There are few organizations that can rival the United States federal government in terms of the sheer scale of the data they manage and services they provide. Unfortunately, they’re not always known for keeping up with rapid technological advances. Part of this is owed to a byzantine procurement and development process that has a tendency to prevent decision makers from understanding obvious flaws in major systems. There’s also a fair amount of budgetary constraints at play.
Despite these longstanding issues, there’s no denying that the federal government is in need of a sweeping technological overhaul. To that end, the General Services Administration (GSA) has spent the past few years building communities within the federal workforce for the purpose of soliciting ideas that will help incorporate the latest technology into government processes. They’ve been especially interested in potential applications for artificial intelligence.
So far, there hasn’t been much evident progress, and in some parts of the government, there have been signs of regression. Here’s an overview of the progress (or lack thereof) towards AI integration in the federal government today, and why it matters.
The Case for Government AI
All across the government, various agencies face mounting pressure each year to do more with less. Their situations aren’t destined to improve, either. Massive, unsustainable budget deficits virtually guarantee that there will be a day of reckoning that could force draconian and widespread cuts at some point in the future. This means that federal agencies have to find ways to become more agile and efficient, without sacrificing the quality of the services they provide. AI may be a means to do just that.
Early Federal AI Efforts are Limited
The undermanned IRS is beginning to explore the use of AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistant integration as a means of taking some of the strain off of overwhelmed staff. Aside from the Department of Defense, the IRS is one of the only federal agencies to make any serious moves towards AI thus far. While the interest in AI technology is prevalent across many government agencies, there hasn’t been a top-down effort to make any advances in the field.
The Curious Case of the State Department
With a presence in all but a handful of countries worldwide, the U.S. Department of State seems like a natural fit for AI-enhanced services. Recent advances in machine learning for language translation alone should draw their attention. Despite this, the department hasn’t done much to embrace, or even explore, AI technology. In fact, they seem less interested in technology than ever before.
The lack of technological investment is one of the reasons that the State Department has not been able to keep pace with the private sector in using technology to improve essential tasks, such as efficiently issuing visas and passports. But there are a few people in the private sector who definitely see hope for the federal government to align with modern efficiencies. Adam Boalt is one of these people.
Boalt, the founder of TravelVisa.com, which securely tech-enables expedited access to government documents, thinks the volume of passport and visa applications will push the government to embrace technology sooner rather than later.
“We’re anticipating that the State Department will issue about 21 million passports this year. They’re overwhelmed and their processes can’t currently handle the increase in volume,” Boalt said. “We’ve built automated systems that remove redundancies and efficiently perform much of the preprocessing that they’re still doing by hand, which benefits our customers, and also aligns with their goals and reduces the burden on federal employees.”
Adopting the same kind of approach within the department could revolutionize the way they operate and could significantly reduce wait times. However, these efforts are often slow to develop.
Adapt Now, or Pay Later
It’s pretty clear that much more needs to be done to bring the power of AI into the federal government. The good news is that there are some signs that priorities may be shifting in the right direction. The Office of Management and Budget released their R&D priorities for 2019, and machine learning is high on the list. That means that federal agencies are being directed to spend more of their research budgets on finding ways to leverage AI to enhance services. Only time will tell if the directive will produce meaningful action, but the need to do so is clear. It’s time for the federal government to join the nearly 80% of enterprises adopting artificial intelligence. The clock is ticking.