Panel: Digital technologies changing how agencies communicate -- both inside and out

Thursday - 11/21/2013, 5:08pm EST

Federal Drive panel discussion

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Agencies across government are leveraging digital technologies to both embark on new initiatives and enhance existing ones. The growing adoption of mobile devices, cloud computing technologies and wireless capabilities allows agencies to conduct unique outreach efforts and makes the agencies, themselves, more flexible workplaces.

Agency technology officials discussed both issues as part of the Federal News Radio special report, A New Era in Technology.

Tech brings new skill set, USDA learns

"From a transformational perspective, technology is really enabling our workforce to work more efficiently, quicker and also be able to operate in times when there might be unplanned emergencies or events that otherwise would preclude them from coming into the office," said Mika Cross, the Agriculture Department's Work/Life and Wellness program director, in a panel discussion on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

While overall employee satisfaction is on the decline — thanks to a three- year pay freeze and across-the-board budget cuts — employees are increasingly satisfied with their telework options and other mobile-friendly work situations, Cross said.

At USDA, new mobile initiatives are also helping the agency do more intensive fieldwork.

Employees at the agency's Natural Resources and Conservation Service, who take soil samples and provide technical assistance to farmers, have been armed with new technology to "allow them to do things interactively on laptops, notebooks and other mobile devices to support clients in the field," said USDA Deputy CIO Charles McClam.

"With technology, we're now able to allow the employee to go to the stakeholder, go to the field where the stakeholder is, meet with them, take information, upload that information via wireless communications to enterprise data centers, and store and process that information faster than we've ever been able to do in the past," he said. 'We're using technology now to extend enterprise applications down to a mobile device, where we can engage the stakeholder and deal with the issues in the field, on the ground much, much quicker than we've ever been able to do."

(From left to right: Federal News anchor Emily Kopp, Günter Waibel, Bob Brese, Mika Cross, Charles McClam and Federal News anchor Tom Temin.)

The use of new technologies isn't just changing how USDA works with outside stakeholders, but also how employees work with each other, Cross said.

"It's teaching us all a new skill-set," Cross said. "Quite frankly, it's teaching managers how to manage in a virtual, flexible modern environment. And it's teaching employees how to be more collaborative and be able to connect with folks."

Smithsonian brings museum to the people

Millions of people visit one of the Smithsonian Institution's 19 museums on the National Mall each year. But the agency isn't content to only have people go to the museums — it's found a way to have the museum go to the people.

Last week, the Smithsonian launched its Smithsonian X 3D website "where people can interact with 3-D models of some of the Smithsonian's treasures," said Günter Waibel, director of the agency's digitization program office.

Users of the site, for example, can view 3-D depictions of an array of artifacts and items from the Smithsonian's collections.

"Our mission is to increase the diffusion of knowledge," Waibel said. "And we can do that in a variety of ways. We get 31 million visitors on the National Mall each year, but at the end of the day less than 1 percent of our collection objects are on display on the National Mall, so we're always on the lookout for the most compelling ways we can bring these collections to more people and bringing them to people online and in a 3-D interactive way is the best way we've found to date."

The Smithsonian is also finding a way to bring the gift shop to the customer. The agency is making the raw data for the 3-D models displayed online available for download. A teacher could download the data for a 3-D cast of Lincoln and, if equipped with a 3-D printer, could print it out for use in the classroom, Waibel said.

Energy looking for 'killer' ideas

Bob Brese, CIO of Energy Department, said his agency is also taking steps to make the department's raw data more easily available and accessible.

"The Department of Energy is primarily a large research-and-development organization, and we generate huge amounts of data," Brese said. "But a big piece of that is how we interact with the energy sector and how we're making lives better by getting renewables in their hands and how we're getting energy choices. And part of that is also giving them the capability to make choices through data."

The department has just launched the American Energy Data Challenge and will launch the Energy Ideas Challenge next week, Brese said.

"How do we use data that we already make available to the public? What data do the public wish we would make available to them from an energy perspective?" Brese said. "And then we're also looking for a killer idea."

Leveraging public input is not just an afterthought but essential to delivering strong results, he suggested.

"Getting (energy consumers) involved in making the energy choices and help defining the energy future of this country is going to be critically important, so we know where to go with the research and development, where to go with the Smart Grid and where to go as we make this country less dependent on foreign energy sources," he said.

Meanwhile, inside Energy, mobile technologies have transformed how the agency communicates both internally and with external partners.

"The ability to collaborate anywhere, anytime, on any device is critically important," Brese said. "And the outreach and the engagement that we have with international collaboration teams, with the educational institutions and with industry, through our National Laboratory system, is really important. Wireless is really the future. Imagine — 3 1/2 years ago, you saw your first iPad. Now you can't imagine a life without an iPad or some type of tablet device."

MORE FROM THE SPECIAL REPORT, A NEW ERA OF TECHNOLOGY:

Demand for data-driven models supplies agencies with decision making power

Smart design can make federal offices more productive places to work

Could revival of influential tech office bridge Congress' IT knowledge gap?

Mobile, telework create potential savings, increase productivity at agencies