Opinion

Answering the Right Questions for a Modern Government

When one thinks of the most innovative industries, government is not often the first to come to mind. And while there are plenty of reasons for that, it should not have to be true, especially given government’s unique opportunity to have massive impact on citizens’ lives. The same computing capabilities which Americans tap or swipe to make restaurant reservations, order a rideshare or have streaming entertainment recommended to them can be deployed to modernize and streamline government operations at the federal as well as state and local level. And as this country faces a range of new challenges, it will benefit from new technologies and tools that could help the government work smarter, swifter and better. But it is up to all of us – especially government and the technology industry – to unlock the opportunities ahead through both innovation and education.

I’ve recently come back to the U.S. government market, as president of U.S. regulated industries at Microsoft, after years of leading our global industry strategy. I place a premium on the views and insights gained on the front lines of innovation across a wide range of industries and workplace environments – from government to financial services to health to education. Our goal is to take the best from all these areas and apply learnings across the private and public sectors. For example, private sector advances such as financial services leveraging machine learning and AI in the cloud to deepen their knowledge of customers and offer better, more personalized services – this kind of model can be applied to drive deeper levels of citizen engagement and service. In the words of the late Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, it is critical to always listen to those closest to the situation to gain the fullest sense of the range of challenges and opportunities ahead. This learning mindset is a cornerstone of our own transformation and how we choose to work with customers as they seek ways to do more.

In that spirit, we conducted a small bit of new research with decision-makers in the federal technology space to learn first-hand about our current landscape and government modernization. An overriding concern we heard in several interviews was cybersecurity, and how each emerging technology creates unique risks that must meet each agency’s security standards. As the headlines remind us regularly, every entity with an online presence needs to assume an “assume breach” posture with the strongest protection, detection and defense capabilities possible. It’s the reason everything we do, every service we provide or technology we create, starts with security as the foundation – and why we invest more than a billion dollars each year into building intelligent, compliant security solutions into our integrated platform.

But beyond security, what we also heard was a lack of understanding and confidence in how new technology can enhance public sector operations. There was a skepticism as to how next-generation technologies could be applied to government, and a hesitance for their agencies to be the ones to figure it out. And with good reason – between difficult procurement processes and resource constraints – the appetite to take on an entirely new technology isn’t always there.

Some of the issues boil down to awareness and education – how we can help professionals learn to see the trees and the forest when it comes to how 2018 technology can not only change the way government does things today, but also enables government to do things it never knew were possible. Yes, technology can be disruptive in terms of changing how the government operates, but disruptive innovation can yield the most positive results when implemented thoughtfully. From smart parking and transportation management solutions to improving water quality and preventing urban flooding, we can help make our cities, our states and our nation safer, more accessible to support strong economies and better quality of life for citizens.

But as technology leaders we have a responsibility: We need to simply and clearly answer core questions for government if we are to make the most of this opportunity and moment in time. What can automation do for government services? How can AI be utilized to make the best use of taxpayer money through education, smart cities or even foster care? What does connectivity allow us to achieve in agriculture, resource development and infrastructure?

It’s imperative that technologists don’t just sell updates, but show the art of the possible, so that tomorrow’s technology can pass the ‘what’s in it for me’ test. We must always seek to better understand this landscape and lay out our best vision for government – one that applies the best private and public sector innovations and provides more for its citizens than ever before.

And to give the boldest, most leading-edge view of America, we should harness all the imagination that innovation emboldens. What is the government we aspire to create? How swiftly and responsively can it function? What are the ethical guidelines and boundaries that we want to serve as our north star? And what are the discrete steps available to us today that can get us closer to this goal, whether through policy decisions or investments in research and development?

We see a future where technology can enable ubiquitous, inclusive experiences for citizens, policy makers and government employees, where an exponential increase in process efficiency and opportunity for collaboration at scale is reality, where augmented intelligence aids complex decision making, one where commercial/consumer capabilities are the standard for employees and citizens. And while we see technology as the engine, it is our humanity plus technology that will move us forward.

Our nation was founded on such aspirational, forward-looking vision; taking the best thinking available and using it to empower citizens in their everyday activities. Wisely, humbly, and boldly deploying technology to fulfill this vision can unlock a new era in efficiency and performance for every American.

Toni Townes-Whitley is Microsoft’s president of U.S. regulated industries.

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