Beware of unicorns
- By Mark Rockwell, Troy K. Schneider
- Dec 06, 2017
Government needs innovative solutions from industry, and emerging technologies can be a key part of that. But agency and industry officials alike say that more emphasis should be put on the mission benefits such innovations can deliver.
"You must deal with business value, not technology," John Bergin, the IT and business systems reform lead in the Defense Department CIO's office, said at a Dec. 6 event on shared services and emerging technology. Too often, he said, vendor presentations will showcase only the technical details of an IT solution and not explain how it could contribute to the agency's mission.
"I can't move the needle with demos," he added.
That doesn't mean companies should be building bespoke solutions for every agency mission need, Bergin stressed. Government must standardize more of its requirements and common services -- particularly in mission support areas like HR and financial management that have long been the focus of shared services.
"I've invested in a 'unicorn' system," he said. "It bit me and gave me rabies."
Other speakers at the Dec. 6 event stressed similar points.
Jesse Samberg, IBM's shared services director for public sector, said the technology now advances too quickly for agencies to effectively build out one-off solutions -- especially when it comes to things like artificial intelligence, automation and blockchain. By looking to platform- and software-as-a-service offerings, he argued, agencies can tap those technologies without having "to be in acquisition mode in a constant change environment. … There is a model where the private sector can make the investment for you."
But to do that effectively, he said, agencies must have a solid understanding of the processes they'd like to outsource -- and more importantly, of the results they're seeking.
There is demand for (or at least strong interest and curiosity in) emerging technologies across government. Justin Herman, who heads the General Services Administration's Emerging Citizen Technology Office, said that robotic process automation is "one of the most requested things we get from agencies [seeking to learn more] -- to be able to talk about this, pilot it, implement it."
But something like RPA -- which brings automation and AI to labor- and time-intensive workflows -- can't just be dropped in "and suddenly the magic happens," Herman said. "It has to be part of the larger process. If you leave it to the tech nerds in the corner, it'll be doomed to fail or to have adverse affects."
The Office of Personnel Management's Marcel Jemio, who is pursuing a blockchain-based personnel data solution, agreed. He saw blockchain as one possible way to facilitate the critical mission of sharing personnel data more effectively across agencies -- not as an exciting new technology in search of an application.
"There are all of these processes, regulations and rules that keep us from having speed of delivery … without a collapse in quality," said Jemio, who is OPM's chief data architect and acting chief of Data Management Federal Data Solutions. "I see blockchain as an accelerator. …We are willing to look into blockchain to see if it will succeed."
There's no guarantee that it will, Jemio added, especially if agencies can't put the proper data standards in place to support it. But the potential benefits of making personnel data interoperable across government mean it's well worth exploring.
The same holds true for shared services that leverage other advanced technologies, Herman said. "There are a lot of people who see [these technologies] as core to IT modernization," he said. "And they're right."
Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.
Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.
Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.
Click here for previous articles by Rockwell.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.
Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW and GCN.
Prior to joining 1105 Media in 2012, Schneider was the New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company. The founding editor of NationalJournal.com, Schneider also helped launch the political site PoliticsNow.com in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, WashingtonPost.com, Slate, Politico, National Journal, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.
Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.
Click here for previous articles by Schneider, or connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.