(Ed. Note: The “Innovation Fact of the Week” appears as a regular feature in each edition of ITIF’s weekly email newsletter. Sign up today.)
Last year, President Biden issued two executive orders (EOs) that mandated federal agencies invest in cybersecurity and customer experience (CX). Released in May 2021 and December 2021, these EOs received considerable attention from federal CIOs at a recent event. And while agencies are delivering initiatives related to these mandates, their organizations won’t achieve full alignment with the EO guidance if they don’t embrace best-in-class technology that delivers across both customer experience and cybersecurity.
Cybersecurity has been a critical focus area in federal IT for years, and the current state of global affairs has only sharpened that attention. Likewise, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the lackluster digital infrastructure across the government, resulting in poor customer experience for both citizens and staff. Rep. Gerry Connolly, Co-Chair of the Congressional IT Modernization Caucus, shared as much this week, stating that call centers were overwhelmed, websites crashed, and fraud and cyberattacks were prevalent, all of which resulted in billions of wasted taxpayer dollars.
Fortunately, there’s evidence that agencies are making progress with the EOs. The Technology Modernization Fund—designed as a self-sustaining working capital fund that offers agencies IT funding outside of traditional appropriation—awarded funds to three agencies in September 2021 to implement zero trust architecture, a significant component of the cybersecurity EO that aims to eliminate implicit trust and validate every digital interaction. Similarly, the administration’s successful rollout of covidtests.gov demonstrated how a customer-oriented approach to building a website could be simple, quick, and effective. That said, federal agencies overall have fallen short in utilizing best-in-class technology as they act on these mandates.
The customer experience EO emphasizes putting the customer at the center of federal IT modernization. This means adjusting or outright disposing of outdated business processes that don’t optimally serve customer needs and selecting the best technologies that transform customer experience. GSA’s effort to develop a single sign-on across multiple agencies via login.gov is laudable, but the decision by the IRS to backtrack from using facial recognition technology to improve how customers validate their identity with the federal government seems to be in direct conflict with the CX EO, particularly as the IRS enters tax season with staff shortages and old technology. While some CIOs may want to sidestep such a politically sensitive issue, evidence shows that quality facial recognition algorithms are accurate across all demographics. Customer experience won’t transform if agencies stop themselves from leveraging the best technology for the job.
Furthermore, embracing emerging technology like machine learning and the Internet of Things (IoT) allows federal agencies to meet customers where they are—that is, expanding on the use of digital tools that allow customers to easily interact with the government through their computers, mobile phones, or other devices. For example, the Veterans Health Administration partnered with Fitbit to monitor veterans’ anxiety levels using wearable fitness trackers and offer services to help them manage stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Chatbots embedded in self-service portals can similarly offer customers more independence and faster support when accessing services from their own devices while also helping agencies reduce overwhelming call volume. And yet, despite these innovative uses of technology, many agencies are still struggling with the basics, like shifting to paperless forms that are accessible from mobile devices.
Finally, customer experience and cybersecurity aren’t oil and water; agencies can plan IT initiatives that deliver on both EOs—in fact, it’s increasingly necessary. An expanded digital ecosystem that leverages a wide array of customer devices—not to mention those used by federal staff for remote work—results in more endpoints and greater complexity for cybersecurity. It is vital that agencies also leverage best-in-class technology like cloud computing that can monitor these ecosystems for threats even as they enhance customer experience.
Cloud environments allow agencies to fit customer needs across multiple platforms, support shared services across government, and enable security through integrated data protection. Cloud platforms also come with integrated automation, machine learning, and analytics components that help navigate, monitor, and secure complex IT environments. Currently, the federal government’s transition to cloud is too slow. The effort to improve and codify the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP)—a program that supports the use of cloud services by the federal government—by reducing duplicative security assessments and streamlining the authorization of cloud service providers will help, but federal IT leaders should also shift to a cloud-native mindset. It’s not just about replacing on-premise data centers with ones in the cloud, but rather using cloud as a foundation to overhaul the federal IT infrastructure and utilizing the arsenal of tools cloud brings to the table.
Federal agencies need to fully embrace innovative technology if they want to truly align with these latest mandates. Many of these technologies are available as commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products or leverage industry best practices, have been tested and proven in the commercial space, and are therefore inherently less risky for government adoption. Providing citizens with best-in-class tools that offer accessibility, reliability, and security when interacting with government services will be crucial as the federal government continues its digital transformation journey.