Earlier this year, some Tesla models began to automatically recognize and respond to traffic lights and stop signs. For many brands, this type of enhancement would require a trip to the dealership for a hardware upgrade; for Tesla owners, it was simply a software update delivered over-the-air.

Consumers are growing accustomed to seeing their software-enabled things continuously evolve long after they buy them—everything from the apps on their phones and the operating systems on their computers to their computer-enabled cars and virtual reality headsets.

Enterprises are beginning to design updateable products with the ability to expand services and experiences in the future, making it possible to respond to changing customer demands and expectations at a moment’s notice. This sets the stage for feedback loops that support true partnerships, where customers can see the value and utility of products grow over time rather than fade.

However, as we inhabit this state of “forever beta,” our traditional perspectives on ownership are being challenged. Products that consumers think of as “theirs” are being redefined at the drop of a code release. The risk is that customers are having to constantly play catch-up, not knowing if the next system update is bringing exciting new capabilities, a critical security refresh, a new user interface to learn or a dramatic change to functionality. It’s not surprising that some customers are growing weary of what’s around the corner.

Call it the beta burden: the unintended consequences when products, and their contained experiences, are constantly in flux.

As products increasingly transition into platforms that deliver digital experiences, new challenges arise that, if left unaddressed, will alienate customers and erode their trust. The true value of a product is increasingly being driven by the experience, a facet of the product that manufacturers today retain strict control over.

Experiencing a new reality

Government agencies are encountering this new reality as both a provider of digital experiences and a consumer of them. As a provider, agencies are looking at a range of things like wearable devices, virtual reality apps, robots, and voice-activated apps for smart speakers to meet needs ranging from field operations to home healthcare. In many instances, the business case requires the ability to revise and update periodically in response to ever-changing environmental situations.

As agencies roll out and maintain their digital services and products, they must ask themselves: How involved will they be with their products’ lifecycles? How much transparency and choice over their products’ experience will they extend to end users? How might this new reality change the frequency and ways in which agencies interface with their constituencies? How much continuity will they maintain over their products’ features and experiences as they are updated? And what cybersecurity responsibilities and liabilities do they have?

Agencies also experience the beta burden as consumers and end users. They buy cars, trucks, planes and even spacecraft—all laden with smart technology features subject to updates. Equipment in federal data centers, the software that powers day-to-day government workloads, logistics equipment, office appliances, even the smart systems that control the climate and utilities in the buildings government employees work in—they all constantly evolve as they receive periodic updates from their makers. This trend will become even more prevalent in the coming months and years with the rollout of 5G networks, which will greatly accelerate the proliferation of smart, connected things.

As consumers, government agencies will increasingly confront questions about the impact of relying on things that always morph: How much transparency and choice over product experience will they require and insist on? Can product and service providers issue updates whenever and for whatever reasons they want or will there be limits, and what should those limits look like? What risks to government supply chains and cybersecurity do these constant updates introduce, and how can those be addressed? What happens when a critical feature disappears or existing integration breaks?

For example, automated patch updates may require agencies to choose between ensuring the integrity of classified systems and maintaining cybersecurity. This means they may need to sacrifice efficiency for manual vetting or accept that some solutions are incompatible with their operating model.


Agencies also experience the beta burden as consumers and end users. They buy cars, trucks, planes and even spacecraft — all laden with smart technology features subject to updates.



Disconnected

Accenture research shows these are not merely academic concerns. Of federal executives surveyed by Accenture, 92 percent say their organization’s connected products and services will have more, or significantly more, updates over the next three years. This compares to 74 percent of global executives saying the same thing. Moreover, 85 percent of federal executives (compared to 79 percent of executives globally) report their industry is moving toward offering more variety in ownership models for their connected products and services.

Interestingly, our research reveals a pronounced disconnect that federal agencies should be mindful of: 80 percent of federal executives (compared to 68 percent of executives globally) believe customers generally do not mind—or even welcome—software updates to their organizations’ connected products and services. Yet a large portion of consumers surveyed—47 percent—say they just want to buy something without constant updates. And the same percentage of consumers believe that updates are an increasing burden on users as they try to keep abreast of newly installed security patches, changes in functionality, and new interfaces.

So what implications might all this hold for federal agencies and how can they address them smartly? And how can they address this disconnect by enabling consumers to retain agency and authority over their digital experience and interactions with technology products and services?

Here are a few suggestions for how agencies might think about these themes:


01 Design for the Journey

As providers of products and experiences, federal agencies—either by themselves or in collaboration with vendors—will need to become comfortable designing products that evolve and transform over time while simultaneously becoming more comfortable releasing products they might conventionally see as “unfinished.” They will need to make products and services seamless to the end user, even as they are always evolving.

To do this, agencies will need to apply design thinking principles to their product planning and think through the entire lifecycles of their products from the perspectives of their end users.

For example, the military increasingly provides their personnel with immersive training equipment, such as virtual reality headsets. As military personnel train and respond to their virtual environments and scenarios, their performance is carefully logged and those metrics shape and adjust subsequent training scenarios that focus on areas where more attention and improvement is needed.

Products and services that are in constant flux present significant security concerns that must be addressed. Keep in mind that the side channels that vendors use to update their products are also targeted by hackers to cause harm. This presents serious supply chain risks: How can the government be assured that a component three or four tiers deep in a weapon system’s or IT system’s supply chain is secure against outside intervention if it can be remotely updated at any time, even if that update is a cybersecurity patch?

In short, as the universe of updatable products expands, so does the vulnerable attack surface. Current federal cybersecurity processes and programs, such as FedRAMP, were not designed to address this challenge. New, standardized approaches will be needed to help agencies see, assess, and proactively secure the growing cacophony of digital correspondence that will be flowing between federal infrastructures and their manufacturers.

As consumers, agencies will also need to think through the terms of service they negotiate with vendors for the products and services they purchase. This is especially true as ownership and control may change over the product lifecycle. These agreements can help impose needed governance around releases and updates, such as by enabling previews, pre-approvals, and pre-disapprovals, if necessary, before they are made and regulating their timing, so they do not interfere with existing needs and operations.

As providers of products, agencies will need to adopt disciplined, rigorous, documented approaches for how they push out and update new capabilities, such as through DevSecOps practices and FedRAMP-like controls that apply to extended devices. In short, agencies will need to think about how they extend their current cybersecurity controls to address smart devices and other software capabilities over their entire lifecycles.

Product managers have long served a critical function in the commercial world: they bridge product development and sustainment teams to ensure the stated and unstated needs of the customer are met. In today’s “forever beta” age, this function is increasingly important in government as well. As organizations like the U.S. Digital Service have suggested, agile product managers can bridge gaps that often exist between the mission side of the agency and the IT side as they collaborate to serve their constituencies.

Agile product managers can help ensure that the capabilities their agencies are pushing out and updating serve and benefit their intended customers and, importantly, coincide with their customers’ values. One helpful approach is to set up regular feedback loops to gather customer input on current and upcoming offerings. In this role, agile product managers can be important conduits in helping consumers gain greater authority over their digital experiences and interactions with federal products and services.

Many blindly accept standard terms and conditions for digital service that they feel powerless to amend. However, federal agencies can potentially leverage their collective buying power to have an actual say. They should consider creating common contract language that sets minimum standards for support, autonomy and performance.

At a minimum, they should demand complete and accurate disclosure of all data collected by the devices and shared externally, even if ostensibly for performance improvements. They may also require that those features be disabled as the government sees fit.

Whether as a consumer or provider of “forever beta” products and services, federal agencies will eventually find themselves overwhelmed with the task of supporting and governing boundless quantities of smart stuff. Consider, for example, the swarms of smart appliances and sensors likely to proliferate across federal environments with the advent of 5G networks. The military, for example, is looking at “smart uniforms” laden with high-tech fabrics, sensors and connectors that can improve situational awareness and survivability on the battlefield. The Common Access Cards (CAC) in every government employee’s wallet may be enriched with greater digital capabilities. How can government agencies manage those inventories if they are constantly evolving? Instead of going it alone, working with industry partners can be a viable strategy. This can allow agencies to innovate and scale faster by leveraging third-party expertise to manage the underlying product complexity spanning vast ecosystems.

One final consideration: in addition to upgrades delivered by product developers, agencies also need to manage changes produced by the devices themselves. Specifically, AI-equipped products using machine learning algorithms, operating increasingly at the edge, can independently enact their own powerful but disruptive changes. This creates added incentive to solve the dilemma of smart things.

Marty Hebeler

Managing Director – Accenture Federal Services, Armed Forces Technology Lead


Christopher Copeland

Chief Technology Officer – Accenture Federal Services

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In the long term

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