Digital gov finds its footing
- By Paul McCloskey
- Sep 21, 2017
Twenty-five years after the debut of tools and technologies that helped launch "e-government," agencies are embracing a new generation of digital services, leveraging artificial intelligence, machine learning and collaborative software development practices.
“We’re seeing the advent of tremendous new technologies in artificial intelligence and cognitive computing, where we’re able to analyze in real time lots and lots of information from all over the world and make decisions at a very individual, personal level,” said Dan Chenok, executive director of IBM’s Center for the Business of Government.
Meanwhile, the rapid expansion of cloud technology has enabled powerful analytic computing platforms that are relatively inexpensive. This in turn has created opportunities for open source software developer networks that enable large collaborative projects from coders across the globe.
“In contrast, 20 years ago developers would lock themselves in a room and then come out several months later with an application,” Chenok said. “Now they basically use platforms like GitHub to develop software applications and do so in ways that are more secure because flaws can be spotted and addressed quickly.”
“If a patient walks into a [veterans] hospital today, a medical professional has access to so much more information available about the condition that patient is reporting because these cognitive technologies that can make better decisions,” he added.
“I think the promise of these technologies to radically transform government at a significantly lower cost is enormous. And we’re at a point where government is starting to understand this, so you’re now seeing a lot of momentum across the public sector.”
Early efforts to take on the challenge of digital transformation in the 1990s were limited in scope.
“When government was creating websites in the 1990s, it was really about taking information that was commonly available in paper format, and putting it into a web form through standard HTML technologies,” Chenok said.
Before long, digital signatures gradually began to take hold, enabling agencies to set up transactional systems secure enough to support agency programs and processes.
Some of the earliest adopters included the Securities and Exchange Commission, whose Edgar system enabled the electronic storage of financial records, and the Education Department’s student financial aid application, one of the federal government’s first transactional applications to go online.
These first forays also tested government’s ability to set up digital business applications that met user preferences for speed and simplicity. But those preferences have changed.
“Citizens don’t really want to wade through websites to get to the data they want,” said Jack Arrowsmith, executive director of the Colorado Internet Portal Authority, a state government office that oversees the Colorado.gov portal. “They want technology to convey them there directly without having to go through the front door of a website.”
Re-imagining digital gov
Ultimately, digital transformation will mean “re-imagining virtually every facet of what government does, from headquarters to the field, from health and human services to transportation and defense,” wrote William Eggers, executive director of Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights in a 2016 study, “Delivering on Digital.”
Some of those changes are being prompted by rising demand from “digital natives who work in government and won’t tolerate poorly designed systems, and conditions where citizens are not only ready for digital government [but] demanding it,” said Eggers.
“Both user needs and provider capabilities have changed profoundly since the early days of e-government,” he said. “Instead of desktops, most taxpayers now access government services with mobile devices, geo-location is everywhere, and the cost of sensors is plummeting, leading to their growing ubiquity.”
New digital technologies haven’t arrived without stumbling blocks. One is “the legacy problem,” said Chenok, a situation in which “you’ve got mission-critical systems delivering medical benefits or Social Security checks that are relying on technology that is not modern and efficient.”
The technology might also be tied up in long-term contracts and year-to-year budgets that in the private sector one would be able to shift from a capital to operational expenditures to enable agile updates.
“The technology space is there -- the question is does the government have the policy and management structures to fully embrace it," Eggers said. "I think they are learning, but we still have a long way to go.”
Another stumbling block is the cost of developing and implementing new technologies, especially for state and local governments.
Many states have partnered with Kansas-based NIC Inc., which was founded 25 years ago to help governments develop online portals and digital government solutions, according to its CEO Harry Herington.
The firm developed a transaction-based model that enabled citizens and businesses to pay for the service and eliminated the need for government to use taxpayer budget dollars to fund the digital services.
Citizens and businesses who use NIC's services pay a small efficiency fee -- $1 or $2 -- on top of a government statutory fee, in return for the convenience of completing a transaction online.
In conceiving the firm, the founders, “ran into a funding issue, so they put this opportunity out there and said, 'We will do this, but you have to figure out how to fund it,'” said Herington.
Today, the digital government funding model is used by 29 NIC state and federal government agencies, according to the firm. The “toll-road” model not only covers development costs for the online service, but also funds maintenance and security enhancements.
NIC also has a library of more than 12,000 digital government services, which helped generate more than 330 million online transactions last year and resulted in NIC processing more than $26 billion in payments on behalf of its government partners.
It's also been experimenting with the latest consumer technologies.
For the last two years, NIC has also been managing the roll-out of the Gov2Go services, which it calls “the first virtual government assistant.”
In participating states, Gov2Go can learn about its users, keep track of their deadlines -- such as voter registration, property tax payments, car tag renewals and property assessment -- and send reminders to their computers, mobile devices and Apple watches.
“That’s where government is headed,” NIC COO Robert Knapp said. “It’s removing the maze of government and proactively taking this information to the citizens.”
Paul McCloskey is senior editor of GCN. A former editor-in-chief of both GCN and FCW, McCloskey was part of Federal Computer Week's founding editorial staff.