozens of former government employees as part of its research on the topic, including those who later went on to work in the private sector.
"We really wanted to get people who had been in the government, who had been in the trenches and knew how it worked," said Greszler. "A lot of those people happened to be in private sector as either consultants or contractors and were people who have been on both sides and have [both] perspectives."
Like the private sector, the federal government currently is grappling with the potential of automation and artificial intelligence as a means of cutting costs and increasing efficiency. Last year, the Obama administration released a report on the effects of AI-driven automation on the broader economy, finding that a shift toward automation will likely result in higher overall economic productivity and increased demand for high-level technical skills among workers. The report also found that the technologies would lead to significant churn in the job market as certain types of jobs disappear, while the overall impact would be unevenly distributed across job types and sectors of the economy.
"Research consistently finds that the jobs that are threatened by automation are highly concentrated among lower-paid, lower-skilled, and less-educated workers," the authors wrote.
Private firms can automate on their own schedule. However, major structural changes to the civil service will require congressional approval. At an Aug. 15 Heritage panel on government reorganization, former associate director at the Office of Management and Budget Robert Shea said he does not anticipate the passage of workforce legislation anytime soon.
"Collaboration with Congress is critical. If Congress is not prepared to take action on legislation, it won’t happen," said Shea. "And I don’t think they are."
Shea said he would like to see Congress to provide President Donald Trump with the same reorganization authority that was granted to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, whereby the executive branch could enact certain civil service reforms absent congressional signoff. However, he acknowledged that it would take a unique set of circumstances to compel legislators to cede that kind of power.
"The big issue, of course, is trust," Shea said. "Congress would need to trust an executive to use that authority responsibly, and we've not had that kind of trusting relationship in a long, long time."
The positions predicted to be first on the chopping block are precisely the kind of low-skilled, manual-driven data entry positions that targeted in the Heritage report. Greszler said she wasn't worried about collateral disruption that might affect the government during a push for automation, citing the gradual nature of such a shift and robust employee protections in the federal workplace.
"Over time, if you reduce the federal workforce by tens of thousands, you shift from one normal to a new normal, but it's not happening today and tomorrow," said Greszler. "It's a long pathway."
The Heritage report also called on the federal government to consider a "contracting cloud." The idea would essentially be for a government version of TaskRabbit, where agencies could select from a pool of pre-approved individual contractors from the private sector who could be brought in for specialized or seasonal work without going through established contracts. Greszler said the idea came from speaking with subcontractors who complained about having to kick over a certain percentage of their payments to prime contractors even as they did all the work.
Right now the foundation is only calling for the government to examine the potential of the issue and how it would interact with existing or similar vehicles for contracting services like the GSA schedule. Greszler emphasized that any pool of workers would need to be properly vetted to ensure they met federal standards and practices.
"There has to be guidelines or some type of checks, so you're not having people come off the street and getting access to secure government data," she said.
Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.
Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.
Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.
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