Small Area, Small Problems? Not the Case with State and Local Governments

The operating challenges around budgets, resources, and legacy technology we see at the Federal level are amplified at the state and local level. Just because these groups are responsible for a smaller population does not mean their problems are smaller. On the contrary, historically low staffing levels and a geographically-limited pool of talent feed into the core challenges that all government teams face.

Security - Securing systems and the data that lives on those networks is now seen as a focus beyond IT. Everyone plays a role in cybersecurity, and there is a real need to update systems and processes as well as educate users.

Innovation - Since teams are so busy with day-to-day operations, stepping back to foster innovation can be difficult.  Many are finding ways to make the transformation work. In fact, some of the most innovative public sector programs are happening on the local level.

Managing change - Communication is key in implementing change within small, tight-knit teams. Participation in decision making ensures that new solutions meet the needs of the workforce as well as the citizens.

Finding time for training - All of the challenges above feed into an inability to make time for training and education to keep up with the rapidly evolving technology field. Continue reading

Opening the Data Floodgates

Part of the President's Management Agenda (PMA) calls out leveraging data as a strategic asset for more effective government. In support of this, several pieces of legislation and policy have been created to better enable and even incentivize agencies to make their data available and open for use across government and by citizens.

Federal CIO Suzette Kent recently said that the Federal Data Strategy will be released soon and will prioritize datasets that could help stimulate the economy, protect the nation, and continue important research. The guidelines will present principles that prioritize data security, privacy, and transparency.

This Federal Data Strategy follows the passage of the Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act at the beginning of the year. This law requires that all non-sensitive government data be made available in machine-readable formats by default. It also creates a Chief Data Officers Council that will address data governance across agencies.

Even before these laws and guidance were released, we've seen how access to data can impact communities. For example, in Asheville, NC, BeLoved Asheville, an activist group of homeless people, launched the Homeless Voice Project. This project filters public crime data using arrestees' addresses. They were able to show that the homeless population was being disproportionally targeted and arrested by highlighting the number of homeless shelter addresses being used. In Norfolk, VA, community groups are using data to show the impact of re-development on communities, highlighting the size of population displacement that would come with gentrification. These groups are finding there is less "shouting across the table" and common ground is easier to find when arguments are backed with data. Continue reading

The Next Step in Data Center Consolidation

Data center consolidation has been a mandated goal in the federal government for a number of years. The introduction of cloud, virtualization, and shared services means the government can run more efficiently with less hardware that no longer requires huge, physical servers to sit in buildings. Many of which were built for the sole purpose of housing servers. Consolidation saves money on technology, the support of that technology and also reduces agency real estate footprints and needs. While agencies have made some strides, the OMB sees the progress to date as going after low hanging fruit and is now challenging agencies to think bigger.

According to a drafted policy issued in November, OMB stated, "Agencies have seen little real savings from the consolidation of non-tiered facilities, small server closets, telecom closets, individual print and file servers, and single computers acting as servers." The push now should be in moving to the cloud and shared services, and looking to commercial third parties to host government data.

More than moving servers and workloads, data center consolidation relies on changing the way agencies manage data. The Data Accountability and Transparency Act was enacted to make information on government spending more transparent. Doing so requires agencies to agree to and implement data standards so that information can be shared across government and openly with the public. This implementation of standards has been a stumbling block for compliance. Continue reading

Watching the Taxpayer DIME

One area getting bipartisan support in Congress is the oversight of federal spending on travel. Two recently introduced bills look to curb ethics violations in terms of travel spending.

It's been over seven years since Congress looked this closely at federal travel following the excessive costs associated with a GSA conference in Las Vegas. This renewed look is in response to the high profile travel scandals of senior administration officials including Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke, former Veterans Affairs Department Secretary David Shulkin, and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Scott Pruitt.

The 2019 Taxpayers Don't Incur Meaningless Expenses (Taxpayers DIME) Act would require federal agencies to report to Congress each quarter on the travel of any senior official on government aircraft. Bill sponsor, Rep. Tom O'Halleran said, "We must hold our government leaders to the highest standards, and with so many high-profile ethics violations in the past years, it is clear we have failed to do that. No matter who controls Congress or the White House, we have to hold everyone accountable."

Another bill looks beyond senior officials, ensuring that all federal employees traveling are spending taxpayer dollars at facilities that have proven to have ethical practices. It specifically encourages employees to stay in hotels that have taken action to reduce human trafficking on their premises. To do this, GSA would create a list of hotels that have taken proven steps to train their workforce to recognize and report human trafficking.

So what does this mean for event planners and attendees?

When planning events, keep in mind that government attendees will have to abide by these rules and keep the locations easily accessible by commercial travel options. Look at policies of hotels and venues around how they educate staff on human trafficking (and other social issues) and choose those that have defined plans and programs in place. For attendees, it's more important than ever to fully investigate and vet travel plans and expenses to ensure that there are no violations, or even perceived violations, of ethical standards.

Let us know your thoughts on this pending legislation and how you ensure compliance with federal travel regulations. Leave your thoughts in the comments.

The Face in the Machine: Facial Recognition Application in Government

When your grandma is using her face to unlock her iPhone, you know a technology has gone mainstream. Facial Recognition "is a biometric software application capable of uniquely identifying or verifying a person by comparing and analyzing patterns based on the person's facial contours." In the last four years, there has been a jump in the use of the technology as vendors have begun to use convolutional neural networks (CNN), a deep learning methodology and algorithms, for model training. A National Institute of Standards and Technology test of vendors in 2018 showed a 95% reduction in error rate compared to a similar test completed in 2014. Applications of facial recognition in government include security (access to devices, data, and physical locations), law enforcement (matching video footage of a crime to a database of suspects), and identity verification for travel.

While the technology has come a long way, many argue it still has a way to go before it can be used widely in areas as critical as criminal justice and security. There are calls for regulation by the FTC and other federal entities. While there are accuracy benchmarks that vendors must pass to be used in government, in many cases, the groups used in benchmarks are not as diverse as those that the system will interact with once fielded. Regulation proponents argue that much of the facial recognition technology was designed with the majority of subjects being white males. When the system faces (pun intended) women with dark skin, the accuracy they promise plummets significantly.

With these challenges both in technology and policy, there are a number of events to help sort out the next steps in introducing facial recognition. Continue reading