Jonathan Alboum, who joined ServiceNow in 2019 as Federal CTO and principal digital strategist after serving as CIO at the U.S. Agriculture Department from 2015-2017, carries the advantage of understanding both sides of the equation in the ongoing push for government to improve digital service customer experience.
In advance of ServiceNow’s Federal Forum 2022 conference exploring the future of government work, we sat down with Alboum to get his views on the latest wave of digital service policy coming from the Biden administration.
Those include the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) anchored by aims to improve digital citizen service, a related citizen service executive order, and efforts by Federal CIO Clare Martorana to lead Federal agencies in providing digital service that rivals the interactions offered by the private sector’s most successful brands.
In this exclusive interview, Alboum looks over the horizon to what may prove to be an even better end-state: the dawning of the age of “anticipatory” government that harnesses technology for the benefit of citizens, and helps to rebuild and refresh their trust in governing institutions.
MeriTalk: The White House’s executive order issued Dec. 13 that tasks Federal agencies with improving citizen experience lays down a broad mandate for improvement. What are your views on that order, and based on your experience as a Federal agency CIO, what are some of the lower-hanging fruit that CIOs might take a look at?
Alboum: What I like so much about the customer service EO – which links to the President’s Management Agenda – is the fact that it focuses on this idea of life events, and the notion that there are times when you really need government.
When you really need government, you often don’t get just one agency or program – there’s a collection of programs and agencies that serve you. But oftentimes, you are on your own to figure out the individual programs and unique bureaucracies within agencies that run those programs – at the same time you are in a ton of need.
So, we have to reposition the way we serve the customers of government, and the customer service EO aims to do that. The low-hanging fruit starts with this idea that we want to think in an outside-in way about how we serve customers.
My career before government was about building technology systems and my career inside government was managing them. We’re often focused on what are the requirements for my program, and how do I get the data that I need, or manage the data that I have, and in that process, I’m just thinking about my program. That’s the inside-out approach – about what I need, and not necessarily how the citizen might interact with that program, and other government systems they might be using.
So, the beginning of that low-hanging fruit is that change to outside-in, and to think about citizens, and put them at the center. And then to focus on some of the life events that President Biden describes in the EO – retiring, or filing and managing taxes, or there’s a disaster, or experiencing poverty, or starting a business. The government can be helpful through these experiences, but even more helpful by making it easy to access needed programs. The beginning of this is rethinking the way that we serve customers, how we collect these programs, and how we present them out.
MeriTalk: Where might be a good starting point?
Alboum: The EO talks about the USA.gov being redesigned as a centralized and streamlined digital front door. That’s a great starting point. I would reorganize it around what people are experiencing and what programs they need, and put all that in one place so now I can see everything that I have access to.
USA.gov isn’t transactional yet. It’s informational primarily. But it creates that starting point for those interactions that might cut across programs or agencies and maybe even levels of government, because so many Federal programs are effectuated at the local level. That’s what I think it’s all about in the end.
MeriTalk: What do agencies have to do to get going, and what kind of things might get in the way?
Alboum: Every time you have a new initiative, it always goes back to funding. The President’s Management Agenda issued by OMB in November sets the intention, but it doesn’t come with any money.
At every Federal agency I worked in, and with all the Feds I’ve worked with, we all recognize that we worked for the executive branch, and for the President ultimately. When there is a PMA that gives direction, you’ve got to figure out how to achieve that even when there’s no money that comes through a related piece of legislation. You need to figure out how to really prioritize your work and funding to get that done, which is never easy.
Fortunately, we have things like the Technology Modernization Fund now that creates the opportunity for agencies to come together to say we can achieve aspects of the PMA by combining customer interactions across our systems – through portals, connectivity, data exchanges – but we need money to do that. I would be thinking about who I am working with in my agency and across agencies, and which government programs or offices in my agency are dealing with the same customer during the same life event that is happening to the customer, and are they talking today and sharing data. You have to understand the unique problem you can help solve, and then what’s the current state, and you’ve got to lay that out so you can make a plan to move forward.
Also on funding, we have a lot of money in the system right now that may not be in the regular appropriated budget, but may be available from the American Rescue Plan Act or the infrastructure bill signed in November. We’ll also see what happens with the Build Back Better legislation. I would be optimistic that within some of those pieces of legislation, there’s funding that can be used to drive some successes, and those things tend to build on themselves over time.
MeriTalk: Federal CIO Clare Martorana is very focused on improving citizen service – it seems like it’s in her DNA – and she’s laid out a goal of providing government service that is as good as the best interactions with the private sector. Is that a high bar, and what are your thoughts on how the quality of those interactions can be equalized?
Alboum: The pandemic changed the way people think about interacting with commercial services, and that bleeds into government services as well.
In government during the pandemic, we did a lot of heroic work to very quickly pivot on how we provided service. But in many cases, we took the existing process and added a digital tool to the front end – like add a video chat feature, or digital signatures – but we still did all of the interaction face to face. I didn’t have to leave my home to do it, which is good, but we didn’t change the process really, we just added some tools to make that kind of manual process work better.
I don’t think you can achieve what the Federal CIO is describing unless you’re going to take a step back and look at these processes. You need to understand what’s the work of your agency, what’s the data, and how does it flow. Then you need to understand what that process looks like today and what should it look like in the future so you can provide service that’s driven by the needs of the customer when they want it, and how they want to interact.
That potentially means introducing self-service options, automating aspects of your processes and taking people out of them in some cases. Some of the quick fixes in the pandemic didn’t take people out of the process, it just gave people different tools to achieve an end. That left people still really integral to the process, and it also meant you’re doing your process during regular business hours.
We like the 24/7 availability of service from the private sector, our minds are changed by that model. It might not apply to every single aspect of government, but in many instances with government service, I might have to file forms, or sign up for a program, and I could do a lot of things conceptually through self-service, and get my tasks really far down the pathway. Maybe somebody comes in to do a review of what I’ve done, but the point is I haven’t had to wait to get started.
For what the Federal CIO wants to do, you can’t get there without doing the very hard work of understanding the relevant data, what is it, how it flows, and then rethinking and redesigning these processes to be digital processes that are similar to how commercial companies provide service.
Lastly, for the effort to succeed, we have to think about how we measure value. We can do all this great stuff, but if we’re not able to demonstrate how it improves the person’s experience, how it gets a benefit out faster, how you increase program participation, or decrease improper payments – whatever your metrics are – you’re going to be hard pressed to do the next project. So, creating a baseline and measuring improvements are really important.
The corollary to all of that is after you’ve created that new thing, that consumer grade technology, I should be able to get to it on a mobile device, it should be a few clicks to get my outcome, and it should be easy to use, because that’s how you interact with all your favorite brands.
MeriTalk: What are the next steps for the government to start using those consumer-grade technologies?
Alboum: All of those technologies exist – the companies that use those technologies aren’t building these things on their own. They are commercially available, whether it’s ServiceNow or another provider, all those things exist. The task is being able to use them effectively and again, get value from them.
Within the ServiceNow platform, there is AI and other capabilities, and commercial businesses are using these things to really tailor experiences to people, and make personalized recommendations. I think that’s really important. There’s this hyper-personalization that can be very attractive, and really help change the way that people think about government, and have them see it as a helper.
There’s always skepticism about government, but I think that the better we do in serving customers, the more trust we create. You have to build up trust over time through lots of good interactions and that creates good feelings that help me think about government in a different light, and see government as a service provider I can trust. It’s a big opportunity we have if we can do this right.
MeriTalk: It seems that a lot will depend on agencies sharing a lot of their back-end data that they don’t have to now, is that a daunting idea?
Alboum: Let’s think about what’s possible if I had all of this information about you, and take away privacy concerns that can be alleviated by allowing you to opt in or opt out for certain processes.
When I have all that information about you and I can look across programs and understand your age, your financial situation, family situation, marital status – all these factors – then I can begin to anticipate things you might need. I can offer you services or suggest you apply for a program. I can do a lot.
It’s this idea of anticipatory government. If I can predict things that you’re likely to need, I can play a really important role in your personal and family success, and maybe professional success. We have the ability to do that, because we know commercial companies do these things.
MeriTalk: How does a company like ServiceNow enter the picture?
Alboum: We know what’s possible, and a tool like ServiceNow is an excellent way to begin to accomplish the goals that we have been talking about.
ServiceNow at its core is a platform for connecting systems and connecting people and organizations and those underlying systems that might cut across agencies. That data can be integrated into the ServiceNow platform, and I can pull data from multiple systems. We do this inside individual organizations today. You can do that across departments, and you can do that across levels of government.
Once I have that data from multiple sources in the ServiceNow platform, I can then leverage the core technology of the platform, the AI and machine learning capabilities, the workflow. Those things can then be the conduit by which I drive to an outcome that is based on lots of data, and that might perform some analysis that says based on these factors, I want to submit an application for a particular program for you because I’m very confident you’re going to be able to benefit from it.
I can then alert you because you’re a good candidate for a program and prompt you to start or submit an application, for instance. Or ask if you want to delete it if you’re not interested, but in the end I’ve done all this work for you, and I’ve made it easy for you to get the services you need. I think a lot of people would take advantage of that.
That’s possible because ServiceNow acts as that connective tissue across systems to leverage data and use workflow to get to an outcome. I think it’s really doable. The harder aspects of that are not so much the technology, but how you organize around this, who can share the data, and who can access the data.
These process things become bigger issues, but I’m confident the technology exists to support this. Before the Biden administration PMA, I talked about these opportunities as the basis for a national digital strategy. With the PMA’s focus on improving citizen service, I hope we can have some communication with connections inside and outside of agencies and across a lot of communities that can demonstrate the art of the possible.
I believe there’ll be more people who want their government to serve them in these kinds of ways. Maybe not everybody, but a lot people.