GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan addressed state government leaders at the Aspen Institute Financial Resilience Summit in Washington DC on February 2, 2023, emphasizing her department’s focus on customer experience, shared services and smarter funding and procurement.

Robin Carnahan, former Secretary of State in Missouri, was appointed GSA administrator in 2021. As Administrator, she is working to empower GSA career professionals and build on the agency’s efforts to deliver the best value particularly with regards to technology services to the government and American people.

Carnahan is no neophyte to government related technology. Prior to joining GSA, Carnahan served in executive and leadership roles in business, academia and government where in addition to her two terms as SOS, she founded and led the State and Local Government Practice at 18F, a tech consultancy, inside GSA. She’s a nationally recognized government technology leader and in 2017 was named one of the federal government’s “Top Women in Tech.” Most recently, Carnahan was a Fellow at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center where she co-founded the State Software Collaborative.

As Secretary of State, Carnahan also served as the state’s Chief Election Official and State Securities Regulator and was responsible for providing in-person and online services to hundreds of thousands of customers. An essential part of her job was leading the office’s technology modernization efforts across 7 operating divisions. She frequently speaks, writes and testifies about government innovation through smarter use of technology.

While previously at GSA, Carnahan helped federal, state and local government agencies improve customer facing digital services and cut costs. She focused on training and empowering non-technical executives on ways to reduce risk and deliver better results for the public by more effectively budgeting, procuring, implementing, and overseeing digital modernization projects.

“I joined the Biden Administration to help solve these problems so that government can deliver better for the people we serve,” she said. “The good news is, we’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way that can help governments at every level get it right.”

The lessons Carnahan was referring to are familiar ones especially to the state government audience:

  • Focusing on customers and improving their experience;
  • Sharing and reusing are better than reinventing the wheel; and
  • Smarter funding and procuring technology tools and services is hard but critically important.

Carnahan explained that the bottom line is clear. These days people’s trust in government depends on its ability to deliver. And since so many people rely on technology in their everyday lives to deposit checks, call a ride, or even order a pair of shoes as you’re walking down the street, “It’s the job of those of us in government, and everyone in this room to…as I love to remind people…make the damn websites work.”

Focusing on the experience of that person…that customer…who’s just lost their job or their house or experienced some other financial shock and trying to make ends meet… to make sure their interaction with government is as simple, secure, and as painless as possible will go a long way toward building that trust.

“Since my days serving as Missouri Secretary of State, I’ve understood that in many ways government is basically a service delivery business. And that the best way to succeed was to provide access to easy to use digital tools,” she said. Carnahan also learned pretty quickly that if those tools are good, you not only have happier customers, but also lower costs. But if the digital tools aren’t good, or the procurement was set up wrong, or the in-house technology talent to manage vendors was absent, “Then costs escalated, deadlines slipped and the end result was lousy.”

In a statement all our SLG friends can emphasize with, Carnahan continued, “I’ve often told people that during that entire eight years as Missouri Secretary of State, there was nothing that caused me to lose more sleep than the rollout of some new technology tool. Because something always seemed to go wrong…these projects would be over budget, over time, or just didn’t work.”

“I’m guessing some of you have similar stories…we saw examples over and over during the pandemic where bad technology and delivery would sink good policy. From small business loans to unemployment checks, to food and housing benefits and Covid tests, all of those were delayed or misused because of out of date and hard to use technology systems.”

“So let me talk for a few minutes about each of those things that the Biden Administration and GSA are doing to keep those 3 principles at the center of all our work.”

First, improving customer experience is really the north star of all GSA does. President Biden signed an Executive Order during his first year in office directing all federal agencies to center their work on customers. And effective, equitable delivery is a key pillar in the President’s Management Agenda.

“Here at GSA we’re working closely with the team at OMB focused on improving the user experience for folks facing a financial shock. We have created what we call our Public Benefits Studio,” she said. That team collaborates with benefits program managers at the state and federal levels to develop shared technologies that reduce burdens on low income individuals and families.

The second thing GSA is focused on is a smart play for government – developing shared services and reusable tools so that every agency and every state, “Don’t have to spend time and money reinventing the wheel on the same things. That’s why our GSA team has created easy to use, sharable tools and platforms like the US Web Design System and

GSA’s third focus is on being smarter about funding and procuring technology tools and services.

It’s well known that the speed of change when it comes to anything related to technology makes budgeting and procurement a real challenge. “Because it’s no secret that those two things take a long time in the government. In fact, these days I know it’s not unusual for a technology solution to be already out of date before it’s even deployed because it takes so long to make a budget request, get it passed by Congress or your legislature, scope the procurement, and get your vendor onboarded,” Carnahan admitted.

One of the ways GSA is addressing this challenge in the federal government is through a special new funding approach called the Technology Modernization Fund. “The TMF is a $1.3 billion dollar fund designed to move at the ‘speed of need’ when it comes to funding technology projects.” It’s unique in a several ways:

  • It operates outside the normal budget cycle;
  • Technology workers are the ones making the investment decisions, and
  • Cybersecurity, customer experience, and shared services are the top priority.

Already, the TMF is showing results in everything from visa certifications, where it’s more than doubled the processing capacity of H2-A visas while saving $2 million in administrative costs at USDOL, to streamlining USDA systems so they can inspect 64 billion pounds of produce a year. “My hope is that states here today are taking similar approaches with their own tech investments.”

“Again, we’d love to partner with some of you to understand how to build out this effort to best meet the needs of states.”

“I could go on and on about this topic, because as I said at the outset, when we talk about making websites work, to me, it’s about a lot more than that. It’s about rebuilding trust in our government and showing that our government and our democracy can actually deliver for people we serve,” Carnahan concluded.

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John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn serves as a senior advisor for government programs at MeriTalk. He was the first CIO for the both the State of California and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and was president of NASCIO.