Agencies are adopting AI, even if they don’t know it yet

The potential of artificial intelligence to help government agencies at all levels achieve mission success -- as well as work smarter and more efficiently -- has been simmering for years, if not decades. Although the transition from “potential” to real-world applications can be a tedious process, but there are strong indications 2019 will prove to be a pivotal year for public-sector AI.

This past February, the White House issued an executive order launching the American AI Initiative that  aimed to encourage the development of technical standards for AI, build an AI workforce can drive technological breakthroughs and boost economic competitiveness and national security applications across government, industry and academia.

The EO was followed by the launch of, a website that shares federal AI initiatives, including insights on how AI is being applied at key agencies, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. 

Enthusiasm for AI has been growing in government agencies. A recent study from NetApp and Arrow found that 77% of public sector IT managers said the AI initiative has already increased their pace of AI adoption, while 90% sensed a shift in momentum toward adoption and application of AI technologies over the last two years.

Challenges to AI adoption

While practical applications of AI are being explored and the technology gains traction, challenges remain. Government agencies seeking to close the gap between the promise of AI and real-world applications must understand the following challenges:

Technology. Many respondents cited existing legacy technology as a major roadblock to AI expansion. IT departments are challenged with outdated equipment, limited budgets and uncertainty about how to pivot to the innovative infrastructures required to effectively implement AI technologies.

Talent. No more than 15% of federal and state government IT professionals felt completely prepared in the areas of analytics, infrastructure, strategic leadership, data organization or staff knowledge according to our survey. A lack of talent and internal advocacy remains a major roadblock to AI adoption.

Fear. Anxiety about AI is often  fear of the unknown. Although employees wonder how will AI affect  their job security, our survey indicates that optimism is replacing fear. More than half of federal and state, local and education (SLED) IT managers in our survey feel “optimistic” or “excited” about the prospect of adopting or increasing AI in their organizations, while just 17% reported feeling “apprehensive” and only 12% feel “skeptical.” Critically, just 9% of those surveyed see AI as a “threat,” which means that more are open to the benefits AI can deliver.

Culture. Throughout the public sector, culture is perhaps the largest barrier to AI adoption. In many agencies, operations are intimately tied to legacy processes, and there are no big rewards for revolutionizing these processes.

To prepare for AI expansion, organizations must take a multipronged approach to adoption that addresses the technology, talent and cultural challenges.  

How agencies can maximize AI 

Despite the obstacles, more than three quarters (77%) of public sector IT managers view AI as an asset to their organization’s ability to deliver on its mission, and 85% agree AI will be a game changer in the way agencies think about and process data. Public sector IT managers can realize these ambitious goals with the following strategies:

Recognize where AI can make a near-term impact. Agencies must consider foundational technologies as their first step to developing a broader, more complex AI strategy. IT cybersecurity managers already see operational efficiency and quality control benefits from chatbots and machine-learning technologies, and  video analytics and natural-language processing solutions are providing many day-to-day benefits that simplify customer service and help free up time for employees.

Tap the private sector. Some agencies are calling on the AI community for innovation. In June, the Navy   announced the AI Applications to Autonomous Cybersecurity Challenge to explore advanced cyber security products that incorporate AI and machine learning models to detect and defeat malware.

Prepare for AI launch. As the momentum toward AI adoption builds, agencies can prepare by ensuring AI is part of their organization’s technology roadmap to instill confidence in adoption. They should also invest in relevant infrastructure, organize data and improve data governance. The IT managers we surveyed who said that AI is a part of their organization’s roadmap are nearly three times as likely to feel confident about increasing AI adoption. 

Get the team on board. For a smoother implementation process , IT teams should increase the number of staff with AI-related skills and educate key leadership on AI's benefits.

Take one small step. The most direct way to reap AI's benefits is by starting small. Agencies can leverage foundational AI technologies like chatbots, voice assistants and high-performance computing as they build out a broader AI strategy. 

The path to AI adoption in the public sector will be paved by champions who can effectively address the adoption pain points and navigate practical deployments. If implemented effectively, AI will have an unprecedented impact on the way that government services are delivered.

About the Author

Rob Stein is vice president, U.S. public sector at NetApp, a leading cloud storage provider.

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.