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Talent Gap Is a Main Roadblock as Agencies Eye Emerging Tech

Advanced analytics and predictive modeling top the list of technologies government is watching, according to a new report.

U.S. public service agencies are closely eyeing emerging technologies, chiefly advanced analytics and predictive modeling, according to a new report from Accenture, but like their counterparts globally they must address talent and complexity issues before adoption rates will rise.

The report, Emerging Technologies in Public Service, compiled a nine-nation survey of IT officials across all levels of government in policing and justice, health and social services, revenue, border services, pension/Social Security and administration, and was released earlier this week.

It revealed a deep interest in emerging tech from the public sector, finding 70 percent of agencies are evaluating their potential — but a much lower adoption level, with just 25 percent going beyond piloting to implementation.

Terry Hemken, an author of the report who leads Accenture's public service analytics department, said one key challenge is making these technologies relatable to business.

"We really need to simplify a lot of these emerging technologies to make them applicable to the business value," Hemken said.

The revenue and tax industries have been early adopters of advanced analytics and predictive modeling, he said, while biometrics and video analytics are resonating with police agencies.

In Australia, the tax office found using voiceprint technology could save 75,000 work hours annually.

Closer to home, Utah Chief Technology Officer Dave Fletcher told Accenture that consolidating data centers into a virtualized infrastructure improved speed and flexibility, so some processes that once took weeks or months can now happen in minutes or hours.

Nationally, 70 percent of agencies have either piloted or implemented an advanced analytics or predictive modeling program. Biometrics and identity analytics were the next most popular technologies, with 29 percent piloting or implementing, followed by machine learning at 22 percent.

Those numbers contrast globally with Australia, where 68 percent of government agencies have charged into piloting and implementing biometric and identity analytics programs; and Germany and Singapore, where 27 percent and 57 percent of agencies respectively have piloted or adopted video analytic programs.

Overall, 78 percent of respondents said they were either underway or had implemented some machine-learning technologies.

The benefits of embracing emerging tech that were identified ranged from finding better ways of working through automation to innovating and developing new services and reducing costs.

Agencies told Accenture their No. 1 objective was increasing customer satisfaction. But 89 percent said they'd expect a return on implementing intelligent technology within two years. Four-fifths, or 80 percent, agreed intelligent tech would improve employees' job satisfaction.

Of the agencies that were putting advanced analytics or predictive modeling programs into place, 48 percent said supporting the work of employees was their main objective.

Reducing risk and improving security were also listed as top expected benefits when agencies decide to move into emerging tech — and revenue and pension/Social Security agencies indicated they had gone furthest in piloting and implementing these technologies.

Hemken said the results of adopting emerging tech highlight the connection between improving employees' work lives and increasing consumer satisfaction. "In my respect, if you can make the job easier internally, it's going to have some intrinsic benefit in overall efficiency that is then passed on to the consumer," he said.

But possibly the larger question is how agencies will address an ongoing talent gap.

"You really need a robust talent, you need that team inside that can take those lessons learned in piloting and bring that into production learning," said Hemken, who believes it represents a more significant problem than other challenges agencies face, including a lack of understanding from senior leadership and a need to update legacy systems and reskill employees.

Agencies that can successfully motivate or offer challenging assignments to younger workers and the millennial generation may be more successful in closing that talent gap. "More often than not, what I hear inspires them is being able to work on the most difficult problem or work in an agency that continues to inspire them," said Hemken, who authored the report with Accenture's Chris Gray, its managing director of health and public service analytics lead in Europe, Africa and Latin America.

In the U.S., the report noted that national agencies have made greater strides toward adoption than their regional and local counterparts — a disparity Hemken said can be attributed to a need for greater leader adoption and more funding.

Emerging technologies, the authors wrote, are “only one part of a wider program of profound change where leadership, adaptability and skills will also play their part.”

Adopters should also consider five priorities as they weigh implementation: dealing directly with legacy systems; building business cases quickly; creating more interesting and productive jobs; being open to private-sector collaborations; and embracing the digital operating model.

Industry connections could be crucial as 51 percent of agencies said they mainly look there to hire when developing intelligent technology projects.

Value is key, Hemken said — determining which technologies would be right for an agency — but again, when it comes time to implement, talent needs to be on board to help.

"I think to close that talent gap, the public service needs to find innovative ways to attract the millennials," he said. "In some ways, they are going to have to look into the private sector and beyond to do that."

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.