Friday, March 7, 2014

What Has the US Government Done For You Lately?

I just attended a Big Data in Defense and Government Summit in Washington, DC. I blogged about some more technical takeaways that I learned, mostly about the big challenges government agencies face, over on the Actian blog. But one of the most valuable takeaways for me personally wasn’t technical. It was about the power of big data analytics when put to good use, and what my government has done for me, and a whole lot of other folks like me. In particular, the presentation by Xavier Hughes, the Chief Innovation Officer for the Department of Labor really touched me.

He did a very brief presentation, then opened up for questions from the audience. The first question someone asked was, what does a Chief Innovation Officer do? Among other things, Mr. Hughes’ job seems to entail a lot of work toward getting different teams across the government, and the private sector, to work together to accomplish new things. He called it “friendly and productive collaboration.” He put a big emphasis on creating a data-driven culture in every agency he interacted with, working toward making our government procedures more evidence-based, rather than simply continuing to do things the way we’ve been doing them in the past. Some of the things he said should resonate with anyone working to get an innovative new big data analytics project implemented.

“Do not walk in the door and expect people to know what big data means, and what it can do for them. Do not expect technology to solve all your problems. You first have to create a culture that is data-driven and evidence-based.” – Xavier Hughes, CIO, Dept. of Labor

As far as what purpose that new data-driven approach was put to, he talked a lot about finding new ways of helping veterans transition into the civilian workforce, including integrating new data feeds such as Monster and LinkedIN into the current system, and finding new ways to present veterans’ skills so they match up to what businesses are looking for. He also talked about making veterans benefits and such more accessible by giving them one place on the web to start, rather than 25 different portals. All of that sounded very impressive to me.
When it was my turn to ask a question, I asked him what he had done in his tenure that he was most proud of. He said he couldn’t name just one thing, but he could name two.

First, he talked about the executive order from the president to improve customer service and streamline service delivery. He worked with the OMB (Office of Management and Budget), started a pilot program with several other agencies, and piloted a 36 month project to improve customer service across the board in all of those agencies. After a careful study of the current state, he had a CRM solution procured and implemented for capturing customer feedback and consolidating knowledge in a single location. Before, answers to questions were often coming from individual knowledge bases within each individual department or agency. Fifty different knowledge bases was not an effective model. Now, instead of getting confusing mixed messages, the new channel agnostic approach means that, no matter what channel you use to contact the various agencies, you get the same answer to the same questions.

Second, he talked about the equal pay for equal work project. This project pulled in data from outside sources, such as, as well as sources inside the government. Craig Newmark (famous for CraigsList) helped on that project. The end result of this project is that when a woman enters the workplace, she’s not discriminated against in pay rates right from the beginning.


He mentioned being particularly proud of that second one as the child of a single mom. Being, myself, both the child of a single mom and a woman supporting her family in a male dominated field, that one really hit home for me.

I’ve got to say, if you’re a veteran, if any of your family or friends are veterans, if you are a working woman or if any of your family or friends are working women, you owe this man, and all the many folks in the government who have helped his projects happen, a really big “Thank you.”

Like any citizen, there are some times when I don’t agree with or like what my government does. Folks feel free to criticize and to hold our government accountable when that happens very loudly and persistently, and that’s all to the good. But sometimes, we should also take a little time to applaud the things our government has done right.
I made a point to shake Mr. Hughes hand before I left and say, “Thank you for what you’ve done.” And I’d just like to do that again here. Thank you, not just Mr. Hughes who led the charge, but everyone who got on board and pitched in to make his ideas a reality. I know it wasn’t easy, and I’m sure it’s far from perfect, but those are some genuine and much appreciated steps forward.