The IRS, Department of Labor and Booz Allen Talk Innovation: Highlights from the Atlantic Festival

Dec 6, 2018 5:10 PM ET

Americans expect the same efficient and effective digital experiences from government as they do leading consumer brands. How are federal departments and agencies catching up in terms of technological innovation in Citizen Services? And what’s next on the horizon?

On October 3 at The Atlantic Festival, Booz Allen Executive Vice President and Civilian Services Lead Kristine Martin Anderson moderated a discussion with Gundeep Ahluwalia, Chief Information Officer, Department of Labor, and Harrison Smith, Acting Chief Procurement Officer, Internal Revenue Service.

How are citizen expectations of the digital experience changing the way you do business?

The Department of Labor has been shifting to a UX mentality when building new websites and is driving the cultural change required to make user expectations the priority. “We don’t put out websites without talking to the actual users and getting input on what they expect,” said Ahluwalia.

He cited, a site which has thrived for the last 12 years. “It’s completely mobile, 16 different federal agencies contribute to it and it puts out about 1,400 different benefits, with result sets specific to the state you access it from. And not only will it serve you the right answer to your specific questions, it will also suggest additional things you may need.”

At the IRS, innovations include IRS2Go - a mobile app with 8.5 million users - that lets you check the status of your refund 24 hours after submitting it. Instead of mandating, “This is how we’re going to do things and the taxpayer needs to respond,” Smith described how the IRS is designing applications and features for what users want to do and how they want to do it. He also described that today’s environment is one where the customer expectations will continually evolve. As a result, it is imperative that the government understand how those expectations are changing, through direct engagement with the customer, and be agile in responding. “The expectations move and you have to be able to move at the same time,” Smith said.

What role does procurement innovation play in enabling improvements to the citizen’s digital experience?

The government’s procurement practices should function as a gateway that allows innovation to flourish. However, Smith acknowledged the complexity and specificity or ‘guard rails’ in many of today’s requests for proposal run the risk of stifling innovation and creativity and do little to advance IT Modernization and Digital Experience goals. He went on to describe this scenario –  If the government can’t buy in a way that enables different types of companies to bid and propose new ideas and solutions, we run the risk of “getting the same answers, from the same types of firms, at the same prices - and we can no longer afford to function that way”. Alternatively, both Smith and Ahluwalia suggest the government should be clear on what the goals of the procurement are, but they also recommend opening the aperture on how those goals can be met to allow the bidders to propose new ideas and innovation in the solution.

We are beginning to see the types of acquisition changes that will enable innovation at scale, including Acquisition Innovation Labs and Acquisition Innovation Advocates, within individual agencies, to encourage new ways of buying. In order for acquisition processes to stay ahead of the demand for IT Modernization, it will take the combination of innovative Contracting Officers, who will advocate buying through new models, and industry partners, like Booz Allen, that will offer innovative solutions and are willing to have ‘skin in the game’ and take on more risk through creative pricing and delivery models.

What innovation can we expect from the government in the next three years?

Smith expects an increased emphasis on data-driven decisions, using evidence to determine what is working and delivering the desired results – let the evidence drive where you continue to invest. He also cited “the shift to incremental improvements, leveraging the DevOps approach and Agile in how we buy, deploy services, and engage with our customers.”

Ahluwalia also emphasized a focus on success measures to guide innovation. He says technology will continue to advance and it will be important to measure the results the solutions are delivering to the citizen –  we must ask, “is the solution faster, is it reducing burden, is it improving access to services, etc. and then adjust accordingly, based on those answers.”

Watch the recording of this session, here.