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Friday, February 23, 2024

Embracing AI: Government’s Innovation Imperative

The integration of artificial intelligence (AI) has emerged as a rapidly evolving technology that will be embedded in all facets of government in the coming years, delivering new efficiencies,  informed decision-making, and better services. Yet, amidst the exciting promise surrounding  AI’s potential, a fundamental question looms large: Can slow-moving government organizations move fast enough to keep up?

The answer is yes, but only if the government builds a deep culture of innovation. That’s been a  huge challenge for public-sector agencies that are typically focused on procuring and implementing highly fixed or static solutions, such as large infrastructure projects, technology hardware, public policies, etc. But if they want to harness the power of AI to its fullest potential,  they’ll need to learn how to be more creative, try new things responsibly, learn quickly, work across silos and the community, and adapt at a much faster pace. By adopting an innovation culture, the government will more successfully embrace the intricate and nuanced interaction between AI, society, the environment, and our vision for humanity, to more effectively leverage this technology to tackle society’s most pressing challenges.  

It is no secret that AI is already being used in government in many ways. For example, The U.S.  Department of Energy has developed an AI tool called Transportation State Estimation  Capability. It is designed to help urban traffic engineers access actionable information about traffic patterns in their cities so that city planners can improve traffic flow and reduce congestion.  The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses EMMA, a virtual assistant that helps around one million immigration applicants per month find relevant pages and resources, saving  DHS staff valuable time.  

While using AI as a tool to increase efficiency is a good start, its real potential in the public sector lies in leveraging the technology as a catalyst for innovation and change at a systemic  level. AI’s potential is bigger than chatbots. It’s about tackling massive challenges such as transforming education, addressing climate change, and ending homelessness. 

While governments are figuring out how to begin using AI to prevent cybersecurity attacks,  process large amounts of data, monitor systems and infrastructure, and much more, AI will not stay fixed in its current state of capacity. It is changing and becoming more complex virtually every day. For example, Generative AI, an advanced branch of AI that is largely unsupervised and much less regulated, is rapidly expanding. A recent report on Generative AI for Urban  Governance notes that researchers predict AI will surpass human performance in many tasks in the next few decades, including “driving trucks (by 2027), working in retail (by 2031), writing bestsellers (by 2049), and performing surgery (by 2053)” (Grace et al., 2018:3).  

In the face of this rapid change and uncertainty, the number one thing that governments will need to harness this technology is a culture of innovation. While building a robust and effective culture of innovation in government has many facets, there are three core principles that drive it.  

The first is creative experimentation. Because innovation is often born from the intersection of seemingly unrelated things, creating a culture that helps staff tap into and strengthen their creativity is critical so they can step outside of constraints and make new connections between data that exists in complex challenges, thereby adapting to evolving circumstances where there are no solutions to generate new ideas that others have overlooked.  

Furthermore, when creative people are given the chance to experiment in a controlled environment to create unique ideas, they will be better equipped to apply these mindsets to help drive the evolution of AI in their federal agency, state, or city more responsibly and proactively.  For example, a recent Wired article showcased that the City of Boston has recently adopted the use of enterprise-grade Bard for all government employees and is encouraging staff to use this technology through “responsible experimentation” to improve government efficiency and effectiveness. This type of proactive approach will help governments identify the risks and pitfalls associated with AI so they can quickly develop safeguards and regulatory frameworks to mitigate negative consequences like bias, privacy concerns, harm, and misuse, and learn how to amplify the benefits to deliver better government services that improve people’s lives. 

Secondly, governments must approach AI from the vantage point of the residents, businesses,  and others they serve, and engage them as co-creators. To successfully harness AI to tackle complex government issues such as security, housing, education, and healthcare, you cannot solve the problems in a bubble. Creating change in complex spaces requires tackling it from a  system level by understanding the problems from diverse perspectives, experiences, and expertise. This means pulling together not only government staff across different silos but also community members across a range of sectors to triangulate solutions that get to the root of the challenges through co-created solutions.  

To emphasize the need to do this across government, President Biden issued an Executive  Order stating that “Government must be held accountable for designing and delivering services  with a focus on the actual experience of the people whom it is meant to serve.” The Department of Homeland Security took this seriously and established a comprehensive customer experience program led by experts from across the industry, advocacy groups, academic institutions,  government, and other communities of interest to improve airport security experiences, reduce processing times for immigration benefits, and streamline the process to apply for and receive disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. By co-creating an understanding of the challenges and opportunities across the system, governments will be able to more effectively use the power of AI to foster innovative solutions that are human-centered and address real, rather than perceived needs.

Lastly, governments must implement and normalize cycles of iterative learning. Because this technology will grow and change at a rapid pace, governments need to be able to do the same.  This means leveraging mindsets and implementing processes that help staff learn how to pivot when faced with unexpected challenges, information, and technology. This means leveraging tools such as rapid prototyping and testing to try out new ideas quickly within controlled environments with people who are impacted by them. For instance, the Department of Veteran  Affairs has built and employs a VHA Innovation Ecosystem (VHA IE), Simulation Learning,  Evaluation, Assessment, and Research Network (SimLEARN), and Center for Care and  Payment Innovation (CCPI) system to generate cutting-edge advancements, foster growth immersive learning experiences, and drive transformative changes in healthcare.  

This comprehensive approach to learning fast gives governments the ability to quickly understand how people interact with their systems, services, products, policies, etc, and how to improve them before investing resources in building them out. As AI technology grows,  this mindset will be critical to swiftly adjust approaches and harness the technology to meet opportunities and challenges as they arise now and in the future. 

In our rapidly changing world, building a culture of innovation in government is invaluable, not only for individuals seeking personal growth and development within their organization but also for institutions aimed at effectively tackling complex challenges. Implementing creative experimentation, engaging the broader community as co-creators, and embracing cycles of learning and iteration will allow governments to harness the culture of innovation so they can explore novel ways of responsibly using AI to its greatest potential. As we stare down incredibly challenging issues ahead of us, embedding a culture of innovation will help government leverage AI to generate breakthroughs in operations, policies, services, and outcomes that transform our world as we know it.

Stephanie Wade
Stephanie Wade
Stephanie Wade is the CEO and Founder of Ascendant, a global innovation consulting firm. She was the former Director of the Innovation Lab at the United States Office of Personnel Management, and the former Senior Program manager in charge of Government Innovation and Design at Bloomberg Philanthropies. She holds a masters in Public Policy from Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and an A.B From Boston College.

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