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Is IT Modernization Inevitable?

There are points in human history when a technology’s value made it necessary. The car. The computer. The internet. These tools were so advantageous people couldn’t avoid adopting them.

Cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI) seemingly have that potential. But the federal government is struggling with modernizing with these technologies at the private sector’s pace. The result is citizen experiences that trail those customers receive from commercial businesses.

Ron Bewtra, the Justice Department’s (DOJ) Chief Technology Officer, said Thursday that the federal government can’t continue delaying IT modernization.

“These boat anchors are dragging us down,” he said of legacy applications during a GovLoop in-person training. “We cannot be using it as an excuse. Let’s get into modern, mature, secure systems that are actually meeting our customers’ needs.”

Bewtra acknowledged that modernizing government IT is difficult, but he also argued that institutions have made similar technological leaps in the past.

“Go back to the Industrial Revolution,” he said of the rise of mechanical manufacturing between the 18th and 19th Centuries. “People didn’t understand what was going to happen. It changed how we lived and worked.”

Bewtra said that agencies should reexamine how they see their IT infrastructures by shifting their focus from the technology to the people using it.

“IT’s not a focus on systems,” he said. “It’s a focus on users and data. What we’re seeing is this idea that we’re going to sit down with the end-users. You’re trying to shape systems based on the requirements that you have.”

Bewtra was describing human-centered design. This framework includes humans in every stage of problem-solving. Bewtra added that the federal workforce is essential for using this process to modernize the government’s IT.

“The one thing we’ve seen inside the federal workforce is that this has never slowed us down,” he said of innovation. “They’re going to be the ones to help us complete this transformation. We’re at a place of opportunity and we’re up to the task. I would not be looking at all these things with a wary eye.”

Bewtra encouraged agencies to start small with IT modernization by evaluating their essential functions and data safety.

“You have to look at the organization and the cyber risks, the operational risks,” he said. “That’s where you prioritize. We have to treat this not like a commercial venture but like the trusted defenders of public data that we are.”

Sonny Hashmi, Box’s Managing Director of Global Government, said that the federal government should learn from the private sector’s successful customer experiences. Box is a cloud content management and file sharing service.

“We talk about human-centered design as if it’s a new thing,” he said. “It’s been done in other industries for decades. The fact is that on the industry side we’ve always been excited about modernization.”

Bewtra said that the federal government should attract talent from the private sector by focusing on the purpose its agencies serve.

“Look at all the innovations that are coming out there,” he said. “We have to figure out how to get to those innovators and help them disrupt our business.”

Bewtra also encouraged agencies to focus less on costs and tools and more on delivering the best possible services to constituents.

“If you want to do big tech, it’s not the federal government,” he said. “What we have is the best missions. It’s why the federal workforce gets up in the morning and it’s why we’re going to outbid everybody.”

Both the public and private sectors see big opportunities with AI and cloud for delivering their services. AI could reduce the energy and time humans are performing their work, while cloud offers cheaper data storage with more flexibility. Hashmi said that both technologies will be essential for competitive organizations in the future.

“How do you invest in the workforce of the future?” he said. “The choice as a society is to get on the train and join it or fight it. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, it’s going to happen.”

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Isaac Constans

Cool subject! I think it speaks loudly that those creating/using tech to connect with people consider our current era of invention tantamount to the Industrial Revolution. And when you think about it, machine learning really does create that potential.