In federal IT, no harm borrowing ideas that work

When it comes to adopting new technology and revamping online services to the public, federal agencies don’t always need to reinvent the wheel.

In February, the Agriculture Department launched Farmers.gov, a one-stop shop for its customers to find answers to their questions, contact USDA representatives or discover new USDA services.

While USDA has started from the ground up on some technology initiatives — like the Centers of Excellence it’ll stand up with help from the General Services Administration and the Office of American Innovation — in this case, it lifted the idea right from the Veterans Affairs Department.

Chad Sheridan, the chief information officer of USDA’s Risk Management Agency, said at a March 1 AFCEA event in Washington that the agency borrowed the idea from Vets.gov, a “digital front door” the VA launched in 2015 to help veterans navigate its approximate 1,000 dot-gov websites.

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Scott Blackburn, the executive in charge of the VA’s Office of Information and Technology, said he’s glad that USDA has found value in the Vets.gov concept, and hopes to compare notes.

“We’re looking forward to a revamp on Farmers.gov. You guys are going to take what we built on Vets.gov, you’re going to make it a lot better. We’re going to have to come and circle back, sharing ideas and continuing to push so all citizens — farmers, veterans, taxpayers — continue to reap the benefits,” Blackburn said March 1 at the AFCEA-sponsored event.

For its part, the VA has followed in the footsteps of the Defense Department in terms of rolling out its electronic health record system. The Coast Guard, based out of the Homeland Security Department, may also follow suit.

At a time when agency budgets are already stretched — and could be tightened further as Congress eyes a possible budget deal on March 23 — many federal offices are looking next door to copy some of the biggest successes in improving online services for the public.

“There’s a time to be at the tip of the spear, and to go out there and be the true innovator. There’s a time to be a fast follower, and a time to be even a slower follower,” Blackburn said.

Being a slower adopter on some changes means agencies like VA can learn from the mistakes of other federal agencies, and implement changes with fewer hiccups. That’s especially important, Blackburn said, considered how many “80 percent implemented ideas” exist across the agency.

“We have so many things that are wrong at the VA that we often spread ourselves way too thin, and I think we need to get more into a  mentality of batting average matters — truly prioritize, sequence things in the right way, resource things the right way to actually get them done,” he said.

GSA considers emulating ‘Emma’

Six years ago, when Mariela Melero became the associate director of Customer Service and Public Engagement at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, she inherited an archaic customer support network: Call centers based in two of the most expensive cities, New York and Los Angeles.

In 1995, when Melero estimated USCIS fielded about 5,000 calls a year, that model might have worked. But today, when the agency handles more than 50 million annually — more than 375,000 digital interactions every day — call centers alone, she said, were no longer good enough.

“With what capacity do we have to serve 375,000 anxious, fearful and in many instances, desperate individuals that are trying to see where their case is? This is the difference between being able to work and not work. This is the difference between being able to bring the family, or not bring the family, or be able to live in this country, so there’s a lot of emotion and a lot of anxiety that comes with a transaction like that. And we need to make sure that we deliver that level of excellence,” Melero said.

In 2015, USCIS launched “Emma,” an artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistant that guides online users towards the agency services they’re looking for. Emma collects about 20,000 responses daily, and has 90 percent answer rate for questions in English. In Spanish, Emma understands about 87 percent of questions.

Melero, giving credit where credit is due, said the agency got the idea from the Army’s “Sgt. Star,” an AI assistant that answers questions on the service’s recruiting website GoArmy.com.

While USCIS touts the success of Emma as an around-the-clock customer service rep, Melero said the AI tool hasn’t yet achieved the agency’s loftiest goals. When Melero pitched Emma to an agency chief financial officer, she promised the program would reduce call volume by 10 percent.

“Emma has been serving 24/7 millions of customers all over the world, but I didn’t get that return on investment. So we have to be very careful with not overpromising, which is what I have learned,” Melero said.

David Grant, the co-founder of Potomac Ridge and a former executive at the IRS and Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that unlike private industry, the federal government doesn’t have the freedom to shut down services it no longer wants to support.

At the IRS, for example, tax filing officials still need to accept paper forms, even though the agency expects 90 percent of tax returns will be filed electronically this year.

“We have to plan for the population that will never e-file, ever. We still have to retain paper processing capacity because they’re a citizen and they have that right. You put out a new capacity, that doesn’t mean old capacity goes away. That’s just new work,” Grant said.

For over-the-phone service, Melero said USCIS has contracted with the private sector to help provide support.

Jeff Lau, the acting regional commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service, said he’s interested in seeing if GSA could use an Emma-like virtual assistant to do some of the heavy lifting at one of its agency call centers.

Lau said he’s also looking at whether an AI system could, for example, review vendor proposals submitted after-hours, potentially freeing employees up for more valuable work.

“They’re not cutting and pasting, or doing administrative-type tasks that are required by regulation. They are focused on higher ROI stuff,” Lau said. “That means they’re engaging with industry, they’re engaging with the customers. They’re having conversations, doing market research, having negotiations. I think there’s a huge potential for that technology and many others to really fundamentally shift how we do business.”