A Culture of Curiosity Can Push Government AI Adoption Forward

iStock/Lim Weixiang - Zeitgeist Photos

Presented by Google Cloud Google Cloud's logo

Despite many government leaders recognizing AI as an instrumental tool for future missions, some public servants remain hesitant to take a chance on the technology. Agency leaders can remove hesitancy toward AI tools by rewarding innovators who are willing to take risks and pilot the technology.

While government recognizes that AI adoption will be important for mission outcomes in the next several years, agency leaders need an approach to help their workforce understand the value. 

When it comes to leveraging these technologies in a meaningful way, public sector leaders will need to focus on overcoming cultural hurdles, say Alexis Bonnell and Denise Winkler, both strategic business executives at Google Cloud Public Sector.

Overcoming Cultural Hurdles to AI Adoption

Consumers are gaining familiarity with having shopping sites suggest possible purchases and banking sites anticipate their potential help desk questions. Now, they expect the same experience in their government interactions. Government organizations with decades of accumulated records need simple, scalable, and easy-to-use tools to access and glean insights from data. Moreover, IT security has grown in priority, and recent mandates and executive orders are prompting the kinds of upgrades may also help to build-out AI-enabling infrastructure.

Still, even though technology greases the wheels of the mission, practitioners at all government levels must undergo such rigorous procurement processes with limited budgets that doing anything new with technology is far from easy. Additionally, state and local employees don’t always have access to the frequent conferences, training and networking events more common in private enterprise, Winkler says.

“They can be insular in that way and also risk averse, so trying new things is a big deal, takes a lot of effort and can be very risky, so they typically avoid it,” she says.

Building a Curiosity Culture

The key to accessing AI and machine learning, Bonnell says, is to become comfortable with change and evolve your organization to reward curiosity. According to Bonnell, a few of the many ways organizations have moved to encourage curiosity include:

  • Launching prize, challenge or venture models like Development Innovation Ventures at USAID that open the agency up to new ideas from anyone, anywhere, year round.
  • Prioritizing the practice of Psychological Safety across the organization so all employees feel able to pitch in ideas or contribute without fear.
  • Starting “Lunch and Learns,” where different departments share with others what they are doing and challenges they would like to solve.
  • Using Document AI, Call Center AI, Customer Sentiment and other tech tools to be more exposed to customer voices, problems and preferences.
  • Adopting truly searchable and shared workspaces like Google Drive and Google Docs that allow people to collaborate internally and externally more easily, while maintaining secure environments.
  • Using visual tools, maps, and other "story-telling" techniques that make challenges and opportunities come alive through data.

“Curiosity is not necessarily something bureaucracy is known for, but AI really starts to enable it,” Bonnell adds. “We’re seeing a lot more public servants really want to have the power of the ‘what if’ machine as they think through mission-critical scenarios.”

AI is a learning tool that’s adaptable and flexible. It can predict maintenance on facilities: when rusty screws will need to be replaced on warships or potholes repaired on public streets. It can power contact centers, enable chatbots and handle high-volume questions. And it can help provide answers to problems leaders can’t even envision yet. When a leader with sharp intentionality comes onto the scene, the cultural lens can shift and pave the way forward, Winkler says.

In a culture where employees are expected to simply put their heads down and get the work done, organizations become brittle and inflexible, she says. But realizing the advantages of AI, like those above, and how accessible it has become can bridge the gap between today and the future.

“As a technology industry, we have inadvertently made AI complex,” Bonnell says. “But AI is truly more prolific than ever and it's a great time to bring visibility for AI. It's all around you, you're already using it.”

Tapping AI as a Government Ally

The pandemic forced change and innovation as all kinds of tasks and transactions moved online to support social distancing and isolation. AI isn’t nearly as expensive or exotic as many fear, nor does it require a bevy of data scientists to execute, Bonnell says. In many cases, she says, it can save money and mitigate IT security risks.

But public servants need more than just funding for and access to AI. They need someone to introduce it in non-expert terms. Bonnell encourages leaders to demand to receive an AI education in simplified terms and to “share shamelessly” with other organizations who have found success with the technology.

“AI really should be an ally, so apply it where there are pain points,” she says. “Instead of doing a huge, complex project, start where there are challenges, burnout and pain points so your teams can feel the benefit. The best feeling you get from AI is relief."

Today, Winkler says, government agencies are dealing with a recent past of digitizing records they were required by law or policy to keep. Today, they’re dealing with lack of insight into all that data. So they might be able to access the individual records but unable to glean insights without assistive technologies like AI that can make sense of it all.

“AI is an incredible tool that can bridge with data the past and the future,” Winkler says.

Google has embedded interoperability, portability and an open-source framework from the beginning. There is no vendor lock-in. But technology monoculture — a tendency to use the same vendor or provider to the exclusion of others who may be more innovative — poses security risks. 

While every company is subject to security breaches, when a single technology provider is used in a high percentage of productivity tools, the attack surface broadens and makes potential attacks that much a bigger deal.

“Technology monoculture limits our ability to be curious, adapt and understand what the art of the possible is because we feel either comfortable or we feel hindered,” Bonnell says. “It really inhibits you from being able to be curious because you’re kind of locked in to what that technology allows you to do.”

How can organizations ultimately elevate AI?

“Curiosity is the ultimate survival skill,” Bonnell says, “and AI is your ally in empowering curiosity. Any public servant leader who starts every day asking, ‘How could it be better? How could it be more effective? How could my nation be safer?’ has the type of curiosity that we want to make sure AI is empowering for them.”

Learn more about how Google Cloud AI can help your government agency meet its mission more effectively.

This content is made possible by our sponsor, Google Cloud. The editorial staff of NextGov was not involved in its preparation.

NEXT STORY: Lead With Empathy to Power the Best Customer Experiences