Casey Burns of AWS reflects on how to effectively meet the needs of underserved constituents while navigating complex and rapid change. He recommends practical approaches to improve constituent outcomes and program efficiencies by using technologies and approaches pioneered by leading private sector technology companies.
How Health and Human Services (HHS) agencies leverage technology is key to how they deliver benefits and execute on the promise they made to the most vulnerable constituents across America.As we start to think of health more holistically, our technology needs to keep pace as we introduce more complexity and change into the system. The systems and technology approaches that are currently being used were not put in place with programs based on integrated care or social determinants of health in mind. This pace of change is the new normal. I can’t imagine a scenario where Medicaid, for example, will go unchanged for five, let alone 20 years. It’s not the reality of where we are in terms of improving outcomes using health, healthcare, and social and economic benefit programs.
Why doesn’t technology in the public sector look more like the private sector? What causes that divide?
HHS agencies could fundamentally change the way they deliver services and outcomes to beneficiaries, particularly by using new technologies and new approaches to technology, like citizen centered design and iterative development. Yet, we repeatedly hear from senior government executives that technology projects intended to improve outcomes and service delivery do not meet their initial promises. For instance, applicants for most benefits programs cannot use their mobile phone to complete an application. That’s no longer acceptable. Leading private sector companies have set a high bar for digital experiences online, and constituents now expect government services that feel like those delivered by private sector organizations. Our aim should be to provide those experiences to them as it encourages the programs themselves to be more agile, iterative, and adaptive.
Why aren’t agencies getting what they expect from their technology projects?
This is as much about people and process as it is about technology. Even in the public sector, we should be building systems that have user experiences comparable to those in the private sector. The challenge has as much to with how we think about technology and building projects, as it does with which solutions we select to build those projects. When talking with agency executives, I spend as much time sharing how Amazon built its culture of innovation or approaches developing new products as I do speaking about technology and the cloud. This makes sense, as a primary place where you see the gap between government and the private sector is not just which technology and tools they use, but it is actually about organizational capabilities and how the organization uses them to develop technology projects.
Through cloud providers like AWS, HHS agencies are now capable of using the same technologies leading technology firms use without upfront costs or expensive licensing models that lock them in to one technology. AWS helps organizations build, test, deploy, and iterate new digital services for their beneficiaries and employees using the same technology that powers Amazon.com.
What does this mean practically?
Before Amazon launches a new business or starts a project, we go through something called the “Working Backwards” process. Amazon implemented this system to ensure we obsess about our customers in everything we do. We pose hard questions upfront and those answers help us design outcomes that will delight our customers and their constituents.
For example, using this approach with an agency, we developed a proof of concept that brings Amazon Connect, our cloud-based contact center solution, together with natural language processing. It allows child protective services investigators to get information about cases read to them while they are driving, saving time and helping investigators make better decisions.
Technology is not the end all in itself. It’s how you leverage the tools through people and processes within your organization. It is an augmentation that should give super powers and capabilities to caseworkers, administrators, and policymakers. If the tech doesn’t help make these folks attain more superhero powers, then we can do better.