The promise of modern technology lags in government, but the future of occupational licensing is bright

July 12, 2021

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The promise of modern technology lags in government, but the future of occupational licensing is bright

Think about Big Data. Think about Industry 4.0, machine learning, and predictive analytics.

Think about AI, IoT, IIoT, and just about every other acronym that comes to mind in the context of our long-promised “digital transformation”.

Now think about your average experience with a typical government website.

If the latter experience seems far removed from the potential and promise offered by the former — by the overdue digital transformation we’re supposed to be living — you’re not alone in your thinking.

We’ve been hearing all the big technology buzzwords for well over a decade now, and the conversations that follow tend to accompany an implied promise of a great digital future: One of seamless access, impenetrable security, and solutions for problems we weren’t even aware we had. Indeed, the digital future was supposed to be one of unbridled connectivity and instantaneous resolution of every desire that crossed our minds.

So where is it?

Depends on who you ask, and what they want.

For those craving food, that future is already here. We need look no further than the preferred delivery app on our phone to have whatever meal we desire at our doorsteps within an hour, and generally faster.

And for shoppers, it’s getting to the point of being better than we ever imagined. Love or hate Amazon’s business practices, one thing is incontrovertible: the company has completely rewritten the rules of distribution, satiating every consumer’s need, want, and whim with utter ease and immediacy.

Travelers can book lodgings overseas, buy airline tickets to get there, and even order a ride to the airport in a matter of minutes, all from the comfort of their much-cherished smartphones, and with a level of unprecedented ease that would be indistinguishable from magic to observers in the 1980s.

Even bank customers generally benefit from relatively effortless access to their funds, often at the press of a fingerprint scanner on their smartphone.

But what of the average citizen, seeking to access a basic government service, be it the driver updating their plates, selling a vehicle, or paying a fine?

What of the licensee, who needs to renew their professional license regularly, simply to do their job?

And what, indeed, of the agencies and regulators that supply those licenses? Where is the promised future of technology for them?

Government technology behind the times

Experiences increasingly vary, yes, but anecdotally, we all know that what E-government offers has, historically, been…suboptimal.

In a world of instant distribution, seamless online shopping, effortless travel planning, and secure banking, all done from the convenience of a basic cell phone, government technology lags.

Taken a step beyond the citizen-level experience with E-government, the picture is arguably more dire. Governments face considerable risks and limitations as a result of very old legacy infrastructure and core systems, as highlighted in Gartner’s recent assessment of the top trends for government technology. The modernization of these legacy systems needed to happen yesterday, yet the magnitude of the work ahead seems daunting. While Gartner paints an optimistic picture of the future of critical technologies to support automation, citizen engagement, and data-driven decision making, no rosy outlook is sufficiently comforting when the greatest consequence of outmoded legacy systems lives in the chilling print of the dreaded headlines that don’t seem to disappear; in the word that hits us routinely with a harrowing thud: cyberattack.

US President Joe Biden recently issued an executive order to improve the nation’s cybersecurity after it was revealed in 2020 that foreign hackers penetrated an array of US government networks, gaining free access to the email systems of critical institutions like the Treasury and Commerce departments. That represented only the most recent of several large-scale and sophisticated cyberattacks occurring over the past five years, which leads to the seemingly unanswerable question: how many attacks are happening right now?

Beyond the promising recent executive order on cybersecurity, the future is not entirely bleak. In fact, in its report, Gartner predicts that by 2025, 75% of government CIOs will directly handle security beyond IT, including operational and mission-critical technology environments, and that by the same year, over half of government agencies will have modernized critical core legacy applications. Such developments should help shore up government-wide cybersecurity while also enabling it to deploy services more seamlessly, and with greater speed and agility.

However, it still seems like a monumental task to reshape and modernize — nay, transform, in the spirit of true digital transformation — the machinery of government technology. The wheels of government turn slowly. The ship of state takes ages to correct its course. So how do we harbor hope that we can get it done? If one moves mountains by first carrying small stones, we may look at the stones in our midst, and many of those stones lie in the realm of occupational licensing.

Occupational licensing affects everyone

An area of government accountability that in the 1950s affected a scant 5%  of the population, occupational licensing now directly determines whether over a quarter of Americans can do their jobs. Further, it affects the lives of every American and, indeed, every citizen in every country where professions are regulated — which is to say, well, all of them.

While getting a license to be anything from a doctor to a milk sampler may seem like an annoyance to many, we must remember that professional regulation exists in the name of public safety. Regulation is the quiet arbiter of the general level of safety and security we enjoy in our daily lives, except when it hits headlines; when it goes wrong. We see this when doctors lose their licenses after multiple malpractice complaints and drawn-out court cases. We see it when financial advisors lose their licenses after robbing seniors of their life savings. And we see it — quite starkly — when buildings collapse; when lives are lost. The recent unfortunate event in Surfside, Florida, was terribly tragic, likely avoidable, and ultimately a failure of regulation.

The processes supporting professional licensing  land in different spots along a wide spectrum of maturity, with, on one side, robust technology analogous to the relatively seamless experiences we have booking flights and managing our bank accounts, and morbidly archaic processes on the other.

That is, in some states, provinces, and other corners of the regulated world, a practicing doctor, lawyer, or pesticide handler follows a process that looks something like this: fill out a paper application form, with a pen or a pencil; put it in an envelope, with the assurance of a licked stamp and the promise of the postal service that it will get to where it’s intended to go; wait many weeks or months, hoping that form makes it to the top of a pile, at which point the data it contains will be manually re-entered in a computer database; and then, eventually, if all goes well (and probably a few phone calls later), await the ground-mail delivery of an approved professional license.

And it’s 2021.

This is why the promise of modern technology — of sweeping digital transformation — may seem a little incongruent to the experiences of many, as they lament the processes they must endure to get the documents they need to simply be able to do their jobs.

But there are bright lights in these dark skies of medieval licensing. There’s this real estate commission, which now handles most of its licensing processes online and has virtually eliminated direct mail expenses. There’s this college of paramedics, which successfully transformed once-archaic licensing processes, bringing thousands of historical paper-based records into a seamless, centralized system. And there’s this board of osteopathic examiners, which now achieves in seconds what used to take weeks and months of manual processing. All of these organizations are on a path towards a paperless future and delivering a quick, seamless experience to applicants in the process.

Bright lights, indeed, but there’s hard work ahead. As the world of occupational licensing matures into the digital future it deserves, professionals will get to work faster, the public will be safer, and the many stones of licensure — which make up no small part of the mountain of government technology — will be moved, for the better.

Paul Leavoy is Content Director at Thentia and has been writing government and enterprise management technology, regulation, and public policy for over 15 years.