Recruiting more technical talent, improving procurement processes and strong leadership will all be key if agencies are to move past the hype of artificial intelligence and use AI technologies to improve customer service delivery.

That’s according to experts who testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday. Jennifer Pahlka, former U.S. deputy chief technology officer and founder of Code for America, said while government service delivery still lags behind the private sector, “it is getting better.” But she said it has to improve even faster with the advent of AI.

“It has to get better faster in part because the gap between public and private sector is about to widen as private sector actors adopt AI and also because AI is going to complicate this landscape within federal agencies, and there’s just a need to step up,” Pahlka said.

Ahead of an expected busy year for AI policymaking, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Gary Peters (D-Mich.) used the hearing to tee up potential legislation in 2024. Peters has already led AI-related bills in the Senate. He’s also cosponsor of the “Improving Government Services Act,” passed by the committee in October.

“Long lines, slow customer service, complicated applications for federal services hurt the public’s satisfaction, as well as the trust that they have in their government,” Peters said at the end of the hearing. “As I think we’ve heard very clearly today, artificial intelligence can help make service delivery more efficient, more effective and accessible.”

Peters also reiterated that a “strong data infrastructure, trained workforce, and proper privacy safeguards can ensure that the government is ready for these new AI powered tools.”

“We also know that developing the right procurement frameworks and recruiting the best talent is going to be needed for wide and successful AI adoption,” he said. “As chairman of this committee, I will continue to find ways to build a more efficient and more effective government for all Americans and your testimony today will help inform the committee’s future legislative activities, which are forthcoming.”

Data sharing and procurement

Lawmakers are also eyeing the data sharing aspects of training and using AI models in government. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) asked about connecting disparate pieces of data across government to help improve service delivery.

“We need to clear the way for data to be able to be shared not just across agencies within the federal government, but also between the federal government, state governments and city governments,” Blauer responded. “We need intergovernmental data sharing agreements that will free up our abilities to have data move through these complex webs of systems so that we can actually design the most impactful services and right now that does not exist.

Meanwhile, Peters said the committee is “looking at some reforms to the procurement process going forward,” and asked the witnesses for ideas on potential changes to better take advantage of commercial capabilities like cloud and AI.

Pahlka said AI tools could potentially be used to analyze the Federal Acquisition Regulation and offer recommendations for simplifying it.

“Ultimately, I think what you want to end up with something that’s not 2400 pages,” she said.

Beth Simone Noveck, chief innovation officer for the state of New Jersey and professor of experiential AI at Northeastern University, added that streamlining and simplifying the acquisition process will help agencies promote competition for advance technologies, especially for small businesses.

“So the more that we are streamlining by going smaller in the scope being more agile, and ensuring that we are actually then refining as we go, I think more that we’re going to both open things up to procurement, but also ensure that the tools that we are procuring translate into better services and better customer experience,” Noveck said.

“Where we make the mistake is that, again, I’m going to anticipate everything that we need 5-10 years down the road, on technologies that are changing now really by the day, if not by the week, and there are new capabilities emerging all the time,” she added.

Pooled hiring needed for AI?

While the Biden administration has called for a governmentwide AI talent surge, Pahlka said more needs to be done to recruit technical experts into agencies.

For instance, the Office of Personnel Management recently approved direct-hire authority for multiple AI-related specialties. But Pahlka said agencies need pooled hiring authorities — where agencies are allowed to share lists of candidates with others — to truly speed up the process.

“Agencies will have to run separate hiring processes for each open position, which will take enormous amounts of time and paperwork, even with the direct hire authority,” Pahlka said.

OPM’s deputy director recently said the agency plans to expand pooled hiring in 2024.

Pahlka said Congress should also ask OPM what additional authorities it needs or could build upon, specifically pointing to the “highly successful” Subject Matter Expert Qualification Assessments.

“I don’t presume to know everything that is needed, only that they operate in a highly constrained environment no longer fit to the purpose it must serve,” Pahlka said.

‘We need leaders’

Beth Blauer, associate vice provost for public sector innovation at Johns Hopkins University, said strong leadership involvement in the federal adoption of AI will be critical to achieving customer service gains.

“We need leaders who can articulate goals for customer service, that can create those expectations for what customers should expect in interactions with the government,” she said. “And we should make sure that we build the habits within our government to measure whether or not we’re hitting those goals.”

Blauer said “the most effective implementation of AI” is “not felt by the public at all.”

“It is working in the background to optimize an experience that’s led with the good people,” Blauer said.

Meanwhile, more “frustrating implementations” come in the way of new chat bots or online interfaces that are difficult for people to navigate, she continued.

“Where they feel even further distance between themselves and the work that the government is doing,” Blauer said. “And so we have to think really strategically about how we achieve both of those ends by focusing on, what do we want that experience to feel like in the moment? And then how can we relieve those frontline workers of some of those bureaucratic processes so that they can focus on that experience, and let the AI work in the background to optimize it?”