Keep it cheap and think simple.
Nolan Jones is director of innovation at NIC Inc.
Government policies and ambiguity about value have tempered new technology adoption in federal agencies.
But while government unquestionably has security issues to contemplate and may be challenged both with staying abreast of technological innovations and with discerning the differences between competing technologies, the potential for new technologies to expand and streamline constituent services, reduce costs, and increase productivity and efficiency is becoming increasingly evident.
One of the best approaches for implementing new technologies is to start with a pilot, or proof-of-concept, project. Before commencing a pilot project intended to demonstrate the value of a new technology, federal agencies should consider these five best practices.
1. Keep it small and cheap.
Pilot projects shouldn’t be overloaded with too many requirements or weighed down by the need for a large investment in technology. The goal of the pilot is not necessarily to demonstrate exactly how a technology can be used in a full-blown project, but rather to identify that technology’s issues and potential opportunities.
For example, if an agency thinks 3-D printing could be useful, it is best served by starting with a small proof-of-concept project that leverages a cheaper, hobby-level printer before investing in sophisticated equipment. The information gained then will be used to help identify the right type of printer for a larger, more permanent project.
2. Be flexible.
In government, technology is ideal for solving existing problems – improving the methods and cutting the costs of data collection, for example. A pilot project is a great opportunity not only to explore a new technology or approach, but also to identify unexpected benefits and risks. Being flexible with implementations of these projects gives a government agency its best chance to uncover those benefits and risks.
For example, an agency implementing a pilot program for an online registration system might notice that users drop off at a certain point in the process. By being flexible and taking time to determine the reason for the abandonment, the agency might adjust its pilot project mid-stream to address the issue.
3. Consider the simplest approach first.
When the U.S. Census Bureau concluded that putting tablets in census-takers’ hands would deliver results that were superior to the traditional process of collecting field data on paper, the bureau set out to develop its own tablet devices in 2005.
Today, with the possible exception of U.S. military purposes, most agencies would instead opt for commercially available tablets. The point is that, as part of the process of assessing new technology’s potential, agency decision makers should consider whether even simpler solutions – such as updates to existing systems or widely available, commonly used products – might serve the same purpose at a lower cost.
4. Start with internal customers.
One of the easiest approaches to exploring a new technology is using a proof-of-concept project focused on benefiting an agency’s internal operations. This reduces the pilot project’s complexity and may generate more detailed results.
For example, if an agency wants to evaluate the use of QR codes to reduce data entry, a good pilot project might focus on one or two employee-only documents. That limited project scope makes it easier to gather feedback from the pilot project. And, once the pilot is complete, the lessons learned from the internal implementation can help make a public rollout of the same technology more effective and enhance the chance that the technology will deliver on its promise.
5. Don’t forget about security.
Sometimes, the speed of a pilot project may unintentionally create security issues. Security concerns, which are widespread in every sector, take on heightened importance in government. If a new technology being considered would include collecting constituent or other data that must be kept private, it’s still possible – and especially important – to run sample tests to prove or disprove the proposed technology’s ability to meet rigorous security standards.
Options include limiting the fields on which the data is tested and using dummy or old data that wouldn’t pose a security risk if it were exposed. Conducting the trial using these methods allows your agency to assess, in advance, the technology’s prowess for keeping private information safe.
Federal agencies have had practical reasons for taking a measured approach to new technology adoption. But the potential benefits and constituent demand are significant enough that agencies should not let policies prevent them from examining the positive implications of technology application in a government setting.
By implementing a well-thought-out pilot project, agencies can take advantage of innovative products and systems to create efficiencies, save money and better serve the public.