The General Services Administration’s (GSA) Emerging Citizen Technology Office (ECTO) is working with a network of partners from more than 300 Federal, state, and local government entities to help evaluate, test, and implement IT modernization initiatives with emerging technologies.

While individual technology focuses will change with time, according to the GSA, current efforts include:

  • artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic process automation
  • blockchain and distributed ledger technologies
  • social and collaborative technologies
  • virtual and augmented reality

“This is a pendulum shift back to greater integration between Federal, state, and local government,” Mark Forman, the global head, vice president, and general manager of the public sector with Unisys, told MeriTalk. “It is key to understanding the ways the U.S. government has to modernize in the digital era.”

Most Federal programs are delivered to citizens through block grants awarded to state and local governments with the point of service at the local level. However, there are also overlapping, redundant programs where the Federal government delivers services directly to citizens which may be duplicated at the state and local level, said Forman, who was the administrator for the Office of E-Government and Information Technology during the administration of Pres. George W. Bush.

These emerging technologies can be deployed in a myriad of scenarios to help government operate more efficiently and deliver better citizen services.

AI and Robotic Process Automation

AI has enormous potential for government. “It can improve agencies’ effectiveness, make data more understandable and easier to use, and help citizens navigate government services. And it could save government up to 1.2 billion work hours and $41.1 billion annually, according to an issue brief by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and The Partnership for Government Service, The Future Has Begun: Using Artificial Intelligence To Transform Government.

Agencies using it now range from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which deploys an AI-based online virtual assistant to answer questions from citizens and immigrants, to the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, which uses the technology to improve facial recognition. AI refers to the use of computers that simulate human abilities and perform tasks that people typically do. Related concepts and names include cognitive computing, predictive analytics, robotic process automation, and machine learning, which refers to systems that learn from data and improve over time.

The AI report describes the work of four very different organizations: two Federal agencies–one defense and one civilian; one local government; and one university whose research was funded partly by two Federal research and development agencies. Together, these four organizations highlight how AI technology assists agencies as they seek to transform the ways they work.

For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the Department of Labor plans to take away tedious, repetitive tasks from employees and save hundreds, even thousands of work hours. Employee time can then be redirected to more important tasks. The Air Force plans to use the technology to understand complex acquisition regulations, so it can speed the process of buying goods and services.

“The most challenging problems AI may help us solve–from fighting terrorists to serving vulnerable populations–will involve government. More immediately, though not less consequentially, AI will change the way public servants do their jobs,” Daniel Chenok, executive director of IBM Center for The Business of Government, and Max Stier, president and CEO of Partnership for Public Service, writes in the report’s preface.

Blockchain and distributed ledger technology

Blockchain and distributed ledger technology is “one area where there is such a huge opportunity for resolving–not entirely, but a big proportion–of the improper payments issue and the outrageous costs of agencies getting to auditable financial statements,” Forman said.

Studies show that a lot of the cost and problems associated with financial management are because organizations have ledgers and subledgers that do not match. Blockchain technology is a digitized, decentralized public ledger of all cryptocurrency transactions that can be shared by all stakeholders in a network.

Many organizations use proprietary accounting or siloed systems. A Federal agency will provide grant funding to the 50 states, plus territories. Financial managers then need to reconcile payments and budgets for 53 different grant systems. If both the Federal and state governments are using blockchain technology, they could improve efficiency without having to replace their existing accounting and grant systems. “You have a very simple system and suddenly, your improper payments go down and the ability to reconcile and speed of reconciliation goes up, and the paper work burden on the states goes down,” Forman explained.

The move to blockchain is not going to happen overnight. However, without leadership from the Federal government, the accounting software industry is probably not going to bring the issue to the forefront, Forman stressed.

Social and Collaborative Technologies

Social and collaborative technologies can help agencies administer The Child Welfare Act as it relates to the opioid drug crisis. One of the big issues is the number of children who must be removed from their homes because their parents are in treatment centers or worse situations. There is not enough capacity in the foster care system to manage it. Part of the problem is matching up children and their specific needs with the capabilities of foster care providers. Currently, case workers will call three foster families and explain the situation, hoping to find a match. If they don’t, they pick the next three foster families on the contact list. It’s a hit or miss approach that doesn’t leverage data or social digital tools. Using tools with matching algorithms like those employed by services such as would help.

“You can see there are opportunities, but it is not like these systems fit into the welfare case management system, so the tailoring of commercial social and collaborative technologies into the public sector is needed,” Forman noted.

Virtual and Augmented Reality

“Immersive, enhanced audio and visual experiences through virtual and augmented reality are now available to many U.S. citizens through smartphones and other mobile devices, opening the door to an incredible diversity of new programs and services,” according to GSA ECTO. Federal agencies are eager to use this new medium, “from treatment of PTSD through virtual therapy and educating farmers on the installation of solar panels, to disaster management preparedness and response.”

For instance, virtual augmented reality could improve first responder navigation by delivering better location-based services. In January, the National Institute of Standards and Technology launched a challenge for a virtual reality heads-up display. The results of the First Responder Virtual Reality (VR) Heads-up Display (HUD) Navigation Challenge will support the whole public safety community and its stakeholders.

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