With many people in a rush to put 2020 behind us, those of us in the government market can safely say we're operating like it's 2021 (not as fun as partying like it's 1999, but anything beats 2020, right?). While the rush to meet the deadline for federal government fiscal year (GFY) spending on September 30 may have felt oddly comforting in its familiarity, there are many changes happening in government acquisition and procurement to make processes more responsive to today's workforce and technology needs.
The use of automation is expanding beyond using Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to handle rote, repetitive tasks. RPA has been incredibly beneficial for freeing up the time of acquisition professionals to focus on innately human activities, rather than administrative tasks. Now, acquisition groups are going a step further and introducing Artificial Intelligence (AI) to improve processes by tapping into all of the data available in acquisition systems. For example, GSA uses an AI-enabled bot to "track, find and change Section 508 disability clauses in contracts." This helps ensure compliance, feeding updated clauses to humans for final review.
In September, the Department of Defense (DOD) issued Directive 5000.01, an update to the 5000 series instructions that focuses on the roles and responsibilities for its acquisition process in an effort to simplify the buying process. The end goal of this simplification is to get technology in the hands of the warfighter faster. Continue reading
The U.S. Federal government is the single largest employer in the country (even just counting civilian employees, not military). With the size and scope of work involved in running our government programs, this community of over two million people is incredibly diverse, but there are some commonalities in terms of workforce challenges and concerns.
- Automation - There is a real fear as digital initiatives become routine and administrative tasks are automated, machines will take over the work of humans. However, workforce and technology leaders have said over and over this is simply not the reality. Yes, certain tasks that people used to do will be handled by machines, but that shift frees up those same people to do other, more valuable work. The government is committed to "reskilling" the workforce to be able to rise to these new, more innately human tasks and, in turn, expect to see increased job satisfaction as people move from rote, mundane tasks, to activity that has a closer connection to the mission of the organization they work for.
- Relocation - The military has grown accustomed to the BRAC process as bases are closed or their use changes to better support the realities of global defense. However, relocation is now a reality for the civilian workforce. With telework and remote workforces now better enabled, it is not as critical that all workers are located in Washington, DC. The government, including the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior, has been looking for ways to consolidate operations in areas that are more central to the constituents they serve and are in areas of the country with lower real estate prices and cost of living.
- Stability - Once thought to be the most stable of jobs, recent spending impasses and resulting government shutdowns have left one in four government workers worried about the impact a shutdown would have on their life.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues to dominate tech headlines. Now, rather than learning what the technology could mean for government, we're reading about where it's being implemented, and the results being achieved. A recent report found that AI is no longer considered optional, but rather a critical component to managing and using large amounts of data. IT leaders in government are looking to AI to automate routine, data-oriented tasks, ease access to diverse sets of data, prioritize tasks based on the benefit to the organization, and generally keep track of ever-growing streams of data.
The Intelligence Community (IC) has long been a top consumer and analyzer of data in government. Not surprisingly, they have embraced AI technology to supplement the work of analysts by reducing the amount of manual data sorting with machine-assisted, high-level cognitive analysis. AI is being used to help triage so the highly-trained analysts can spend their time making sense of the data collected by looking at the most valuable and seemingly connected pieces.
Health and Human Services (HHS) implemented an AI solution when they needed to quickly procure Hazmat suits to meet the response to an Ebola outbreak. Procurement officials were able to use AI to make like-to-like comparisons among products. After the initial tactical analysis, the acquisition teams were able to use the data gathered on department wide pricing and the terms and conditions to better define parameters for ten categories of purchases.
Despite the successful implementations in many agencies, AI is still in the pilot and introductory phase. The Air Force is making it easier to begin experimenting with AI. Because the DoD has strict rules about what can be put on their networks, it is difficult to introduce new technologies into the production environment. The Air Force has created a workaround with the Air Force Cognitive Engine (ACE) software platform, a software ecosystem that can connect core infrastructures that are required for successful AI development (people, algorithms, data, and computational resources).
HHS is looking to use AI to analyze dated regulations as part of their AI for deregulation project. The pilot has found that 85 percent of HHS regulations from before 1990 have not been edited and are most likely obsolete. Using AI to flag regulations with the term "telegram," for example, will begin the prioritization of data that needs to be looked at by humans.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA). It may sound like a premise to a movie where robots take over the world, but it's very real and it's helping organizations realize modernization goals. Despite the name, RPA has nothing to do with robots. It is about software that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to automate high-volume, repetitive tasks. This can include queries, calculations, and maintenance of records and transactions.
In government, RPA is already being implemented in a wide variety of applications.
- Inspections - As agencies look to modernize the way they perform inspections of the water we drink, the roads we travel, and the buildings we travel to, they are using RPA to move off paper-dependent processes.
- Claims review -- RPA is built into an intake tool used by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid that ingests records, automating the process and identifying potential problems.
- Procurement - RPA is being used to automate and streamline the close-out process of government contracts, freeing up staff to work on actual programs, rather than spending time documenting that work.
- IT asset management - Managing IT assets is a combination of automated and manual tasks. The introduction of RPA greatly reduces the need for manual intervention when it comes to enforcing governance and process, freeing up staff to work on mission-focused projects rather than tracking the technology used on those projects.