Beware of unicorns

Agencies want the benefits that new technologies can bring, but need a sharper focus on the mission impact -- and have grown wary of one-off solutions.

shared services concept

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."

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