Google Cloud unveils new public sector tools for a shifting policy landscape

The pandemic, and the major government programs enacted in response to the crisis, have dramatically changed the needs and priorities of public sector IT, Google Cloud's VP of Global Public Sector Mike Daniels tells ZDNet.

In the face of a global pandemic, lawmakers have swiftly enacted large, life-changing programs: vaccine distribution and tracking, mortgage relief, pandemic unemployment assistance, and moreover the past two years. 

Deploying these programs has been a serious challenge for state and local governments. For instance, recent Treasury Department data showed that just a fraction of the $46.5 billion allocated by Congress for housing assistance has been spent.

Given the scale and complexity of these programs, state and local governments are often bogged down by technical infrastructure that can't meet their needs. Google Cloud is aiming to step in and help alleviate those issues with a new series of "public benefits solutions" -- a suite of Google tools and capabilities packaged together for specific social services challenges. The public benefits solutions can include a package of Google's technology, ranging from BigQuery to Google Workspace and Contact Center AI virtual agents.

Google is initially rolling out public benefit solution modules for: housing and rental assistance, jobs reskilling and finding work, communicating better with constituents online and through call centers, fraud detection and claims verification, and assessing constituent sentiment and likely policy outcomes using advanced analytics and machine learning.

Some of the programs Google aims to help facilitate are so novel "there's not even a clear agency in every state that's even truly responsible for them," Mike Daniels, Google Cloud's VP of Global Public Sector, said to ZDNet. "So there's a lot of policy to get sorted out, and then there's a systems aspect to it. Obviously, we're trying to lean in on the system side to help this stage of it."

The past two years have shown that a focus on desired policy outcomes drives the best IT decisions, Daniels said -- even if the policies themselves aren't entirely set in stone. 

"Honing in on the outcome first, versus the systems that we need to deliver that outcome... you start having this moment where you can ask, 'What is the data I need to drive this? What is the process I need to drive?' That oftentimes cuts across different systems and allows you to think about that work in a little bit of a different way."

Daniels said that the scale of current policy initiatives, combined with the speed at which they have to be rolled out, is creating a "permanent shift" in the way systems are run in the public sector. There's a new interest, for example, in ensuring systems are interoperable, open and agile.  

"And then this whole notion of updating these legacy systems -- how to do that in a componentized way, as opposed to literally forklifting the system over," he added. "These legacy systems... were perfectly fine in normal times, for the most part, but when you ask them to scale -- to deal with a lot of changes in terms of who could qualify [for government services] and those sorts of things -- it broke these things. So we had to componentize that modernization."

On top of that, government agencies are embracing the use of data in a way that "will allow a permanent level of resilience and agility in the public sector that didn't exist before," Daniels said. 

While modernization efforts in the public sector are trending towards a more componentized approach, Google is also highlighting this week a more holistic approach to data management embraced by the state of Oklahoma. The state's Office of Management and Enterprise Services is working with Google Cloud to create a new, centralized data hub that can access and analyze data across multiple agencies. Built on Google Cloud BigQuery, the hub has unified 23PB (petabytes) of data across multiple sources. The idea is to roll out more targeted social programs faster and offer personalized recommendations for citizens looking for government assistance. 

While government data sharing opens up privacy concerns, Daniels said, "there's a lot of enlightened policy thinking as it relates to that." He added that "the tooling is such that data is shared in a much more precise way... only what's needed at the time."

Agencies across the state can opt-in to share their data in a controlled way while also adhering to their particular compliance standards.