Building Trust in Government With Responsible AI on the hello, Human Podcast

Our podcast, hello, Human, offers an open forum to discuss the latest artificial intelligence (AI) topics and how it’s applied in the real world. We talk with the pioneers of AI and those who are putting AI to work transforming businesses, finding novel solutions to age-old problems, and advancing what humans can accomplish.

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Episode 14 - Building Trust in Government with Responsible AI
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In this episode, we talked with Kathy McNeil, current Chief Strategist at the U.S. Department of Labor and former Director of Artificial Intelligence at the U.S. General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services Center of Excellence. During her tenure at the GSA, Kathy assisted government agencies during IT modernization and digital transformation efforts. This included helping those agencies define strategy, select technologies, and more. 

Since we were focused on the federal government’s use of AI, we noted the recent “State of Federal RPA Report.” The report states that the government saved 848,000 hours of work in 2020 from roughly 500 RPA bots. It’s a big accomplishment, and it shows the progress that’s being made inside what many might consider a slow-moving organization.

In some areas, the government is decidedly not slow in deploying new technologies. Kathy explained that, as the pandemic forced government employees to work from home, the GSA set up an interactive voice response (IVR) system to help handle the surge in incoming calls to the agency. Going further, they used RPA to manage much of the work.

“The IVR actually set up some bots to help handle the calls and about 50% of the incoming calls were handled with automation,” said Kathy. “That’s pretty impressive from my perspective and something that I found surprising underneath the covers in our government.”

That’s no small feat, especially considering the scope of the federal government and its need to consider diversity, languages, regional needs, and even internet accessibility as it evaluates new technologies. There’s also the huge disparity in technology usage across the government, with some agencies rapidly moving to the cloud while others still rely on mainframes. But AI is making its way into more areas.

Making a Difference in AI

Kathy began her career in the private sector, moving from writing about technology to working on technology. Those early experiences gave her a better appreciation for the complexity of government, she said, and for the impact women can have. 

“Women entering into the public sector workforce have the opportunity to really make a difference in the agency they serve,” Kathy explained. “One of the things that I see as a challenge that we had 20 years ago and we still have today…is getting our voices heard. Women need to speak up. We need to volunteer for the tough project. That means we’ve got to raise our hands. We’ve got to ask for the new position and we’ve got to be tenacious about it. We don’t need to take no for an answer. That’s really important. I think sometimes, we get a little too polite and we need to keep focused, keep going, push on.”

That attitude has helped Kathy move into more influential and important roles in the government. Along the way, she’s pushed more agencies to transform. 

“We see a lot of interest in AI adoption and a huge range of what agencies are doing and trying to do with artificial intelligence,” said Kathy. “It is being used as a tool in the toolbox to help modernization move forward.”

Filling the Middle

As Kathy advises agencies on modern technologies, the challenge remains in closing that gap between AI and the mainframe-era technologies still widely used. That “missing middle” is where AI can help move workers from low-value to higher-value effort. But the gap is large, especially when the customer or citizen experience has to span everything from phone calls and paper forms to websites and more.

 “We have the mix of aging and new technology,” Kathy explained. “We have very complex problems to solve. We have a wide range of customer experiences that we have to work with. We have vast amounts of data in various media, and the data is stored in so many different ways.”

But it’s not just the technology, it’s the people, too. Getting workers to embrace new technologies is just as important to transforming the government.

“When this work has changed, it also changed how the humans and the workforce are managing information on behalf of the public and how the public is accessing the information,” Kathy continued. “This is a really important perspective when we talk about the middle: how the workforce is starting to adapt to automation and the automation is adapting to the tasks that we have at hand. We see these types of changes across the federal government and the result for me is very heartening. The public has a more positive customer experience and we are leveraging new technologies. This, in turn, creates momentum for more technology, more automation, and more modernization.”

Responsible and Ethical AI

Speaking of people, we asked Kathy about the checks and balances used to ensure technology remains fair and equitable. Transparency and trust are key. But, again, when working with systems that may have been in place for decades, some biases remain entrenched in those older technologies.

“Some of the publicly available databases originating in the ’60s still have biases in tagging women,” Kathy said. “Women are tagged as housemakers, homemakers, and spouses when they have professions such as scientists, teachers, and accountants. When we were doing analytics that, of course, skews the information. Responsible AI is not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Kathy’s work at the GSA Center of Excellence looked at those types of risks and their potential impact. Making sure someone is governing how new technologies are being implemented is the key to ensuring their responsible.

“Governance, in its purest form, represents the structures and processes that are designed to ensure accountability, transparency, trustworthiness, and fairness,” Kathy concluded. “We have a community that helps support agencies looking for best practices on this so that we are applying the proper amount of trustworthiness, accountability, transparency, and fairness oversight to the systems that we’re implementing. In the end, the intent here is that technology remains true to the desired outcome it was originally designed for.”

Hear the Entire hello, Human Episode

Hear our discussion with Kathy in its entirety, including her advice for the next generation of women in AI, all on the hello, Human podcast. Be sure to subscribe to hello, Human on your podcast app of choice or read this episode’s full transcript.