Q&A: Wyatt Kash on e-government, social media and innovation

19 July 2012 | Michele Bedford Thistle, Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

Wyatt Kash is currently Editorial Director for AOL Government, a site designed to bring government leaders a new blend of analysis, discussion, and debate about the innovative ideas at work in the public sector today. He is an award-winning journalist and editor with an extensive background in business-to-business media management, content, and business development.

Before joining AOL Government, Kash served as Editor-in-Chief of Government Computer News and Defense Systems. Kash was recently honored by American Business Media for his outstanding career contributions, and his editorial teams have won numerous awards for excellence in journalism. He is based in Dulles, Virginia and Washington, DC.

Michele Bedford Thistle: Could you start by introducing yourself and AOL Government?

Wyatt Kash: I’m Editorial Director for AOL Government, which is one of three business-to-business sites that AOL launched about a year ago. The sites focus on analysis and news, but it also uses a lot of the social networking pools and many-to-many publishing models that AOL is perfecting to reach various influencers in our respective markets.

AOL Government, in particular, is aimed primarily at federal government agencies, both civilian and defense. We target the chief and mid-level senior management, primarily in information technology (IT), but also in program and project management, with a focus on innovation at work in government.

We’re looking at practices inside and outside government that could be of interest to government officials, in terms of how to do what they do more effectively and more innovatively.

Michele: About a year ago, I read one of your articles on the Huffington Post that was titled “White House Gives CIOs New Roles, Without Authority to Cut IT Waste.” Just to refresh your memory, in that article, you make the case that any effective program to cut waste will have to include different agencies that share a common IT system. What progress or emerging challenges have you seen on that front since you wrote the article?

Wyatt: A significant piece of news on that subject actually came out in May, when Steven VanRoekel, the federal CIO since last August, issued a new digital government strategy. The strategy provides a comprehensive analysis of three areas: reducing duplication in government, using mobile technology more effectively, and making government’s efforts to reach citizens more efficient.

The challenge, of course, is that we’ve seen e-government initiatives for many years, dating back almost to the Clinton administration. The problem has generally been that the real economies come from sharing across agencies. We know that, historically, because agencies are funded from Congress, and they tend to hold on to their funding streams, it’s been very difficult to get cross-agency projects in the works, because they span across multiple funding streams.

This topic really came to a head during the last administration, because it tried to launch a number of line-of-business initiatives. Examples could be financial systems or human resources (HR) systems to be used across agencies. Invariably, most of those efforts required Herculean work inside agencies to get people to agree that what was being done at another agency would work for them.

This new IT strategy that came out last month focuses on a different direction. It primarily looks at a lot of the common commodity side issues, such as email, data storage, and data centers, where there really should be more economy. The administration is trying to initiate a program where they can reduce a lot of duplication of hardware and infrastructure that most people would agree has become pretty commoditized. This approach presents fairly easy-to-achieve victories.

That’s one part of the process. A second major part has to do with shifting investment away from classic maintenance and operations, reducing duplication by standardizing and sharing resources and IT services so that more dollars can be applied toward new, innovative practices. The federal Chief Information Officer (CIO) believes that the government’s IT dollars—about $80 billion for the federal government—could be better spent on helping agencies do a better job in their missions.

Finally, they have made some good progress in what was called the 25-point IT reform. These efforts concerned improving practices, the use of data centers, and so on to be more efficient, reducing waste.

Michele: In another of your articles, you point out that federal employees are shifting dramatically toward the use of social media to engage and reach citizens. Do you see a connection between that trend and the three strategic areas you mentioned earlier: decreasing duplication, increasing the use of mobile technology, and reaching citizens more effectively?

Wyatt: In many ways, these social media activities have been in the works for a couple of years, enabled in part by the General Services Administration’s (GSA) success in developing terms-of-use agreements that work for the government. Briefly, as individuals, we can sign those agreements, but the government is a different legal entity, and they needed to give agencies greater legal comfort in being able to use Facebook and YouTube and so forth.

That’s been completed, and so agencies are pretty comfortable with them. The groundwork’s been there for quite some time, but there weren’t a lot of real savings or efficiency. Now, a shift is underway because of forces such as budget pressures, the convergence of new technology, and most importantly, the consumerization of IT. That is, instead of IT departments dictating what employees will use on the job, employees are increasingly saying, “I can be more productive if I use some of my own devices. You guys figure out how to help me use them.”

That trend has unlocked a startling wave of new approaches. Social media obviously can take advantage of that, and we’re seeing not only greater use of social media, but also more innovative ways of sharing policy ideas with the public and getting feedback from them.

Processes that used to take a long time and were rather formal can now be done relatively quickly using social media tools. Of course, I think we’re seeing agencies do a much more effective job, the White House probably most notably, in using YouTube as a way of explaining what agencies or what the administration’s trying to accomplish.

The government is no longer a stranger to this, and in some cases, they’re taking the lead over the private sector in using it as an effective tool.

Michele: We’re seeing some real innovation among our customers, in terms of reaching out to their citizens. There’s an energizing effect and a comfort within a large agency or company, when processes that used to be very tightly controlled become more relaxed.

It will be interesting to see how some of the more informal communications happen. For example, an individual who is relatively low-level within the hierarchy of their organization could start to have a huge following. Do you think that senior government officials are ready for junior staff to engage directly with the citizens?

Wyatt: Yes, assuming that good policies are in place to make it clear what people can and cannot say. It’s one thing to gather information, and it’s quite another to speak on behalf of the agency. We’re also starting to see a trend toward agencies engaging the public to help develop solutions for the government.

A gentleman named Todd Park was recently named Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at the White House. Todd had been pretty revolutionary in trying to unleash government data, handing it to the public, and looking to entrepreneurs and other innovators to find ways of developing tools to use that data.

For example, consider all the different services that use weather data. It’s all government data that’s available for free, but a lot of industries have risen up, from The Weather Channel to specialized services, to take advantage of that weather data. That’s the model that the federal CIO Steven VanRoekel and CTO Todd Park are now trying to unleash.

Social media plays a natural part in that. If you think about phenomena such as crowd-sourcing or developing apps in hack-a-thons and so forth, there are many ways of unleashing value that’s locked up in the federal government’s data. Agencies often don’t have funds to take advantage of these opportunities, but the public can often do so quite effectively.

It’s exciting that we can do that today, whereas two or three years ago, the government wasn’t in the position to offer that data or to have policies in place to facilitate the public working on it.

Michele: Open government is certainly a very powerful and exciting concept, and it’s great to see so many governments starting to expose more and more data around the world.

You recently tweeted that GPS has added $90 billion to the US economy, which is a staggering number. If I think about open government or the GPS example, government has a role in pioneering technologies that can later be brought into the mainstream economy.

Wyatt: It’s difficult to predict, but healthcare could be a similar case, where a huge amount of data and tools could result in ways of bringing down the cost of healthcare. There have been many such benefits from organizations like DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but the most likely upcoming benefits would seem to be on the software and data side.

Agencies simply don’t have the same budgets for research and development that they once did, so we may see a greater proportion of those boosts to the economy coming out of public/private partnership arrangements.

Michele: As we start engaging more and more with social media, there are a lot of changes occurring in the government landscape. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was trying to raise its rankings for the government as one of the best places to work.

Do you see federal government agencies or departments trying to benefit from trends such as social media, consumer IT, bring-your-own-device, or any of those trends? Are they doing that to attract a younger generation of workers or maybe just trying to raise the scores as the best place to work or to retain employees? Or is there something else at play that is causing them to embrace particular technology trends?

Wyatt: Clearly, they are looking at ways to be more productive, and a lot of that type of adoption is motivated by economics. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been piloting a test using tablets, with an eye toward freeing up FAA officials from having to carry around big cases of documents and manuals and so forth. Having everything at their fingertips and being able to file reports from wherever they are, instead of having to come back into the office, should build efficiencies. We are seeing a lot of that.

In fact, we just released a research study this last month, pretty much on the heels of the CIO’s new digital government strategy, that looked at the application of mobile technology in government. We tried to gauge how far along that trend is.

One of the things we learned is that about half of people involved with acquisition and projects and so forth say that, if they had the equipment to work wherever they were, they would get at least seven hours per week back that they could apply to more productive use. In addition, 19 percent said they would get more than 12 hours per week back.

We find that a lot of people can work from where they are in the field, and if they have access to information, they can make better decisions in the moment. The opportunity for mobile technology and access to data from agencies lies in making workers more productive.

I think there is a strong conviction, not only in the IT shops, but in upper management as well, that we need to get to mobile faster, as a federal government. In doing so, we can see better gains in productivity.

Michele: As we see from examples such as social media monitoring from the command center of the Red Cross, agencies are getting more involved in real time, enabling faster response.

Wyatt: That’s a great example. I happened to be there the day when they initiated a new operations center that looked at social media. I’m familiar with some of the software tools they are using, which they borrowed from Dell.

I watched firsthand how they were able to monitor activity in a stretch of Ohio, the weekend before they went live. Using social media, they were able to discern that people were expressing a lot of concern, and they were able to make decisions about deploying staff on the ground well before the media had started covering where tornadoes were touching down.

Speaking with some folks that happened to be there from Dell, I saw the value of those tools to track social media and to identify messages they wanted to respond to. One fellow actually told me that they were able to turn about 34 percent of people who were on negative rants about products into happy customers. They were able to identify the problem, jump into the conversation, diagnose what was going on, and give them a hand. In essence, they managed to use social media streams as a much more proactive approach than traditional marketing.

The Red Cross has a similar idea there, being able to respond to a multitude of emergencies based on what people are saying on the ground and with some good diagnostic tools. I think this is a great example of what we can expect to see more of from a variety of agencies. It should enable them to deploy their people and other resources more effectively.

Michele: Do you have other examples in mind of instances where you see governments being very innovative at work?

Wyatt: The Veterans Administration (VA) is one of the places to really look these days. In large part, that’s because Secretary Shinseki gave the CIO at VA, a gentleman by the name of Roger Baker, full authority over the IT budget. Most agencies and departments in the federal government do not have that capability yet. The CIO typically rides herd over a number of other CIOs at the Bureau level. At VA, it’s different. They now have a consolidated approach.

They initiated something called the Blue Button, which was a simple tool to let veterans download their health information, while respecting privacy laws and so on. It has become so successful that the health insurance industry, including organizations like Aetna and United Healthcare, has now adopted the Blue Button as a customer service tool.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also continues to be at the forefront. They’ve had a tough road to market what they do and why it is valuable in these times of diminishing budgets, and they have done a great job. In fact, they just announced a new gaming application that uses real-life NASA problems. They’ve been tremendous in terms of tweeting, using YouTube, and using a lot of other social media to engage the public in very imaginative and forward-leaning ways.

Michele: My six-year-old showed me the NASA YouTube video of someone at the Space Station playing Angry Birds in space. NASA is doing lots of interesting citizen-engagement things, for adults and children both.

Wyatt: A lot of agencies are doing an innovative job with challenges and contests now, which DARPA has actually done for years. There have been more than 100 cases where agencies have offered prize money to the public to solve difficult problems or to get other things accomplished, while sidestepping the traditional acquisition process, which often encumbers good ideas.

Rather than going the route of requisitions and competitive bidding, offering a prize sort of jump-starts the process. As a result, the government has been able to get their hands on a tremendous number of innovative ideas. I would call that an example of how the US government has actually been pretty innovative in its own right about how to get things done, even within the confines of a bureaucracy.

Michele: Thank you very much for spending time with us this afternoon. I certainly appreciate you sharing a little bit about your background with AOL Government and also hearing some of your thoughts on where the government is being particularly innovative, either because they are doing innovation at work, or also they are just finding ways to react and manage, with their current budget situation.

Wyatt: Absolutely. Thank you.

Have a comment or opinion on this post? Let me know @Microsoft_Gov. Have a question for the author? Please e-mail us at ongovernment@microsoft.com.

Michele Bedford Thistle
Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

About the Author

Michele Bedford Thistle | Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

Michele is focused on sharing stories from government customers creating real impact for citizens, employees, economies, and students. She joined the worldwide team from Microsoft Canada, where she was also marketing lead for several technology start-ups.