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Process Literacy: A Necessary Skill for Government Workers of the Future

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Bill Brantley
October 19, 2018

On October 11, I was part of Government Executive and NextGov’s panel on “Architecting the Future of Federal Automation.” The panel was part of the three-day Fedstival 2018 where participants explored the future of the federal government. My panel was about artificial intelligence and automation to help government agencies better deliver citizen services while improving the internal processes of government agencies. Unlike the other panels, myself and the other panel member, a government accountant, were chosen because we were not in the traditional technology roles.

What we discussed is how artificial intelligence, the blockchain, digital twins, the Internet of Things and automation were affecting all areas of the federal agencies. For example, Mike Wetklow from the National Science Foundation described how accounting has greatly changed with blockchain and artificial intelligence. When Mike recently visited one of his former accounting professors, he learned that accounting students today are becoming proficient in coding the programs the handle the traditional accounting tasks.

I spoke about how automation and artificial intelligence was changing the training and development of federal employees. My main point was that federal workers were transitioning from working in processes to becoming the designers and managers of automated processes. Federal workers are also using artificial intelligence to augment their decision-making skills. To understand the change in federal employees’ role, we need to first distinguish between automation and artificial intelligence.

What is Automation?

Automation is the mechanical or software simulation of human actions. Think of the programs that make up the modern software office productivity tools. The word processor, the spreadsheet and the desktop database program all can record user actions and then play back the actions as a macro. Early software macros had little or no decisionmaking ability. Users could program the macros at certain points to pause and wait for input from the user before proceeding to the next automated step.

More sophisticated automation programs can incorporate decision making into the recorded processes, but this requires pairing the automation program with artificial intelligence. Although automation and artificial intelligence are closely related, artificial intelligence has a profound difference over automation: the ability to learn.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

Artificial intelligence tries to simulate the process of human thinking. Modern artificial intelligence systems use methods such as neural networks and deep learning to make sense of large datasets. From the large datasets, the artificial intelligence systems create rules that the system uses when confronting new sets of data. Sometimes, artificial intelligence systems have developed new rules and processes that human intelligence would not have produced. This phenomenon is called the black box problem of artificial intelligence in which the artificial intelligence system’s algorithms are not discernable to people. The black box problem can pose significant issues for government agencies because government processes must be transparent and equitable.

Process Literacy

In discussing the difference between automation and artificial intelligence, I stressed how federal employees not only need to have data-literacy but, also be process literate. In my past career as an information technology project manager and developer, I have seen the costs of automating a badly designed process. The bulk of my work as an information technology developer ensured I had an optimal model of the process so the computer program would the most effective and efficient it could be. As federal employees transition from working in processes to designing and managing processes, they need to become more effective designers of business processes. Federal workers also need to be good stewards of artificial intelligence systems because of the danger of unethical algorithms. One example is Google Translate’s sexism in translating certain words.

Government Jobs of the Future

Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights recently released a report envisioning the possible government of jobs in 2025. The report’s authors see three significant shifts driving the government jobs of the future:

  • Employees will be the center of the work with an emphasis on the continual development of the government employee.
  • Improving the employees’ decisionmaking with artificial intelligence-powered automation systems.
  • Learning in the flow of work where employees will receive training “just in time” to complete tasks.

Of particular interest is the future government job of “talent cloud coordinator.” The talent cloud coordinator manages the government workforce (“the Talent Cloud”) by deciding where to best deploy government employees for the maximum utilization of skills, knowledge and abilities. The talent cloud coordinator’s decisions are augmented by artificial intelligence systems while transactional tasks are handled by automated systems. The talent cloud coordinator also uses artificial intelligence systems to help in best developing government employees.

Artificial intelligence and automation have great potential to transform the government workforce. However, the greatest strength is in human talent for designing and managing the processes that run the government.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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