Agencies’ tech isn’t always behind

Innovation of federal IT springs up all over the government, including the IRS' most recent move to provide more wireless options.

I’ve never met them, but they say the government is always behind in technology. Maybe, but it does keep its federal IT up in the sense of maintaining its following distance.

Two cases in point:

Internal Revenue Service

The IRS has a request for information out on wireless, cashless payment systems, as Federal News Network’s Jory Heckman recently reported. Relative to the great online filing project, this should be relatively simple. Relatively. Every farmers market onion stand seems to have a little white credit card reader that plugs into a smart phone.

An interesting quality to this RFI is how it potentially helps both taxpayers and the IRS. People pay for so much else online or wirelessly — why not overdue tax bills?

It’ll probably increase collections. But it will also benefit the field agents who do the collecting. In fact, the idea for cashless payment may have originated with them. The IRS wanted them to not lug around checks or cash. At least one has been robbed at gunpoint. They could have a little sign: “This revenuer doesn’t carry cash.”

More difficult for IRS will be tying accounts to its taxpayer records. As Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson recently pointed out, the master file remains the IRS task of Sisyphus.

That’s for another column. The IRS for now wants potential solutions to issue receipts, notify the agency upon payment and even include geospatial data.

Federal Bureau of Investigation

The FBI is also modernizing its way. But as Jason Miller reported, the FBI doesn’t have a specific application in mind.

The agency started with what it calls a solutions center, kind of like an in-house Apple store. Presumably one without the attitude. Now it’s expanding into an innovation council. The council will be staffed by outward-looking federal IT people to whom people can go with ideas.

The main challenge with a setup like this is deciding what ideas to act on. As the consultants say, an organization can do anything it wants. It just can’t do everything it wants. If there’s any focus to the FBI effort, it’s mobile computing coupled with cloud computing.

Sometimes, they say agencies are saddled with legacy systems they can’t get out from under. The FDA’s Sentinel system is an exception. Up and running for nearly a decade, it automatically ingests clinical data from the electronic health records of several large provider networks. If something comes up through an older, manual reporting system, FDA can query Sentinel. It augments what FDA learns from clinical trials and self-reported adverse events.

Now FDA has published a five-year enhancement plan. It will broaden the base of data providers. It will beef up analytics tools. It will find ways to bake Sentinel findings into FDA’s regulatory and  research programs.

FDA will need to summon managerial and budgetary stamina to sustain this project. But at least it shows an agency trying to keep up technically.

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