Forget the Dire Headlines. Federal IT Modernization may Be Closer Than you Think, Part 1

Roland Alston, Product Marketing Manager
February 10, 2022

President Joe Biden just signed a sweeping executive order aimed at modernizing government and improving customer experience and service delivery at federal agencies.  

Within 180 days of the date of this order, the document instructs, the Administrator of General Services shall submit a roadmap for the development of prioritized common services and standards, platforms, and digital products that support increased efficiency, integration, and improved service delivery of designated customer life experiences.

For decades, numerous delays and missed deployment dates have contributed to the glacial pace of digital transformation in government. But while it remains to be seen whether Biden’s executive order will speed things up, one notable technologist thinks federal agencies are already making headway in living up to the promise of digital transformation. 

Enter Kirke Everson, Principal, Low-code Practice Leader, US Government and Public Sector at KPMG, a technology consulting powerhouse with over $32 billion in revenue and more than 236,000 employees in 145 countries. In the following interview, Everson expresses optimism and drops some serious knowledge on the future of intelligent automation, and the rise of low-code development, AI, and automation use cases in the public sector. The questions have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Appian:

I’ve come across a lot of commentary about the importance of digital transformation in the federal government. I wonder what you make of the argument that most federal workers think their agencies are not keeping up with technology trends. 

Everson:

That's a hot question, but it's a good one. I think many agencies have been doing a lot of proof-of-concept (POC) and prototyping, especially when it comes to robotic process automation (RPA). I would say five or six years ago, there was a good volume of POCs. But I think now we're seeing more and more agencies embracing low-code. You could probably classify RPA (use-cases) as part of the low-code trend.

Appian:

As you think about low-code and how it’s catching on in the public sector, what are the barriers you see to accelerating adoption?

Everson:

Agencies are constrained by legacy IT. And they’re trying to get what they can out of existing systems before investing in new technology. Low-code's a great way to do that. But to move the needle on adoption means educating customers about what low code is.  I think there's some confusion about what low-code is. But we (KPMG) found that when we educate clients on the benefits of low-code and the speed to value it offers, we generate excitement about it.

Appian:

Let’s talk about the impact of COVID on federal IT modernization. In the private sector, the pandemic has had a massive impact on business process automation. What impact has the pandemic had on digital transformation at federal agencies?

Everson:

Obviously, COVID has forced agencies to rethink their service delivery models for federal employees and citizens alike. And so, we’ve seen a paradigm shift in the public sector. We know that digital transformation enables virtual delivery of government services. But COVID really forced agencies to think differently about delivery models to improve customer experience. The fact that the President signed an executive order to improve federal customer service experience is critical.

The order identifies more than 30 agencies that need to rethink how they deliver services to citizens from a customer experience standpoint. That spells digital transformation all day. And I think low-code will play a huge role in implementing the President’s order.

Appian:

You mentioned digital transformation. You recently did an interview with Federal News Network where you talked about enhanced automation and the three levels of intelligent automation maturity. How does that fit into the digital transformation narrative for large federal agencies?

Everson:

When I talk about digital transformation as it relates to federal agencies, I’m talking about the maturity of an agency's adoption of digital solutions, I’m talking about the complexity of the technologies in an agency’s digital toolbox. So, if you think about the most basic low-code capability—for example, situations where you're leveraging RPA and bots to implement automation at the desktop level—many agencies are already implementing that kind of human-initiated RPA. We're seeing a lot of adoption with that kind of basic automation. 

But when you add things like natural language processing and low-code app development, you’re talking about enhanced intelligent automation where you're leveraging platforms to build workflow-based solutions.

You're trying to leverage APIs (application programming interfaces) to external sources and use a low-code platform to bring it all together in a hyperautomation kind of construct. And that brings us to the most advanced part of that technology stack, where you're integrating artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) into the workflows that you’re automating. 

Appian:

Practically speaking, how would you break that down. How would you describe enhanced automation in the context of a federal agency use-case? 

Everson:

So, for example, maybe you have a fraud use case where you've got a case management solution and a low code platform with some RPA pulling data into the platform.  And maybe you're also leveraging a predictive analytics algorithm or some other AI solution to identify patterns in the data. So, now you're providing cognitive automation to what you're doing. Another way to look at it is to think about basic RPA as the arms and legs of automation and cognitive functionality as the brain power. Obviously, there's much more to it than that, but that’s a simple way to look at enhanced automation.

Appian:

You’ve also talked about the critical success factors for deploying AI. How would you break down these success factors for a federal CIO?

Everson:

First and foremost, you really need to have an agency-wide digital strategy, and low-code needs to be a part of that. Identify the right use cases. Make sure you're harnessing data in the right parts of the organization. Make sure you're looking for the highest potential return on investment. Take an approach that applies to different use cases for the different offices you're going to be working with, as well as the different data sets that you'll need to access.

This is why it’s essential to have a digital strategy and technology roadmap that allows you to determine the right tools for the workflows you should automate.

The second factor is very closely aligned to digital strategy. It’s creating and communicating a workforce plan to deal with the shift to remote work, leveraging more automation and using more low-code solutions to enhance agency systems. So, working with the chief human capital officer to create a communication strategy, a workforce plan, and career architectures for citizen developers are all essential to helping the organization leverage people and technology to deliver on the digital strategy.

The third factor is governance and policy. Using new solutions may require access to other systems. Sometimes this access goes against policy. Which means you may have to update policy to access certain systems for unattended automation, as an example. Also, as agencies bring on new technologies to solve use cases, it creates a demand management challenge that should be addressed to reduce technical debt, identify use cases, and deliver solutions.

The challenge of getting from POC (proof of concept) to scale is tough enough. But, if you do it without governance, you could end up with disconnected solutions.

Appian:

There’s growing pressure for organizations everywhere to scale automation. And many are considering low-code solutions to do that. But talk about the importance of analyzing and optimizing processes before scaling them. 

Everson:

Process analysis is the fourth success factor. In fact, evaluating processes and data is paramount to any successful implementation of a low-code platform. It keeps you from perpetuating problems in flawed workflows. It allows you to re-engineer processes and improve data sets. This is why agency CIOs are starting to look at their offices and teams as innovation hubs and not just as guardians of technology and infrastructure. These are the four success factors for digital transformation for any organization. 

Appian:

Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about the phenomenal evolution of artificial intelligence which now touches so many aspects of our work and personal lives. How is AI being deployed in the federal space, and can you give some examples of how agencies are leveraging AI to optimize internal operations and improve delivery of citizen services?

Everson:

As a result of COVID, for example, we're seeing a range of AI-powered apps being spun up on low-code platforms for return-to-work vaccine tracking and those sorts of use cases. We're also seeing chat bots being deployed for employee self-help and use cases that help customers resolve problems without dialing into a call center. You can couple chatbots with a low-code platform to implement any kind of (self-service) ticketing system. 

We're also seeing many agencies leverage low-code platforms, as well as RPA to review resumes as part of their talent recruiting efforts. Contract writing is another use case that’s catching on.

For example, we're seeing low-code and natural language processing being used by agencies for acquisition management and procurement contract writing. 

So, these are some of the things we're seeing especially with agencies focused on service delivery and call center automation which is becoming really critical for state and local governments. In the early days of the pandemic, there was a big influx of unemployment insurance claims. But the legacy systems of many state and local agencies weren't built for the exponential growth in claims. Because they didn't have the call center strength to handle it, we implemented a lot of call center automation via low-code, RPA, and IVR (interactive voice response system) integration.

We also leveraged chatbots by integrating them through RPA and low-code to backend systems to provide updates on claims status and the like. 
The use cases for low-code are plentiful. It’s definitely a great way to reengineer an agency's processes and adapt them to a new mandate or a changing regulatory requirement.

(Watch this space for the final installment of this two-part interview on federal IT modernization with Kirke Everson, Principal, Low-code Practice Leader, US Government and Public Sector at KPMG.)