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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

GTSC’s FITGov Summit 2023: Asking the Right Questions to Improve Governance of Innovation

How can government be on the same page with industry, be a page ahead and not behind, and keep up the guardrails?

Say governance and you think controls. But governance is ultimately about people solving problems. And we can’t lose sight of them.

The third panel at the Government Technology and Services Coalition’s FITGov 2023 Summit on May 24 in Tysons, Va., discussed governing innovation before it governs us – the driving mission after GTSC acquired the FITGov Summit in 2022.

GovCIO Vice President Solutions Josh Seckel, who moderated the panel, noted that he sees the question as government being on the same page with industry, as being a page ahead and not behind, and keeping up the guardrails. He then asked panelists what innovations they thought have had the biggest impact.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Senior Advisor to the Assistant Commissioner Ajay Phogat offered that procurement innovations make everything else possible.

DKC Group CEO Deborah Kent, who formerly served as director of the Screening Portfolio Team at the Transportation Security Administration and executive liaison officer for the Joint Requirements Council at the Department of Homeland Security, suggested cybersecurity innovations offered the biggest impact to government.

Troy Holmes, senior vice president for federal business development at Zillion Technologies and former program manager for the Financial Systems Modernization initiative at the Department of the Interior, said he believes cloud computing offered government the “ultimate elasticity from a scalability standpoint,” and allows us to do “what we always should have been doing.”

Systalex Chief Technology Officer and Executive Vice President Rob Brown, former CTO at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, commented that codeless programming “empowered those who really know problems” to solve them, not just IT professionals. “While still burgeoning,” Brown added, “its quality and velocity are both exponential.”

“Innovation is not just breaking down obstacles but about approaching a problem from a new way,” U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Chief Information Officer Jamie Holcombe said. “It’s revolutionary, not just evolutionary.”

Holcombe added that we need to think differently, but “the problem with most federal employees is they think they have to follow the rules when what they really have to do is break them.” He said that “two big innovations we need are in federal HR and procurement.”

“AI is on everyone’s minds, so how can government use AI to improve governance processes?” Seckel asked.

Phogat explained that CBP has large language model projects in its pipeline, and noted that with almost 4T in global goods flows through CBP’s systems, AI enabled systems analyzing this traffic are the most prudent way to ensure cargo security. Phogat added that CBP’s CTO has set up an AI center of excellence to explore and accelerate AI use.

Kent noted that although “AI has been with us a long time, some things have yet to be revealed to us.” She urged government users to be clear on the answer to the question of pursuing “AI for the purpose of what, exactly?” so that guardrails could be put up to protect but not hinder.

“Governance should surveil the environment to watch for bad actors,” Kent said.

Holmes agreed. “We’re setting the bar too low,” he said. “AI has capabilities we’re not even using. The scale is unlimited and detection should be automatic to stop people doing what they’re not supposed to do.”

“Authority To Operate is the elephant in the room,” Holmes added. “Six months is unacceptable, and we should use AI to make them automatic.”

Brown said that “the proper definition of use is critical, with use cases and examples.”

“First, we define. Then quantify. Then control,” he said. “We need people with their finger on the pulse of algorithms and results. Then we can put governance around using AI.”

Holcombe added that there’s “nothing to fear” and that we should rather learn to “respect AI’s capabilities.” He introduced AI into trademark searches for classification and fraud detection, but prohibited ChatGPT-4 from use to protect applicants’ proprietary data. “We need to understand the sources and algorithms used and put a human in the loop, on the loop, and over the loop to get quality results,” he said.

Seckel asked Holcombe about “breaking the rules” but not using ChatGPT to do it. “We need to break the old rules,” Holcombe explained. “The stuff that doesn’t work. We’re applying WWII tactics when algorithms are now open source.”

Seckel shared that he had a boss once who when presented with a “no” would ask, “Why? Why? Why?” until she got down to the actual legal requirement. “One thing we can do is to strip away the mindset of ‘one person made a mistake so we need new policy,’” he said. “How can governance continually renew?”

Kent commented that she liked the “why” questions but while “rules exist for good reasons, over-control might not serve a purpose.” Phogat offered that the question is about “accountability and transparency,” and that a readiness dashboard created both. Holmes added that “retrospectives were needed” for lessons learned. Holcombe suggested that “quarterly plans work, especially for change, but not annual or longer.”

Noting that automation is an important AI benefit, Seckel asked, “What are we not automating that we should? How do we innovate the ‘we’ve got to check everything’ mindset?”

Phogat observed that while technology can be automated quickly, and process can be automated over time, people can’t be. “While AI is an enabler, humans need to be in the loop to make the important decisions,” he said. Brown said that “robotic process automation is a great place to start,” and that “much technical adjudication could be automated.”

“The sticky wicket is the waiver process,” Kent noted. “Automatic adjudication could result in systematically disadvantaging people, unintentionally.” Holmes recommended automating “the 80 percent of transactions we do the same every time so our productivity goes up.” And Brown noted that today you can “create your own large language model to do this.”

With their closing remarks, panelists returned to governance and innovation being about people.

Holmes emphasized that agencies need to communicate about the direction they’re headed to feed organizational change management with good information. Brown noted that governance for governance’s sake won’t cultivate risk-taking in an organization. Holcombe stressed respecting, not fearing, AI.

Holcombe, Phogat, and Seckel emphasized that failing fast meant learning fast to move forward. And Kent added that her interest was the impact of technology on people.

“Governance can help bridge the introduction of technology to an organization,” Kent said. “But we can never lose sight of the people in charge of implementing technologies. Governance should serve them.”

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Lou Kerestesy
Lou Kerestesy has spent 40 years helping people getting on the same page to meet their mission. Lou began his career working for local government in Portage County, Ohio, and then USEPA in Washington, DC. He’s owned a technology company, been an exec in a management consulting firm and energy management company, and been an independent consultant to government and industry. In various roles Lou has led strategic planning, program evaluation, change management, continuous improvement, corporate culture, designed and delivered services, managed corporate finances, and wrote (many) proposals. Today, Lou coaches leaders and teams in collaboration, communication, and conflict resolution techniques to get on the same page, quickly. Lou has a liberal arts undergraduate degree from Kent State University, and an MS in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University.

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