Though it may run counter to many innovation instincts, agencies should readily seek to steal ideas from each other, rather than building complete systems and processes themselves, according to government officials who spoke at the AFCEA Bethesda Innovation in Technology Symposium held in Washington, D.C., March 1.
“Steal, steal, steal. We have this problem in all organizations — I don’t know if it’s worse in government or not — that we have to invent it all ourselves,” said Chad Sheridan, the Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency’s chief information officer.
“And I don’t know if I got this beaten into my head when I was in the Navy or if it’s a natural inclination, but I love to steal other people’s ideas. Because, if I can harvest somebody else’s idea, then I’m not trying to invent it from the ground up, and I’m actually standing on the shoulders of giants.”
For example, Sheridan said that USDA stole its idea to create farmers.gov, a site dedicated to the needs and questions of the farming community in the U.S., from Veteran’s Affairs’ vets.gov.
“Farmers.gov today is not an incredibly wonderful site that allows you to do everything online, but it shows that we’re moving in that direction; it shows intent,” said Sheridan.
Sheridan and other government officials at the event said that there are a number of ideas and services that work across agencies, and that agencies should strive to innovate off of each other more often.
“There is a time to innovate, and there is a time to be a fast-follower,” said Veterans Affairs CIO Scott Blackburn. “That’s exactly what we’re doing with DoD and the [electronic health record] implementation. And as we see them doing some things that are great — and there are somethings that are actually going really well — there’s also some areas where we’re learning an awful lot. We can study from other people’s mistakes; that’s part of being a fast follower.”
The VA announced in June 2017 that they would be adopting a compatible electronic health record system to the Department of Defense, increasing interoperability and easing the healthcare transition for servicemembers when they retire.
The DoD system has already seen its initial deployment, with the VA system expected to begin its initial deployment within the next 16 months, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Agencies are also stealing IT solutions for capacity and customer response problems from each other. The U.S. Customs and Immigration Service recently released a virtual assistant named “Emma” to their website, who can field basic questions from immigration applicants while freeing up actual employees to tackle the more complex requests.
“375,000 customers every single day are checking the status of their case. With what capacity do we have to serve 375,000 anxious, fearful, in many instances desperate individuals that are trying to see where their case is? Because that’s the difference between being able to work and not work. This is the difference between being able to bring their family and not bring their family, being able to build a life in this country,” said Mariela Melero, associate director of the USCIS Customer Service and Public Engagement Directorate.
The idea for Emma, however, came from the U.S. Marine Corps’ Sergeant Star, a web-chat personality on GoArmy.com that answers questions about military careers, training and finance using artificial intelligence.
In turn, Jeff Lau, acting regional commissioner for the Northeast and Caribbean region of the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service, said that he would be interested in potentially using the ideal behind Emma to create a chatbot for GSA call centers.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.