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Governments Consider Ethics, Transparency in Cutting-Edge Tech

As the likes of space travel and facial recognition made headlines in 2021, state and local governments looked at how — and if — emerging technologies can be put to use for public-sector business.

Space X building
As Stephen Hawking once said, “Our future is a race between the growing power of technology and the wisdom with which we use it.” As the COVID-19 pandemic pushed government to rapidly modernize for the remote world in 2020, 2021 saw public agencies grapple with making this transition equitable, transparent and secure. During the past year, emerging technologies have reshaped not only what government is able to do for constituents, but also people’s expectations of government.

While public-sector agencies found their footing in the remote world, private-sector innovation has been reaching new heights — quite literally, as in the realm of space travel. Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched multiple rockets into space, while Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson launched themselves. And the work of these three billionaires’ extraterrestrial exploration is happening at a time when satellite Internet is becoming a more viable option to connect currently unserved communities to the Internet.

And as satellite Internet options skyrocketed, the pandemic challenged governments, driving new public-private partnerships and solutions; for example, private partners are helping government make significant strides toward universal broadband.

Other tech has followed a similar trajectory. Robots and drones are more commonly delivering food, medicine and other products. Some government uses though, like the New York City Police Department’s robot dog Spot, spurred feedback from the public and civil liberties groups holding on to surveillance fears.

One notable advance in recent months is the use of virtual and augmented reality in the public sector. While its specific value is still being studied by organizations like the National Institute of Standards and Technology, it is reshaping the way many agencies engage, train and retain talent. From workforce development to tourism to emergency response, it has been found to improve retention and reduce training costs.

The pandemic also gave way to other significant changes in the workforce, highlighting the gaps that exist in certain sectors, including IT. While some state solutions, like Indiana’s Hoosier Talent Network, use artificial intelligence to help match candidates with job openings, some experts have raised concerns about the technology’s potential for bias — an issue which frequently gets raised during debates on government use. The World Health Organization released a report this year offering guidance for ethical use of AI within the health sector, but a comprehensive set of regulations for AI in government has yet to be established. Meanwhile, government continues to explore its use, notably to advance cybersecurity defenses and achieve workflow efficiencies using tools like robotic process automation.

Ethical questions have also been raised about facial recognition as disparities are brought to light about the way this tech identifies transgender people, people of color and nonbinary individuals. Several cities and states have implemented regulations banning or restricting the use of facial recognition and other AI-powered tools to calm fears over their use, suggesting the tech still has some work to do in proving its value.

Federal policymakers set their sights on deepfakes in 2021, videos that feature realistic audio and video of a person that has been fraudulently manipulated. For example, this technology could make it look like any authority figure is saying something they never said. These videos are an increasing concern in the misinformation discourse, prompting discussions on how to curb their proliferation online. Programs like Cyber Florida are offering students the skills to determine validity of information they find on the Internet and underlining the value of this particular skill.

But while government entities have rapidly made modernization strides in the COVID-19 era, newer does not always mean better. In their rush to deploy new technology, some are quick to dismiss the value of legacy systems that can still capably do the important work of government. Take COBOL, for example, a programming language five decades old that surfaces often in conversations about the shameful state of legacy IT. But COBOL, and other older tech, is a known quantity with known capabilities. A more targeted problem-solving approach, rather than an abolish-all-legacy-tech approach, is likely the most prudent course, as new tech might not always add value to the enterprise.

“And at the end of the day, what you now have is a new program that does exactly the same thing as the old program, and you sit down and you say, ‘Why did I spend my money on that project?’” asked William Malik, vice president of infrastructure strategies at Trend Micro, in a piece examining COBOL this year on

Ultimately, technology leaders in government must continue to smartly evangelize the benefits new tools can bring in making public-sector organizations better at their core missions. By advocating for scalable pilots where results are closely measured and transparently reported, CIOs have a key role to play in maintaining and growing the public’s appetite for innovation using new technology.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.