Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat said today that the Federal government is making progress on a number of fronts in its digital-first strategy to improve the delivery of citizen services, but needs to pursue “sustained modernization” of IT services to continue driving change for the better.

Speaking at General Dynamics Information Technology’s Emerge 2021 digital modernization conference, Roat listed several Federal IT advances in recent times including further adoption of automation technologies driven by improved data flows and cloud computing. But she also explained that further improvements will depend on investments in additional IT modernization.

“We need to continue to invest in long-term sustained modernization – it’s key to driving continual change across the Federal government [and] bringing in that innovation,” the Deputy Federal CIO said.

“The Federal government must continue to adopt new technologies, new techniques, and new approaches to keep up with the pace of change,” she said. “I’m excited about the pace of change, I love the change in technology, but we have to continuously modernize the systems and the ways we work.”

“We have to foster a culture that embraces risk and agile adoption and encourages innovation, not just in technology, but also in areas like acquisition,” she counseled. “Digital delivery is a necessity and our customers – internal employees [and] the external American public – they expect that delivery to be quick, easy, secure, and an accessible customer experience. It’s a business discipline, we must embed it in everything we do as we interact with our customers, and as we continue to modernize.”

TMF Potential

The Deputy Federal CIO did not address head-on any particular uses for the recent $1 billion funding increase for the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) but offered a strong endorsement of TMF as a proven funding vehicle to quickly advance the cause of IT modernization.

TMF, she said has been “front and center” in numerous Federal agency modernization projects over the last three years. Those projects, she said, are “great examples of how agencies reimagine and transform the way they use technology to deliver the mission and the services to the American public.”

“These projects are impactful,” she said, explaining that they have accelerated modernization timelines “from five years down to one or two years” to roll out new capabilities, “as well as developing new shared services and common solutions for reuse across the Federal government.”

Policy, Pandemic Drivers

Roat credited both relatively recent Federal IT policy directives – as well as service change imperatives forced by the coronavirus pandemic – for giving momentum to the government’s “digital-first” IT priority.

“The Federal government is already moving to digital-first as it modernizes IT systems, and agencies have invested over the last several years in modern infrastructure [and] Zero Trust networking.”

“Even over the last 14-plus months as we rolled into the pandemic, we saw innovation accelerate again and again as agencies leveraged those foundational capabilities that were already in place,” she said. “The flexibility, scalability, and security of those cloud-based solutions afforded us the opportunity and the ability to configure commercial platforms with reusable services.”

Advanced Tech Adoption

Roat said the Federal government is “under increasing pressure to reduce backlogs, promote transparency, and increase efficiency,” and she enthusiastically endorsed the use of advanced technologies like AI, robotic process automation (RPA), machine learning, and blockchain, which she said are “all demonstrating their promise in various functions across government.”

Using electronic discovery as an example, Roat said advanced tech can accomplish much of those tasks in a “fraction of the time” that it takes people to get that work done. “So this automation can allow those frontline workers to dramatically reduce their energy and time spent on the searching and administrative activities, and shift towards the analysis and the other work that they need to do,” she said.

Cloud services and their ability to hold terabytes of data without Federal agencies investing in new hardware to host that data on their own are “foundational” components for generating more progress with advanced technologies by making huge volumes of data readily available for use by ML and AI technologies, she said.

“As we look forward, we need to enhance access to discoverable and usable Federal data and models to feed the AI and ML development,” she said. Progress on that front, she said, helps to execute the Federal Data Strategy released by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in 2019.

Agency action plans mandated by the strategy “continue to collectively raise the maturity bar for the whole of government” by putting in place shareable common standards improving data management, Roat said. “We’ve got some great opportunities and we’re taking advantage of all of those,” she said.

Enterprise View

Discussing improvements to the ability of Federal agencies to provide citizen service, Roat said she views “the Federal government through this enterprise lens,” and the “cross-cutting missions where technology is the enabler to provide better public and citizen services,” not just on the Federal level, but also for state and tribal governments.

The enterprise view, she said, “cuts horizontally and vertically, so think about that and how looking as an enterprise we can be more efficient and improve citizen services … These processes including data sharing,” security and privacy.

Digital Identity

High on the Federal tech to-do list, Roat indicated, is further work on the development of digital identity technologies as one aspect of improving cybersecurity.

“Digital identities will soon become the norm,” she said. “We must be prepared to support the increased demand for new and improved digital identity management solutions, whether it’s to mitigate fraud quickly, [or] verify identity for government services and benefits. This digital transformation is not a one-off activity, and it does again, require[s] sustained continuous long- term investments and ensure that security is built-in, not bolted on.”

She referenced OMB’s release of ICAM (identity, credentialing, and access management) policy in 2019, and said, “we need to look at identity as the underpinning for managing risk.” Over the past year, she said, “we saw over and over again how critical they are for the Federal government to deliver and agencies to have the sound processes for authentication and access control, make sure we securely deliver services and protect an individual’s identity.”

“This all goes to [how] we want to continue to improve those digital transactions … the security, trust, and safety of transactions with the public that is … critical to our to our digital service delivery,” she said.

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.