4 public sector myths busted

Technology leaders in the public sector are battling a lot of common myths when it comes to how they tackle innovation and technology, many of which are unfounded. So, we checked in with a few leaders to see if they could dispel the notion that progress and innovation lives solely within the private sector. 

And guess what? They delivered.

Meet Tanya Hannah, CIO of King County Washington and Mike Hussey, CIO of the State of Utah. These innovators have learned that they must approach challenges (and triumphs) with profound technology skills in order to find success in the midst of radical digital transformations and lingering legacy systems.

After a deep dive into these four common myths, you’ll begin to view constraints as the ultimate incubator for ideas, discover how the public sector is embracing technology to fuel public service programs and recognize that tech skills development is more important than ever. 

Myth 1: Public sector lags behind private industry

One of the biggest myths surrounding the public sector is that it’s lagging when it comes to innovation, technology and systems. And while it’s true that many in the public sector are working on legacy systems, the work happening to move away from (or modernize around) them is impressive. 

Tanya: My team is working with AR, AI, VR, ML, DevOps, Agile framework—you name it, we do it. For example, we are using AR to map county roads and the waste water that travels underneath. We use IoT sensors to alert us to what the water flow is; it’s 3D, and we run digital twins. Not everyone in the private sector is doing that. What you may not realize is that our sector covers 64 lines of business, from public health to transportation—we cover a lot of territory. 

Mike: The complexity of government doesn't always slow us down. It sometimes provides opportunities for innovation. As the state of Utah, we are pushing the envelope. We are thinking about things such as being able to track legislation on your Apple Watch. We’re looking at things like robotics and self-driving snowplows. We are also considering blockchain for vehicle titles. The complexity of what the public sector is tackling truly depends on innovation for moving forward with success.

Myth 2: Security and privacy requirements significantly delay technological innovation in the public sector

There are major conversations happening in the public sector around security and privacy. Since public data safety is so important, agencies are restricted in what data they can obtain and how they can use it. However, the public sector can find ways to be innovative and take advantage of emerging technologies with the data they do have access to. Working within these data constraints is key. 

Mike: Sometimes privacy can provide constraints with what technologies can be used by local and state governments. But not always. For instance, facial recognition can be used in a different way: When it comes to drivers licenses, we can compare faces from one license to another to make sure fraud isn’t happening. 

Tanya: When we think about technology like cognitive services, there can be reluctance with legislators and elective officials when it comes to using that technology. But if we think about using cognitive technology for scenarios such as making sure the correct person in a detention facility is released (and not someone else with the same name) it is an amazing technology to do that. Cognitive technology could help us prevent releasing the wrong person or identify people using an alias. Additionally, we know that what you share with Amazon is not necessarily what you want to share with the government, and we respect that boundary. But, as people become more comfortable with technology, we believe that eventually they might want personalized services from government. 

Myth 3: People in the public sector aren’t innovative

The truth is, those working in the public sector are incredibly innovative—even those stuck on legacy systems. There is a strong understanding that new technologies are always emerging and a powerful drive to build skills in order to modernize the sector. And leaders are making sure the people driving innovation are front and center. 

Tanya: We constantly try to build and enhance our learning culture, and that certainly includes making sure our employees have access to resources that help them build technology skills—but that’s not all. We also do onsite training and send people to conferences. We try to build a culture where we can use emerging technologies to better solve public sector problems. We can’t modernize old systems, so we want our teams to focus on design thinking and building new modern systems, especially for mobile devices. 

Mike: Consider this myth busted. When you look at some of the technologies coming out and what states need to adopt, it’s true that our employees need to catch up in some areas. Focusing on skill development helps drive those skills. It is true that states do have technological debt they are trying to overcome and there are developers that operate old mainframes, but we are giving them runway to reinvent themselves and create a better path forward. People are excited to do that. They want to grow their skills. Seeing the drive for innovation internally is really inspiring.

Myth 4: The public sector can’t adequately incentivize employees to keep innovating

The private sectors have so many ways to incentivize employees to build skills. But in the public sector, monetary constraints make it challenging to reward people building skills or spotlight success. But the truth is, it doesn’t take much to incentivize people to grow their skills for your organization, public or private. 

Tanya: Think about what the public sector is doing. Consider 911 technologies like text to 911 or GPS location. How exciting to be the person working on modernizing these systems! You don’t necessarily get this kind of impact in the private sector. Where you have an impact is on the mission of the public sector and the lives that you can touch with the work. The business outcomes are very real. How exciting is it to be the person who is modernizing technology in major ways that the entire public will rely on? 

Mike: We have to be responsible with taxpayer dollars. So we try to build excitement in other ways, like highlighting our awards in our lobby so that employees can see what they are a part of from the moment they walk in. We even remodeled our lobby to highlight these people more. Also, never underestimate the power of a pizza party. But when you see that your innovation is saving lives, that is incentive alone.

Technology myths bonus round: In your opinion what technology will have the most significance in your line of work over the next few years?

The public sector may move slower in some ways, but emerging technology is still going to change the game. Big technologies to watch for? Cloud technology and AI for starters. See how else the future of technology is going to impact the public sector, and perhaps even your daily life. 

Mike: It’s all about the cloud—to get off-prem and use those technologies to enhance our business will be critical. Facial recognition does also have a play even if we have to be careful. This could help with public safety. UDOT cameras will be updated with machine learning to detect fires and accidents on the freeway. All of this happens in the cloud and can change our business. 

Tanya: AI for sure, particularly around natural language (Siri, Alexa, etc). I think that at all government levels, we need to ask ourselves about data and how we use AI and ML around that data to solve social problems. What is the impact? What are the benefits? Are they there? How can we use emerging tech to understand what outcomes are going to be ahead of time? 

The same trends driving innovation in the private sector are also making waves in the public sector, they just look a little different, come with different challenges and reap different rewards. So, next time things are feeling backed up at the DMV, remember—innovation is happening, you just might have to look in an unexpected place.