Crisis as an agent of change

How COVID-19 drives more AI in government

This is a time like no other. Since early this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed all of us, personally and professionally, to new extremes. So, too, has it pushed to the extreme our federal customers, federal workers, national operational systems and technology infrastructures.

With as many as 30 million Americans unemployed during the pandemic, the strain on public systems and services has been immense. Gartner has noted that around 70 percent of workers across the country, including those in government, have had to transition to remote work. According to many surveys reported by Global Workplace Analytics, about a third of these jobs may never return to offices.

This time of crisis has become a time of change. Our industry's focus over the past decade around government IT modernization now needs to broaden to encompass new federal agency challenges and accelerated timelines brought on by this pandemic.

Solutions are needed to meet these needs, in terms of advanced technology and lean change management. They are being brought to the spotlight with a fresh lens and a higher level of urgency, giving us a valuable view for how we can do things better.

Accelerating conversations about AI

Urgent needs born of the coronavirus are accelerating conversations about artificial intelligence for government – and could spark the biggest push for government digital transformation in decades. Many of the citizen-facing or government-to-government processes are now strained or failing. 

As AI is applied as a solution, work can get done in new ways that empower greater human productivity – and with humans still very much in the loop. However, a key element of this change is that the process does not need to be exclusively dependent on humans. AI can create the perfect digital teammate, but more importantly, it is an essential failsafe element for government IT systems in this “new normal” future operating environment.

Re-empowering the workforce

During this stressful time, there is a unique opportunity to create positive and long-lasting change to reshape and re-empower the federal workforce, maximizing its potential and function. With a required shift towards a teleworking force, many of the functions needed to enable effective remote work can be supported by artificial intelligence – a digital teammate who doesn’t have to be in the office or monitored physically in a specific location.

AI systems excel at providing two-way communication and real-time data management to users based on their specific needs. Our goal should be to decrease time spent in manual, repetitive tasks and instead improve speed, accuracy and overall effectiveness with AI – so human operators spend their time monitoring systems, contributing to operational strategies, and making better informed decisions.

Finding the positive in pain and change

Crisis brings pain. Often much of this pain is due to the rapid, non-optional, unrelentless change that is brought on as result of a crisis' impact on people, organizations and societal behavior. This pandemic is no exception. For federal workers and their families, COVID-19 has caused horrendous pain, especially to those on the front lines fighting the pandemic in healthcare roles, law enforcement and national security.

Hundreds of thousands of federal workers have had to remain at work, due to their roles supporting essential mission elements of their agencies. For those in roles that are able to work remotely, the shift to telework came also with some changes and patience required as systems transitioned to support the new rush in telework requirements. For government industry, COVID public health regulations related to required office closings, a push to telework, and SCIF restrictions have also created operational challenges. This has been an important time to rise to meet the needs of the urgent customer mission challenges, and to apply the most advanced technologies in new approaches to meet those needs.

Change management is never easy, but when change is thrust upon us, we should embrace it for whatever good we can get out of it, turn the negative to a positive, and use the time to improve mission success now and in the future.

Aiming for a pandemic-proof future

The federal IT systems we rely on now and in the future need to be pandemic proof. They need to be accessible remotely and able to maintain ongoing operations for some of our most basic government operational needs.

Supporting the “new normal” will require federal IT systems to be modernized around this new condition, with evolving needs to meet the increased demands of remote working, telehealth, social distancing, unemployment, procurement, logistics and supply chain functions, and more. Regardless of how much humans remain in the loop or transition to higher quality work and manage the AI, the bottom line is that AI can still be that backstop to ensure the work still gets done – regardless of the circumstances being affected by crisis or change.

As an industry, we need to focus on how to use artificial intelligence to push the envelope to get more for government customers and more success for government workers. During this time, let us all make it a commitment to enable processes to function at a higher level, allowing them to be more productive, and create greater opportunities for government and industry team members. As we continue to work our way through this crisis together, we must adopt AI technologies to help us prevent another crisis from reoccurring, or at the very least prevent the repeat of the same challenges we experienced from this one.

About the Author

NCI President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Paul A. Dillahay brings more than 20 years of executive-level experience within the government IT services sector to his role at NCI. He has proven experience delivering sustainable top-line growth, operational excellence and process improvement. In his current position, he is responsible for oversight of all company operations; development and execution of the company’s growth strategy, including strategic transactions; and investor relations.

Before joining NCI, Paul was executive vice president for CACI’s health and litigation solutions group. He also served as executive vice president of corporate development while there. Prior to CACI, Paul served as president and CEO at ASRC Federal, where he had principal responsibility for day-to-day operations of ASRC Federal subsidiaries and shared services center. He held the position of chief operating officer (COO) prior to his role as president and CEO. In addition, Paul’s career has included such positions as chief strategy officer for Anthem’s federal government solutions business, executive in residence for Seabury Aerospace Group, president and COO of USIS, and vice president of operations for a defense division at Lockheed Martin.

Paul holds a bachelor’s in management science from Lock Haven University. He has completed executive education at both the Kellogg School of Management and the Harvard Business School.

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