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Through the President’s Management Agenda Vision, the administration has put a spotlight on customer service in Federal government agencies. Fortunately, as agencies modernize their information technology (IT), they can employ technological solutions such as artificial intelligence (AI) and automation to transform the customer experience.

MeriTalk sat down with James Bench, senior principal at Maximus, and John Mandell, managing director of the national security practice at Maximus, to learn how technology can give Federal agencies – particularly those with a national security focus – a customer service edge.

MeriTalk: The President’s Management Agenda Vision seeks to make customer service a government-wide priority. So far, what steps do you see Federal agencies taking to map out the customer journey and improve the customer experience?

James Bench: We’re seeing more of an adoption of design-based thinking. Some agencies are employing user interface/user experience experts to do human-centered design, case studies, and usability testing. By implementing human-centered design, we no longer need a two-page Office of Management and Budget (OMB) form and 10 pages of instructions to gather the right data. Experiences are becoming intuitive, similar to commercial customer experiences.

John Mandell: Modernization can create a foundation for improving the user experience and building that customer-centered design – which is a huge focus for government today. Agencies should develop their customer experience vision and then ensure that it’s built into the discovery and design phases as well as throughout software development and deployment.

MeriTalk: We tend to think of modernization in terms of a big fix, but it’s more nuanced than that. The IT Operating Plan, for example, links data, technology, solutions, and cybersecurity together in the effort to deliver modern government. What are the elements of a successful modernization process?

Mandell: If customers are just starting the journey, it’s important to understand their needs and their vision for modernizing IT systems. One of the foundational elements of modernization is the cloud. It’s a new, modern architecture that allows for flexible and agile development methods, automated deployment, release management, and embedded security and monitoring. Agencies also need quality data that’s readily available. Data sharing and governance help extend the agency’s data and leverage it for advanced analytics.

MeriTalk: Overall, how is the emerging tech landscape shifting and impacting modernization efforts at Federal agencies?

Bench: Modernizing government applications often means taking a monolithic application across multiple servers and breaking them down into smaller functional components. The implementation of microservices is a big part of modernization. Agencies need a tech stack that allows them to be nimbler in deploying and updating applications. It also means that agencies don’t have to wait five years to get the output of a modernization effort. Instead, they can incrementally deploy applications and replace monolithic functionality.

Automation is also a game changer. It allows auto recovery if services go down – creating several layers of automatic remediation before someone needs to be called at 3 a.m. to service an outage.  It is particularly valuable around infrastructure. Using technologies that automate manual administration processes in cloud and on-premises infrastructure is a huge benefit to staff. Automation can support and provision resources – and efficiently deploy security patches to keep the environment secure.

Mandell: I agree with James that automation is taking a leading role in modernization as agencies realize that they can be more efficient in their processes and customer interactions. Agencies are identifying opportunities to use technologies like robotic process automation and AI, and they’re employing data science and visualization to drive new insights. They turn to companies like Maximus to drive automation across Federal missions. We brought hyper automation solutions to several customers across the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for example.

MeriTalk: What role does AI play in modernization? How can AI and machine learning (ML) transform the ways agencies manage operations and deliver customer service?

Bench: AI and ML models are now part of everybody’s daily lives, although many people don’t realize it. Maximus is helping agencies put AI to work in a couple of different ways. For example, in large contact centers, we are building chat bots that can do more than give a simple answer to a simple question. They can spawn events, kick off tickets that will later be processed, and even manage simple functionality for account management.

AI is also useful for adjudication, the process of evaluating a person’s application for a government program or service. Depending on how much information they need, the evaluator approves or denies and moves it to the next step.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), for example, has a huge backlog of work to be processed and is using ML models to adjudicate applications for green cards. If the data checks out, ML can process 70 percent of the application quickly without human intervention. The remaining 30 percent would still have to be processed manually.

Maximus is also working with USCIS to manage identities: Who is the person and how do you connect the dots with every engagement that person had with the U.S.? Using ML to compile all that data and reconcile it standardizes and speeds up the adjudication process.

MeriTalk: Across agencies there is often a need for enterprise collaboration, sharing, and support. Where do you see progress in this area, and how does modernization help?

Mandell: Modernization doesn’t take place within just one agency; multiple agencies must work together for a common mission. With immigration and border protection, for example, digital solutions can add value to that mission, enabling information sharing between USCIS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection. That’s impacting the work being done at the southern border and with the president’s immigration agenda.

Collaboration is also key for cybersecurity. When cyber experts find indicators of an attack, they need to prevent it and share those findings across other agencies. Maximus enables that with DHS as well as in Federal healthcare and financial services. One of our best practices is communicating across the agencies; it is not always an easy feat, but we’ve turned it into a repeatable skill set.

MeriTalk: Can you talk about Maximus’s modernization approach around DevSecOps and how that enables customers to modernize faster with less risk?

Bench: Maximus consults and provides services that the government consumes. Cloud adoption and automation are built into our stack. In the typical situation, you have to weave together different tool sets to get the outcome you want. Each time you do it, you need a wide variety of expertise to put all those pieces together. Agencies don’t always have all that talent.

Maximus has developed technology that puts an abstraction layer over that complex technology. That allows you to do some basic configuration, and it will build everything for you. We do that ourselves to be efficient and ensure the standards and quality of the processes are consistent across anything that’s deployed. We’re starting to take that knowledge and skill set, which was developed for Maximus itself, and use that in our federal consulting services.

MeriTalk: How does Maximus keep the customer experience top of mind, and how does that set Maximus apart?

Mandell: Maximus focuses on the impact on the customer and the end game. What are the outcomes to support the mission? Which constituents are they serving? What are the results that will benefit citizens?

We take a solutions consulting approach to our user experience and design process. As we build, we want the most user-focused and intuitive design, and we’ll add emerging technologies that help that user to meet the mission. We help agencies bridge that gap so it’s not just about the front end, but it’s also about the holistic approach to the enterprise.

From the kickoff call through the implementation, we’re asking questions from a usability and user standpoint. We’re not tied to any one solution set; we’re always evaluating what new technology could be brought in.

MeriTalk: Based on your experience with DHS, what does the future look like for IT modernization across national security organizations?

Mandell: We’re always helping agencies look to the future. DHS, for example, is one of the more technologically advanced departments, and that’s only going to accelerate. We see a real focus on enhancing the digital experience for both internal and external DHS users.

As DHS largely moves to the cloud in certain areas, those areas will have the ability to modernize faster than others. Because of that, the future will be more modern not only from a user experience perspective, but also in DHS’s ability to share information. DHS will be able to share information across Federal partners and bring more transparency across national security agencies. DHS is in a position to ensure it has the right data – along with good governance around sharing that data with the appropriate parties such as law enforcement and the Department of State.