Artificial intelligence could help federal employees better focus on their agencies’ core missions, but leadership will must step up to manage that change.
The embrace of artificial intelligence has come quickly in government. In May 2017, Congress established the bipartisan Congressional Artificial Intelligence Caucus, and members have since introduced numerous pieces of AI legislation. More recently, the administration launched the American AI Initiative through a February 2019 executive order, and the Department of Defense released its own strategy on how to incorporate AI into national security. As government use of AI evolves, agency leaders will look for pathways to capitalize on opportunities, and the workforce will need new technical and social skills to succeed in AI-augmented workplaces.
A new report -- More Than Meets AI: Assessing the Impact of Artificial Intelligence on the Work of Government -- aims to assist in that effort. Produced by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Partnership for Public Service, the report addresses how government can best harness AI's potential to transform public sector operations, services and skill sets.
The report draws on insights from a series of roundtables with government leaders to explore pressing issues surrounding AI, share best practices for addressing solvable challenges, and work toward an implementation roadmap for government to maximize the benefits of AI. More specifically, it finds that AI could enable agencies to fulfill their numerous roles efficiently and effectively by reducing or eliminating repetitive tasks, revealing new insights from data, driving better decision-making, improving customer service and enhancing agencies' ability to achieve their missions.
AI could help federal employees focus on core responsibilities related to their agencies' missions and spend fewer hours on administrative duties. AI-assisted federal workers are likely to have more time to deliver services, interact with customers and perform other mission-related tasks. That said, agencies will need to enhance their digital and data literacy and learn how best to use AI and related technologies to work with citizens effectively.
The report focuses on three areas of impact that the experts agreed agencies will need to consider and manage: a transformed workday, the potential for personalized customer service, and the increased importance of technical and data skills.
AI will transform the federal workday
Automating administrative tasks will be one of AI's initial benefits. Over time, federal employees will spend less time on repetitive administrative work and more of their workday on tasks that are core to their agencies' missions, from mitigating hazards in workplaces to following through on complicated applications for grants or other government services. Agency political leaders and senior executives will have to aggressively manage change if AI transforms the federal workday as foreseen.
The report recommends two paths for agencies:
- Leaders should communicate with employees early and often about the potential of AI to disrupt and alter their work. Agencies should determine the extent to which the workday changed for employees, which types of agency work AI helped these organizations accomplish, which tasks were automated successfully, and what kind of work employees might start doing in place of current, repetitious tasks that AI could perform; and
- The Office of Management and Budget should focus on AI in the context of cross-agency priority goals, showing the federal workforce the "art of the possible." Through CAP goals, OMB and agencies should focus on government-wide areas of concern where AI could improve mission delivery, and monitor progress made toward the CAP goal to demonstrate AI's value to agencies' missions.
AI will enable more-personalized services
If AI decreases time spent on clerical work and increases the amount of information that can be collected and analyzed, employees could focus more of their time and attention on customer service and tailor services to the needs of individuals. As AI enables employees to focus more on the customer, federal agencies should help employees improve their customer service skills.
The report recommends two paths for agencies:
- Federal employees should receive training that emphasizes skills for handling interactions with agency customers with the help of AI, especially "social literacy" skills such as active listening, communication, critical thinking, negotiation, and persuasion; and
- Agency recruiters and hiring managers should assess job applicants for the skills listed above. Some digital tools already enable hiring managers to assess job candidates for these capabilities. For example, USA Hire measures social literacy through decision-making, interpersonal skills and reading comprehension.
AI will increase focus on technical and data skills
Federal employees in the future will need new skills to succeed in an AI-enabled world, including technical, digital and data literacy. As AI becomes more ubiquitous in federal workplaces, the federal government should emphasize expertise in technical, digital and data skills.
The report recommends three paths for agencies:
- Sufficient funding should be provided for AI and related technical training. Federal employees will need extensive and ongoing training in technology, digital skills and data analysis to succeed in an AI workplace;
- The Office of Personnel Management should consider establishing an AI occupational series in line with the proposed AI in Government Act of 2018, which directs OPM to address this in focusing on AI-related tasks; and
- OMB should work with the General Services Administration to establish a team for AI talent similar to the U.S. Digital Service, governed by rules that make it easy to hire top AI talent from the private sector for time-limited stints in government to help federal agencies that need AI expertise.
Going forward, government agencies will play a crucial role for other sectors adopting AI. For example, government can take the lead in ensuring that malicious actors do not exploit AI-powered algorithms. This essential role underscores the need for government to become a responsible user of the technology, embed ethics and transparency in AI implementation, and translate its experience with AI into guidance for other sectors.
Every part of government plays a role in ensuring that the transition to an AI-augmented federal workplace is as smooth as possible and that federal employees have the skills to thrive. Hopefully, this report's research and recommendations will spark some of the needed conversations to help government do just that.
Other contributors to this article: Claude Yusti, Tatiana Sokolova, and Alayna Kennedy from IBM, and Peter Kamoscai, and Katie Malague from the Partnership for Public Service