Avi Bender knows the value of data.

As the director of the National Technical Information Service within the Department of Commerce, Bender has helped stand up a service that takes the wealth of datasets in both Commerce and other federal agencies and helps partner with the private sector to plan and develop new digital tools.

Through NTIS’s Joint Venture Partner program, the office can advise agencies on data projects, put together a business case and partner with the private sector to design the solution in 60-90 days.

Bender spoke with Senior Staff Reporter Carten Cordell at the ACT-IAC Management of Change conference in Cambridge, Md., about NTIS’s potential for innovation in government.

It’s been a few months since the stand-up of the National Technical Information Service, which is a very interesting concept in terms of applying innovation to the government right now. Can you talk about the progress you’ve made so far?

So since [our Federal Data Meeting on April 4], we're now supporting three important organizations, which include DHS, the FDA and HHS’s Office of the Inspector General. We have 30 partners signed up as of [May 22 in the Joint Venture Partner program], and we're beginning to get interest from many other federal agencies who are looking at our work and are beginning to see, as I mentioned, these what I would call design patterns. Because all agencies, to a certain extent, do something very similar when it comes to data: they collect, they process, they analyze, they visualize and then they make insightful decisions, that's a common pattern.

And traditionally, the way the government operates is every single agency will come up with its own approach of how to do that and their own approach of how to have the underlying infrastructure and applications to make that happen.

I think there's a tremendous opportunity to reduce the cost of running the government if we can aggregate those capabilities into shared services, a platform or whatever you want to call that, and then operationalize that throughout the federal government so that agencies can better focus on their mission. This is an important trend that we're seeing.

So we're pretty early in this process, but so far we've had quite a bit of success and some very interesting use cases that are coming up.

We're kind of in the age of big data where the data is always been there but the ability to process, distill it and come to a quantifiable result has only increased over time. What’s the process been like to engage the private sector to find the right data tools for agencies?

Great question and I think I would like to maybe put a different twist on that. You've got Big Data, you've got the right analytics tools to process the data, but there's something that's really missing that I think is even more important: what problem are you trying to solve? What is the desired business outcome?

And what I'm finding out is that many agencies are focusing primarily on functional and technical requirements as they try to solve problems. What we're asking them to do is to step back and really look strategically at what is the mission of the organization and then what is the business outcome?

Now, these are not just plain questions because we then take this information, and we work with the agency to come up with an initial problem statement to understand what is this big data or data analytics problem you're trying to solve.

At that point in time — this is where the JV process comes in — we take this problem statement and we introduce it to all of our joint venture partners. We invite the agency and we have the partners then engage in this wonderful thing called a conversation. And we basically ask them, "Go ahead, grill them. Ask them why they are taking this approach, ask them what problem are they trying to solve." And we find out that this early planning approach with the private sector, then it really makes the federal agency rethink their approach.

Based on that, NTIS then takes all this information and recrafts the problem statement in a way that is truly aligned with the mission and the problem that they're seeking to solve. At that point in time, we release that to all of those Joint Venture Partners and we say, "You've got two weeks to come back with a cost proposal or solution and come up with an approach." 

The process that I've just described to you is 60 to 90 days. What makes it 60 to 90 is there are legal terms and conditions that we have to work through, but it's really unprecedented that we're able to so quickly focus attention on the problem statement and then actually get started and get something done.

Though it has its roots in the Department of Commerce, do you feel like this is a process that can scale up to broader use in the government?

The roots of the Joint Venture Partnership is in the statutory authority that is within Commerce

.

And the intent of

t

hat is really to help leverage a lot of the foundational data that comes out of the Department of Commerce and then connect that data with data from other federal agencies. It's really in the connection of the data that we are deriving value.

What we found out in some of the initial conversations is that it's a two-pronged approach. One aspect of connecting that data is to really help democratize this information and drive economic growth, but another area that really seems to resonate is driving internal operational excellence within federal agencies by helping them achieve their mission in a more efficient way of driving operational excellence.

So to your point, it's interesting to note that as we're looking at economic growth, many of the agencies that we're working with — such as the FDA and HHS — are really looking to achieve their mission, but by driving internal operational excellence of how they do their work.

So while the original intent is very much to work with Commerce and be a publisher of data, we are beginning to see broad-based demand from other federal agencies. Because ultimately the value of this data is when it's connected among all these other agencies.

So, it's driving culture

within those agencies?

Correct, it's driving culture in the way that you can't have a project for operational excellence. You can't have a project for economic growth or a project for innovation. You really need to have a catalyst for change, and we believe that data is this renewable resource that keeps on giving if it's applied correctly and understood within federal agencies to affect internal change

.

The program is growing, but where would you like to see it go from here?

I think we're going to end this fiscal year with a few high visibility organizations that we're supporting on a multitude of data analytic type capabilities

.

We will take a slight pause and see then how we need to further scale this process. We're working with 30 Joint Venture Partners. I think for the time it's sufficient, but I really think we need to understand how we can continue to scale this business model should the demand from the federal government and the private sector increase.

We have a business plan in place, we're executing against that and then after about a year or so, we will pause and see what have we learned and then how do we take this to the next level. Because ultimately, what we're promising here is time to market and helping agencies achieve capacity to scale. And our business model needs to be operationalized in such a way that it provides specifically those attributes

.

In talking about Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, he has voiced support for NTIS. Are there certain policies, like IT modernization and data analytics, that just make good governance sense across party lines?

So, we've seen great support from the administration. As you know, Secretary Ross keynoted our Federal Data Meeting

back at the

beginning of April

.

The

Department of Commerce is truly a Big Data agency. We have organizations such as the

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Census Bureau and the release of economic indicators that we have. But as I mentioned before, it's really the power of our data and connecting it to our other datasets.

So we see that is a continued growth industry and data is playing a very important role. You don't have to look very far as to what's happening in the private sector, where you have large organizations whether it's the Googles, the Facebooks, the Amazons and many, many other big players. If you look at their businesses, on the surface it seems that they are doing totally different things, but the innovation engine within each one of them appears to be data and there's no reason why data can't be the innovation engine within the federal government

.