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Federal CIO Defines ‘Guardrails’ to Speed AI Adoption

Federal agencies are dabbling with technologies such as artificial intelligence and automation to improve citizen services and strengthen the workforce, but Federal Chief Information Officer Suzette Kent wants to see agencies move faster.

Kent spent much of last year working to update policies and break down the bureaucratic red tape that prevents agencies from adopting technologies that have long been established in the private sector. As those policies start to roll out this year — including updates to the government’s Trusted Internet Connections initiative and the Federal Data Strategy — the focus now is on establishing guardrails to speed adoption of automated and emerging technologies and give companies insights on how they can best support agencies.

Speaking at the ServiceNow Federal Summit, Kent said those guardrails include:

  • Defining what automated technology the government wants to focus on
  • Categorizing that technology by how it helps and assists with repetitive tasks
  • Determine which use cases employees are most comfortable with using technology to suggest decisions and augment decision-making
  • Design oversight requirements
  • Match the consequences or outcomes with the level of oversight and control

“We are giving the demand signals of where we are going,” Kent said. Over the next few months, agencies will be laser-focused on how they use automated technologies to deliver better services to the public and improve trust and transparency. Those efforts include improving data quality and applying modern technology to protect civil liberties and privacy.

Kent noted success stories that were recently highlighted on performance.gov as examples of individuals and teams using automation, AI and other technologies to better serve the public. The Gears of Government Award winners include the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) work to modernize and automate how the agency reports activity across the country. The team saved thousands of employee work hours by improving coordination across departments and freed up employees and managers to focus on outcomes.

In terms of the Federal Data Strategy, which Kent said will be out soon, one goal is to serve as a foundation for how the federal workforce uses AI and machine learning. As agencies automate more processes and expand AI adoption, the administration will measure success looking at key outcomes. Specifically, does the use of automated technology:

  1. Make federal services more effective
  2. Increase public test by making algorithms or data transparent
  3. Create a path forward for federal employees to prepare them for roles that require new skills
  4. Set expectations for industry partners so they can quickly innovate and see the span across other agencies

Kent stressed the importance of preparing the workforce for technology adoption. The pace of adoption is sometimes measured by how comfortable agency leaders are with the employees who support that technology. Kent highlighted the Trump administration’s rollout of the Federal Cybersecurity Reskilling Academy pilot program in November 2018 as part of a larger effort to create a path for employees in the midst of modernization efforts.

The goal of the program is to retrain federal employees to fill open cybersecurity positions in the government. More than 1,500 applications came in and nearly half of the applicants were between GS-5 and GS-11 levels.

“We have to make sure employees have the right skills,” Kent said. The administration wants to replicate similar programs around automated technologies and data use.

Ultimately, the goal is to position agencies not only for the challenges of today but to set the foundation for continuous innovation, Kent said.
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