The surprising new government service: delight

By | 5 minute read | June 1, 2018

Metropol parasol in Spain. Image by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos via Unsplash

“The more people are involved in their government, the better served we all will be,” said Brenda Decker, IBM’s director of global government. Decker has extensive experience in helping states become more efficient and open to their citizens. As one of StateScoop’s Top Women in Technology for 2018, Decker has helped governments use technology from blockchain to AI to transform core services and revenue systems.

We talked with Decker about how governments can grow with their citizens’ expectations. And yes, even delight them.

How can governments leverage modular technology?

Governments originally built systems to more efficiently manage their records. A Health and Human Services system, for example, was designed to be a huge record-keeping system. But although citizens’ needs progressed and they became accustomed to on-demand services and interactive technology, many systems were never rewritten. Governments modified them, putting technologies on top of technologies and adding front-end systems.

Now, there is nobody left who built the original systems and agencies are afraid of triggering a domino effect: “If I make this change, will that impact our entire system? Will it suddenly stop working?” Budgets have become constrained in government so there is little appetite for throwing away the whole system and starting over, because that is overwhelming and expensive. People want a roadmap: where to start and where to go. They also want to know how to escape the quagmire of outdated systems and move forward.

In modular systems, people can take a piece, remove it, and modernize it. The pieces can interact with each other. You don’t need to rip-and-replace old systems.

How can governments use blockchain?

Each government agency sees itself as an individual business, and often exists in a silo. The Department of Corrections, for example, deals with inmate records of all kinds that are held by different government agencies, including health, court, physical attributes, family history, and driving records. To obtain a total view of that inmate, they need to interact with four or five different agencies, all with different formats and requirements for what they can and cannot use.

With blockchain, those records can remain the property of those agencies. The Department of Corrections can access them when needed without having to store them in their own environment. They can be confident the records are authentic and immutable. We can expand that to citizens. Let’s say Jane Citizen wants to interact with government and has vehicle, health, and court records. Those disparate records across agencies may need to interact for a specific purpose. Again, with blockchain, agencies can access these without affecting the records’ integrity, security, or authenticity.

Citizens need government services. Why can’t governments use information about citizens to proactively serve their needs and do more or all the tedious paperwork? All the citizen would have to do is verify and provide the appropriate permissions to access the information.

How can governments build trust?

News related to security breaches continues to dominate our lives. Governments must prove to citizens that the records citizens entrust them with are safe, secure, and being used for intended purposes—nothing more and nothing less. As government works more and more as one cohesive entity, rather than many different silos, citizens will start to recognize that providing information has benefits for their daily lives. Sharing information about a commute could help the government provide ways to avoid flood-damaged roads or reduce pollution.

Is it possible for governments to make services and interactions enjoyable for citizens? It should not be a pain to register a car, get a driver’s license, or request birth records. “We need to be able to authenticate you and give you everything you need within moments.” We’re all used to purchasing things online and getting instantaneous responses across our devices about when our product will be delivered. Government has to be as easy as ordering groceries online or ordering a book on a device and reading it instantly. Government has to get to that point to delight its citizens.

How can governments empower, retain, and hire more people in tech?

Government is a tough place to work. It cannot compete financially with the private sector. Governments have very open processes. If a government worker makes a big mistake, it could potentially be in the news. But there are benefits to working in government. It’s one of the rare industries in the world where IT professionals work in environments that do absolutely everything versus just working in one industry such as financial services or in retail.

Government is an industry of industries, including law enforcement, banking, emergency services, health, or transportation. We get to work with some of the best technology, tools, and people, who are truly willing to share information. It is an excellent place to start a career because you will get the training you need and find the environment in which you want to be. There wasn’t a day in government that I didn’t walk out the door without feeling I did something that helped make my city, state, or country better. Working for government is an opportunity of a lifetime. Yes, we do give up something for it, but we gain so much more. In government, people can change the world.

How has the government CIO’s role evolved?

It’s becoming more of a strategic role, and less of a nuts-and-bolts, keep-the-computers-running role. Technology touches everything in government in some way. CIOs should set a strategy that improves the lives of the people that depend on government and provide individualized services to people with complex needs.

CIOs have to take a strategic view across disparate government silos and ask, “Where is the right way to go? How do I advance things?” CIOs will be more prominent stewards of data and arbitrators of how and where that data is used. They’ll ensure that citizens understand that their personal information is being used appropriately.

What fictional government would you like to join?

I don’t want to be in the government that “The Flintstones” were running—I’m absolutely positive of that. In the movie “American President,” President Andrew Shepherd said, “I was so busy trying to keep my job that I forgot to do my job.” I want to work with a government that is busy doing its job.