Why Agencies Should Be Tech Agnostic When Solving Problems

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Don’t miss the forest for the trees, General Services Administration's emerging tech official said.

One government tech leader wants agencies to look at emerging technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence and automation the same way they see planes, trains and automobiles—three unique ways of accomplishing similar tasks.

Each tool possesses its own strengths and weaknesses, but generally speaking, they’re all just different ways of “handling and operationalizing data,” according to Justin Herman, who heads the Emerging Citizen Technology Office at the General Services Administration. If agencies don’t break down the silos between them, they may overlook opportunities to solve some major problems, he said.

“All these debates about what’s better—AI, blockchain, [robotic process automation]—are dumb window dressing,” Herman told Nextgov on Tuesday following an emerging tech panel hosted by the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center. “If all we’re doing is getting worked up over terminology, we’re missing the forest for the trees.”

When a new technology rolls out, there’s often a tendency to see it as a cure to every issue, but it’s critical to first figure out whether a given tool is the right fix for the specific issue agencies want it to solve. If agencies select a tool before a use case, they might waste immense resources trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Herman’s office spearheads many of the government’s emerging tech pilot programs, and the most successful initiatives tend to approach problems with an “agnostic mindset,” he said. Agencies are better off starting with a problem and working toward a tech solution instead of the other way around, he said.

In other words, driving from New York to Seattle isn’t as efficient as flying, and blockchain may not solve a certain problem as effectively as automation or some other tool.

“I don’t advocate for any individual emerging tech—I advocate for agencies using whatever tools and processes are at their disposal to solve problems they couldn’t solve before,” Herman told Nextgov. Artificial intelligence, blockchain and other technologies are still in their infancies, and siloing them off too early could potentially stifle innovation, he added.

Herman said his holistic approach would require federal technologists to approach innovation not as specialists but as utility players. The technology landscape is evolving rapidly, and federal technologists will need to constantly learn new skills to keep up with the latest innovations.

People must embrace that change and become more focused on problem-solving than mastering a certain coding language, he said. “There’s no turf to protect anymore.”