For federal employees, adopting new technology takes a leap of faith

Federal workers increasingly have access to sophisticated artificial intelligence and machine learning software that will make their jobs easier and more streamlined. But in both public and private sector offices, managers say that finding workers with the sophistication to use those tools hinders the process of implementing them.

“Finding qualified candidates with the education, training and experience in the desired area of computer science or business analytics is always a challenge. And it’s more challenging now,” said Michele Thomas, deputy chief technology officer at the Labor Department. She spoke at a recent webinar hosted by the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center.

Thomas said there is a culture of resistance to new technologies that makes it difficult to get current employees to adopt new systems.

“The biggest thing, in my opinion, is culture. Resistance to change, the resistance to a new process. And I think for some people, it’s kind of scary,” Thomas said.

She is not alone in these concerns. A survey done last year by the consulting group ICF found that while federal chief information officers have been forging ahead to bring new technology on board, 88% of the federal employees surveyed said their agency’s digital initiatives were behind schedule with no clear vision for when they would become a reality. While the survey offered several reasons for the lack of success in technology adoption, 51% of the surveyed employees said the federal workforce’s resistance to change was a top reason why modernization efforts fail. Some respondents said they worried that failures of new technology would have a negative impact on customer service.

Sairah ljaz, assistant chief financial officer at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said while she has seen resistance to adoption of new technology, she also thinks the federal work force is in the midst of changing how it views technology.

“It’s interesting, because you do have those that are a little bit more resistant to change, but you’re starting to see a lot more of the organic growth in the use of data,” Ijaz said.

Helping employees build a knowledge base will be a key component in getting them to become more comfortable with computer-based technology, Ijaz added.

“There’s a lot of conversations around internal controls and documentation, things that can kind of help bridge the gap of how comfortable am I with what this computer is doing without knowing what’s happening,” she said.

Another factor for employees adapting to  new technologies is helping them learn to trust the results they are getting from artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“I think historically, federal agencies have trailed the private sector when it comes to being farther along the adoption curve, but I’m definitely seeing the trust in the answers that these algorithms are generating. The trust is growing,” said Paul Horan, principal sales engineer at Snowflake, a data cloud and technology company.

While getting employees to feel comfortable with new technology solves some of the problems with technology adoption, hiring a tech-savvy workforce remains a top goal with every agency, and one that can seem elusive.

“Finding qualified candidates with the education, training and experience in the desired area of computer science or business analytics is always a challenge. And it’s more challenging now,” Thomas said.

Federal employers cite a common challenge when it comes to recruiting in a tight labor market when private industry frequently offers higher salaries. Thomas said partnering with universities and offering different types of fellowships are ways that agencies can attract talented employees.

Horan agreed that finding knowledgeable workers can be difficult, but he also pointed out that making the technology more user-friendly will ultimately expand the pool of people who are able to successfully use it.

“It shouldn’t be this hard to find people that can do this sort of work. So by making the tech stack easier, by simplifying it from end to end, I think you’ll widen the talent pool of available technology professionals that can step in and help out,” he said.


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