Less drudgery in the labor department thanks to this technical leader

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She’s only in her mid-thirties. But she’s already reduced the paperwork and drudgery at the Department of Labor. She is now a finalist in the Emerging Leaders category of this year’s Service to America Medal Program. Labour’s emerging technologies leader Krista Kinnard spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.
Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Let’s start…

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The best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews at Apple podcast or Podcast One.

She’s only in her mid-thirties. But she’s already reduced the paperwork and drudgery at the Department of Labor. She is now a finalist in the Emerging Leaders category of this year’s Service to America Medal Program. Labor’s emerging tech leader Krista Kinnard spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin .

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Let’s start at the beginning. You are the leader of emerging technology. Tell us about your job, what is emerging technology and where in Labour’s tech hierarchy does this position fit?

Krista Kinnard: So the good news is that this position was created when I took it. It’s a new position for the Department of Labor, and we’re sitting in the CTO shop. So the chief technology officer shop, and really what the emerging technology division is designed to do, is to partner with the different mission areas of the Department of Labor and really start to understand what they’re doing? What is their daily life like? What is their commercial value? What is the mission they are trying to deliver to the American people? And how can we think of the 21st century, how can we improve this service? How can we make it effective? How can we make it more efficient? And sometimes that means, right there on the front lines where the citizen engages with the Department of Labor? And sometimes that means looking at our back office to see how can we make sure employees here at the Department of Labor have the tools and technology they need to be able to do their jobs quickly, efficiently, and effectively? And as we know, in this environment we live in now, technology is changing every day. How many times have you been annoyed because an app on your phone got updated and they didn’t tell you what the new updates were? Or new features come out in your email or in your favorite music app. And the idea behind the emerging technologies division is that we want to bring this technology to the Ministry of Labor, we want to bring the Ministry of Labor and how we fulfill our mission into the 21st century. This means embracing new technologies such as automation, artificial intelligence and everything that is coming.

Tom Temin: Alright, give us an example where something like some type of automation algorithm or some type of machine learning application could have helped here.

Krista Kinnard: Yeah, absolutely. So we have a number of examples we could learn from, I think one of the ones we’re most proud of is the use of robotic process automation, or RPA for short. And despite the name, there are no real robots involved. But really, it’s about creating a streamlined process through which we can automate some of our procurement procedures. So anyone who has worked in the government space knows that procurement is a very big part of what we do. It’s also a workhorse. It really involves a lot of people, a lot of very rigorous investigation to ensure that we are engaging responsibly with the supplier community. Our procurement professionals, they’re shattered. They are sharp, they know their job very well. But they have so many that they use them regularly, that we were actually able to create a number of bots. Bots are what we call them in the automation business to automate a few of those tedious tasks, to help free up those procurement professionals to really focus on the parts that require that ability to thinking for which humans are highly qualified. Some of this tedious stuff you like oh my god I spend all my time clicking or trying to log in or looking for this information that if I just had it handy I could get this done in two seconds. But I spend an hour trying to find the information I need to make this decision. So we actually took this process, one of our proud processes is to assess contractor liability. Every procurement professional, when going to enter into a contract, must make sure that this supplier is responsible and that they will be able to perform the tasks they claim to be able to perform. And that of course requires investigation. So now we have a bot that can find all the information this procurement professional would need to make their decision. And I want to be clear, these bots don’t make decisions. What they do is they get all the information that sourcing professional needs at their fingertips, they can make that decision quickly. And we’ve actually been able to reduce the time an individual sourcing professional can complete this task from one hour to three minutes.

Tom Temin: Alright, wow. we speak with Krista Kinnard. She is the Chief of Emerging Technologies in the Department of Labor and a finalist in this year’s Emerging Leaders category of this year’s Service to America Medal Program. So the implication is that you spend a lot of time with those functional areas to make sure what you want to deliver is what they expect, what they need. Because sometimes in technology, it doesn’t always work so well.

Krista Kinnard: Exactly. And I think one of the biggest parts of the emerging technology group that I lead is that we don’t play with technology just for fun. I love being part of the government. We explore new technologies to truly serve the American people. And you can really see the impact.

Tom Temin: And tell us about the office itself. You said you supervise certain people, how big is your crew? And what types of skills make up the staff?

Krista Kinnard: Currently, we are a small but powerful federal team. I have two direct reports. And they focus on different areas, we have one who is our automation manager, and he focuses specifically on our robotic process automation program. It is therefore he who is in the front line to speak to the mission areas. You understand, okay, you want to automate a process? What’s the first step, what’s the second step, what’s the third step, and then it converts it into this automated process. And then our other IT specialist, she’s focusing on our artificial intelligence capability. And she really focuses on our responsible implementation of AI. We also have a team of entrepreneurs who help us and the number of which is changing rapidly, and it is increasing because we are growing and developing. And the more the department learns about us, the more there is a need for our services, which is really exciting.

Tom Temin: And of course the cliche you hear about government all the time is that it’s all baby boomers and the generation no matter what came after I can’t follow all the letters and numbers but it is an aging population. And young people do not want to enter government, but you deny this tendency. Tell us briefly about your background and how you came to serve in government.

Krista Kinnard: I have always been dedicated to public service. And in fact, my first experience with government was when I was in the Peace Corps. It was many years ago when I graduated from undergrad and spent my time in the Peace Corps and then returned to the United States and worked in a non-profit space. I really got to see how data-driven decision-making is so essential to what we do in government. So when I came back, I got my masters specifically in data science and public policy, because I wanted to focus on how we can take all of this data that we’re collecting and really use it for the benefit of the people American to take advantage of how we deliver services on how we make our government more efficient. That’s what got me into government, I got into government at GSA and then quickly transitioned here to DOL.

Tom Temin: And how do you like it? I mean, DOL just has a reputation for being a bit heavy at times and has a workmanship, like HHS, in some of its components that tend to stay put, partly because of the mission, but for a very long time.

Krista Kinnard: I love it. I love my work. I encourage young people around the world to get involved with government. It’s a really rewarding career. And I’m here to change that perception, aren’t I. I mean, the perception is that government is heavy and doesn’t have to be, and the government of the future is going to meet people like us to be able to drive change, to be able to ensure that we can continue to serve the people and communities that we do. And I think the government is ready for us. It takes a little patience, right? We all know that the government in general, not just the DOL, is a bit bureaucratic. And I sometimes think with good reason and slower than the private sector again with good reason. But I’m very optimistic about the future of government and how we can continue to fulfill the Department of Labor’s mission to the American people.

Tom Temin: Krista Kinnard is Chief of Emerging Technologies in the Department of Labor and a finalist in the Emerging Leaders category of this year’s Service to America Medals program.

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