GAO looks to ramp up Innovation Lab work through cloud investments

For every dollar spent by the Government Accountability Office, the agency flags $114 in financial benefits. But better analytics, powered by new cloud infrastructure, could help increase the agency’s return on investment.

GAO partnered with the General Services Administration’s Centers of Excellence program in March 2020 to build out the cloud infrastructure for its Innovation Lab. That cloud infrastructure gave the congressional watchdog the infrastructure needed to handle an increased workload under the COVID-19 pandemic.

GAO’s chief scientist Tim Persons, speaking Tuesday at NextGov’s Cloud Summit, said the agency is looking beyond the pandemic to scale up its cloud capabilities and empower the emerging tech oversight work through its Innovation Lab.

“We’re trying to leverage with the power of these tools — the data analytics, the artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, whatever it is — we want to really jack that up even higher. It would be great to think about, ‘What if we got $1,000 for every dollar put in GAO,’” Persons said. “If we are successful, we might be able to make the $100 for every dollar look small.”

Sid Sripada, the director of GSA’s IT Modernization Centers of Excellence, said the cloud infrastructure will ensure GAO’s data scientists have the platform they need to conduct experiments with scalability and agility built-in. Sripada said the CoE is looking at building a multi-cloud environment for GAO.

“We would like to make sure that the bigger problems of cloud — the governance, the security and adoption of it — are solved so that the cloud can be a true enabler of innovation,” Sripada said.

Through the Innovation Lab, the agency managed to stand up, in a matter of weeks, a dashboard tracking the development of COVID-19 vaccines through the Operation Warp Speed program. However, the lab, led by GAO’s first chief data scientist Taka Ariga, focuses much of its work on the future of emerging technology.

“It’s a sandbox, it’s not meant to be right in line with the mission right now, it’s meant to say, what are the key problems we could define from the mission space, and then with the power of cloud, analytics and tools, using agile methodology, how quickly can we converge to a solution — which moves things from years to months, or months to weeks,” Persons said.

Persons said the lab’s cloud capabilities allow the agency to keep up with the demand for oversight from Congress.

“The content of Operation Warp Speed and our oversight, we wanted to bring it to life, and we wanted to make it more real-time. It’s immersive where the members need it to go,” Persons said.

Beyond the scope of its pandemic work, Persons said GAO is looking to apply an agile methodology to all aspects of its oversight work.

“In this space, you need to think agile and iterative and be willing to take calculated risks and then be able to back away, and adjust and adapt. It’s all about speed and agility, and there’s a lot of room for the government to grow,” he said.

Persons said the goal at GAO is to complete audits and reports more quickly, so that it can issue more relevant recommendations to agency programs. GAO released an agile assessment guide last September that applies just as much internally as it does to other agencies.

“The issue is not to cut corners on quality, that’s never acceptable. It’s the issue of how do I get there even at a higher clock speed,” he said. “We want that to be good, we want it to be timely, we want it to be incisive. For that to happen moving forward, we’re going to increasingly need to leverage the tools and the state of the art.”

In addition to emerging tech oversight, the Innovation Lab is working on projects more in line with GAO’s traditional work with financial audits. Persons said the lab’s top users include officials from the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget.

The lab, he added, is taking a fraud framework developed years ago by GAO’s forensic audits and investigations team, and building software that walks agencies through risk avoidance steps like tax-prep software.

“It interviews you and helps you de-risk fraud for federal program managers. The target audience is those folks to help decrease those fraudulent activities and manage those risks, and making it easier. So again, leveraging the tools to do something we already do, but we can do it, 10, 100, 1,000 times better,” Persons said.

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