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ServiceNow’s Federal CTO on Public Sector Modernization

Your Host:

Sean Dawson

Our Guest:

Jonathan Alboum


Dive into digital transformation in the public sector with Sean Dawson and Jonathan Alboum, federal CTO for ServiceNow. This episode covers the evolution of legacy applications, creative workflow solutions, and the role of ServiceNow’s App Engine in federal agencies. Jonathan shares practical strategies from his time at the USDA and discusses the impact of generative AI on improving service delivery. Learn how to modernize your digital strategy and achieve better outcomes for both internal customers and constituents.

Sean: Hello, and welcome once again to the Cask Distillery Podcast, where we unlock the full potential of ServiceNow with expert insights and practical strategies, only here on the Cask Distillery Podcast. And today, I have with me Jonathan Alboum. And Jonathan is the federal CTO for ServiceNow, where he works with federal agencies to deliver digital workflows that create great experiences and unlock productivity.

Prior to his role at ServiceNow, Jonathan served as the CIO for the US Department of Agriculture, leading development of the USDA’s IT modernization strategy. Jonathan’s passion for the federal space shines through in all of his experience and ongoing service. And we’re so thrilled to have you today, Jonathan. Thank you for joining us and taking time out of your schedule.

Jonathan: Thanks, Sean. I really appreciate the opportunity to be here.

Sean: Oh no problem. I’m really looking forward to this. And I know you have a long career serving others in federal government leadership roles. How has your experience shaped your vision for serving the federal government at ServiceNow?

Jonathan: Yeah, that’s a great way to start, because all the time that I spent in the federal government, it was, for me, always about the mission and the ability to make sure that people across the United States of America had access to the programs and the benefits that the US Department of Agriculture offered.

And USDA is a great agency. It touches the lives of all Americans, from farmers and ranchers that produce the food we eat, to the schoolchildren who benefit from school lunch programs or other people who need special assistance or for food assistance. And we help so many people across so many sectors of the economy at the Department of Agriculture, not to mention the national forests, safety, and all these things.

So, it was always very easy for me to fall back on the mission as a sense of pride and as a reason for doing our jobs. And your question is how do I bring that into our work at ServiceNow. And part of my role as I work with our different account teams and different agencies that are customers of ServiceNow is to make sure that we never lose sight of why those agencies are there, their purpose, and what their mission is and how ServiceNow plays a very important role in making sure that missions deliver effectively, efficiently, and that the people at the receiving end of that mission—that citizen, another government agency, or even an employee who’s providing those services out to the public—is able to interact with technology and interact with the information, interact with data/other systems in a way that makes them really productive and puts them in the best place to get their work done or get the benefit that they need so they can go on being very successful in their lives.

Sean: And I know ServiceNow, and most people think of ServiceNow—its roots are in IT. Most people, “ServiceNow? Oh, I’m thinking IT.” Why should agencies, in your eyes, use ServiceNow for their mission-critical applications and supporting other workflows?

Jonathan: It really comes down to the fact that ServiceNow was created originally, and is still today, a platform. And ServiceNow is a platform company. We began our trajectory in the fed space and elsewhere as an IT service management provider because that was the first set of applications that was built on the ServiceNow platform.

The ServiceNow platform is a great piece of technology. Having seen a lot of these platforms, it’s a very unique capability. It’s a single architecture. It’s one data model. It is unique in the industry from that perspective. Everything that you do in ServiceNow is there on the platform.

So, when we begin going to market as an IT service management with this IT service management capability, people begin to associate us that way because we were so successful. But that’s just one set of applications built on the platform. And we’ve built many kinds of applications on the platform, from employee experiences and different employee workflows, like HR service delivery or onboarding or customer workflows.

I think we’ll talk about some of those in a little bit and industry-specific approaches, as in government or finance or health care and so on. And we have the ability to create unique mission-based applications using our low-code capabilities. Again, part of the platform. And when you think about how ServiceNow goes to market today, it sounds like we do all these different things.

But I always like to bring it back to we’re doing the same core kinds of things on the ServiceNow platform. We’re able to connect different sources of data, different systems, different people, different organizations. And as we bring that data on the platform, where we can utilize all the technologies built into the platform—from workflow and generative AI capabilities, RPA or configuration management database, all these different kinds of technologies that are resident in core to the platform—we can use on the data, we can use on those systems to drive outcomes.

And we do that in a way with a very modern, elegant user experience that makes it very easy for people to interact with data across lots of systems to get the work done, to get a result, to serve a customer. And we’re doing that in IT or we’re doing that in HR. We’re doing it elsewhere.

We’re doing the same kind of concepts with the same kind of model. We’re just applying those ideas in different ways in these different spaces. So, because we could do it in IT and we’re doing it on the ServiceNow platform, it sets us up to be able to do it in all these different areas of an agency.

And when ServiceNow was already there and running and successful, I think that’s a great starting point to try any of the other requirements agencies have.

Sean: So how have you seen organizations leveraging creative workflows to modernize things like legacy custom applications?

Jonathan: That is an ideal kind of use case. So many of the applications that we have in agencies were built sometime ago. They were built in a very bespoke way. It’s a custom system. And it made sense at the time. Before I was a CIO, I built these systems, and being in an agency, we would be building something for them to meet very unique business requirements.

And I think that was many times the best approach to do this. But as technology evolves and we have access to cloud systems, we don’t have to worry about the infrastructure as much anymore and other cloud providers are providing those things. We have a new set of capabilities available to us, and we have trusted platforms and agencies like ServiceNow.

So when I think about the low-code capabilities and the opportunity to build mission-specific workflows, mission use cases, on a trusted platform, ServiceNow always seems like a great fit because because so many of these applications are really about workflow—it’s about service delivery—which is what we are purpose built to do. And all we really have to do in those cases is understand what this unique set of requirements are.

What are those workflows? What are the processes? How do they differ from something we might already be doing in customer workflows or employee workflows, perhaps. And design and build the rest using the same technologies built on the platform, the same technologies that were used to build customer workflows. It’s a lot less complicated.

And it is a lot faster to do this on ServiceNow because these things are there and the platform already exists and is being used. The most important things are really to understand the data and understand the work and understand what those flows should be. And we have a great way to implement those technologies or implement those requirements very quickly.

Sean: So how can organizations use ServiceNow App Engine to get around restrictive things like ERP challenges and improve interactions for employees and all that?

Jonathan: There’s a couple things there. One, when we look at the number of systems in organizations and the fact that so many people have to turn to lots of different systems in order to get their job done, we think about ServiceNow as the connective tissue across these systems.

And we can use ServiceNow then as a way for people to come in and see data from lots of different systems, different data sets, to work with that data to drive an outcome, like I was describing before. And ERP modernization is one of those core ideas because ERP has lots of these data sets.

There are a lot of activities going on in these ERP systems. But sometimes the experience isn’t great. And I’ve seen ServiceNow sit on top of those ERP systems to provide that more modern experience. I’ve seen capabilities from ERP applications. Some of the functions move into ServiceNow. Some stay. But the reality is you don’t have to swap out a system in order to have ServiceNow on top of it, with ServiceNow providing that workflow in that experience and the ability to have that single point. And where do we apply it to ERP, where we apply it to custom mission requirements that you were describing, one of which comes to mind at the Department of Agriculture, where I worked for a long time, the system—we call it IROC—the interagency resource system for fighting wildland fires, which was a very complicated process when I was at USDA.

And again, this is using lots of different resources, whether they’re people, whether it’s firefighting equipment or other things, moving them around the country, moving, making sure we know where things are and making sure that they can be deployed to the right location in order to make the firefighters—from USDA, Department of the Interior, state agencies—as successful as they can be.

It’s a very similar kind of concept. We have lots of data which needs to be in one place so good decisions can be made. And in the case of IROC or the case of ERP modernization, we can make that one place ServiceNow.

Sean: So how do you advise organizations to incorporate ServiceNow application modernization capabilities as a part of their digital strategy, really informing them of their broader strategic plan?

Jonathan: Yeah. So that is so common when you go into an agency and you start asking about what their technology footprint looks like. Generally people know what all the systems are. Sometimes they know what all the data is and what it all means. And the advice I always start with is, “Do we understand what are we working with?”

And as you kind of flesh out what that system inventory looks like, you tend to see that some things have been modernized over time. Some things are really old technologies. And we have a lot of these systems that were built to solve an immediate problem, and suddenly that thing becomes the way they’re going to do business sort of in perpetuity.

And we’re very locked into these older technologies. And some of these systems are hard to maintain. Or maybe they’re harder to secure. When I find those things, to me, those are great candidates to be moved onto the ServiceNow platform as applications that we can create either through customer workflows, through some configuration in some additions, or using creator workflows to build a system using our low-code capabilities.

And now with the generative AI capabilities that are in ServiceNow, we have a code-assist capability to make developers a lot faster. We have an application development capability that we can use to describe an application. And then a version of that application can be constructed, and then humans can come in and make it better.

We can create these applications with such ease in so many cases that, as we find them, they become great candidates to move on to the platform, especially when the core requirements are around workflow, around approvals, around managing and process. That’s what ServiceNow is built for. And that’s what I see so often move onto the ServiceNow platform.

In terms of these low-code applications, they’re not necessarily the most complicated application. They can be easy to deploy. And once we move them onto the ServiceNow platform, now they’re in a FedRAMP high environment or impact level for an ad space. And we’re managing the same kinds of processes, but we’re doing it much more efficiently.

We’re doing it a lot faster. We’re building them faster, maintaining them faster. And we’re doing it in a single place. So we start to begin to establish a very common and consistent approach to interacting with the systems. Look and feel’s the same. The user experience is the same. So people can just be more efficient overall.

Sean: And you had mentioned GenAI in generative code, but how do you see GenAI capabilities in ServiceNow presenting new opportunities for organizations to create better experiences for both internal customers and constituents? I mean, you mentioned generative code. What are the other things that are out there that you’re seeing?

Jonathan: When we think about GenAI, which is obviously this topic that everyone is talking about today, ServiceNow has sort of two approaches to GenAI. One, we have large language models that are industry specific, based on ServiceNow data that can make ServiceNow in your interactions with ServiceNow and your development of ServiceNow so much more efficient.

For example, take something like case summarization. A lot of people in government use ServiceNow to manage cases, whether it’s an employee case or it might be a case with a customer interacting with an agency. And some of these cases go on quite some time or an IT ticket. Right?

There’s lots of history. And for someone to come in fresh and start looking at this case—or even someone who’s been on it a while—they want to make sure they have all the information. It can take a while to get up to speed on it. So case summarization very quickly presents out to the user, “Here’s the information that’s very relevant to what’s been happening here.”

You have enough now to go and go and help this individual without having to spend a lengthy amount of time reading over history. That’s one thing that’s really great. Creating knowledge articles using generative AI. Closing out a case. Resolution notes. These things take time. But they are sort of the mundane tasks, if you will, that people have to do to make sure they’re doing their jobs well.

But they don’t necessarily enjoy these things. They take people away sometimes from doing other aspects of their job. So when we can use generative AI to quickly summarize a case or provide resolution notes or create a knowledge article based on an outage or something that we learned. We’re making the organization better.

We’re giving people information they’ll need in the future. But we’re doing it without taking away time from someone who really wants to be serving the customer. That’s one side of it. We’re also using generative AI to develop code in ServiceNow, as I mentioned earlier. That code in this piece is really powerful.

We can develop applications a lot faster. We can make the development teams a lot more efficient because of this. And really, the generative AI within ServiceNow—these large language models, these domain-specific models—they’re smaller than the LLMs that are out there for the a commercial GenAI capabilities. These things have a lot greater transparency.

There’s provenance of the data. There’s real understanding of the models. So we can answer so many of the questions that agencies need to answer relative to the AI executive order from from the president. But we don’t have to be scared of generative AI in this context because it’s just making us better at using ServiceNow. On the other side of it, we know that agencies and organizations in general are investigating generative AI models to help them run their business, run their operation, serve the mission.

And these models certainly have a lot of value. There’s always risks, but the positive benefits are really there. And as agencies, we find these models and understand what they’re getting. We’ve set it up so that information—that intelligence—can be brought into ServiceNow using our generative AI controller.

And then, that intelligence on the platform can be made actionable. One thing is to have the intelligence. The other is to be able to use it and get value out of it. And we can make that case here. And we’re talking about that with lots of agencies. And the opportunity to marry generative AI capabilities and third-party models and ServiceNow I think is going to be really powerful.

So this is a conversation we’re having across government. And we’re having these conversations everywhere—as so many people are, of course. But the reality, Sean, is that when you take workflow and you take the data and you supercharge it with generative AI, you are going to have really tremendous results. And we’re already seeing that on the platform.

And it’s just going to become more of a part of a regular conversation and regular usage of ServiceNow in the federal space, I predict.

Sean: So I want to switch gears just a little bit and talk a little bit about all the buzz that’s been around customer and industry workflows, specifically PSDS. And I was hoping you could talk to us a little bit about PSDS and how this product will help government agencies really achieve their goals.

Jonathan: Yeah, that’s a really important topic. The customer workflows that we have in ServiceNow, they evolved over time. And they evolved with an industry mindset. And as we started to apply these in a government setting, we were realizing, from agency to agency, there were very consistent changes that a government customer would need to make to the data model and related workflows to serve in a government sense.

And what we did as a company was we took these common changes. We applied them into the ServiceNow data model. We applied them into the sort of core capabilities of customer workflows. And we established a set of public sector digital services that many agencies are using now. And because we’ve done these things ourselves, we share them out through this public sector digital service application with agencies.

We’re moving the starting point for an agency that’s going to use customer workflows. When they use public sector digital service, a lot more capabilities are already resident in that application, and they can go further faster in those data model changes that many were making already there. One of the uses that we’re seeing a lot of is the government customers sometimes—and actually, many times, it’s another government agency.

So the customer isn’t always a person. Now, one agency might serve another agency. And adding those organization relationships was, I think, a very important change that was introduced recently. But we’ve had a lot of great success in that space with this. One example I talk about a lot is at the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

They use public sector digital service as the basis for an electronic permitting program, which was referenced in the president’s executive order on customer experience. This was a manual process for a long time. You fill out a paper form and you send in a check. This process now runs on public sector digital service. And I can apply and pay for a permit electronically.

I know it sounds simple, but until it was created, that wasn’t the way this process worked. And Fish and Wildlife Service is bringing on more and more permits on this platform all the time, and they’re going faster because public sector digital service has a permitting capability built into it. And that allows them to just move through faster.

So we have lots of examples like that—lots of great use cases where agencies are going faster using ServiceNow because they’ve decided to use this set of tailored services for government agencies.

Sean: So we’ve been talking a lot about app modernization and doing things in ServiceNow. But what is your advice for organizations that want to get started in this? And actually, what’s your method of getting started on their journey to app modernization within ServiceNow? What would you suggest?

Jonathan: I think, and I alluded to this earlier, one of the first and I think most important challenges is to make sure that there’s a good understanding of what’s that application inventory. How do these applications work together? Who uses them? What’s the data inside them? That becomes the basis for an application modernization strategy.

And then some of these applications are surely going to be a good fit on ServiceNow because it’s about delivering a service. It’s about a process flow. It’s about an approval. Things that we are built to do on the platform. And identifying the right technology for the modernization of an application is so important.

I spent a long time as a chief information officer, as you said in the beginning, and too often, an organization will come to me and say, “Hey, we want to modernize this application, and we want to use this technology.” I said, “Well, why?” “Well, we went to the conference, and it sounds like a good fit,” or, “We know the team, and they’re nice people.”

So those things are always very important. But that doesn’t mean this is the right technology for this sort of application. And I found too often that we get ourselves down a bad pathway because you want to be—when you’re a federal IT or you’re a service provider yourself, and you want to help the organization that’s coming to you get be successful as you start moving down that path with them.

And suddenly, you realize it can be a lot harder than we need to. You have to take a step back and ask yourself the question: What exactly are we trying to accomplish here? And of all this technology we have in our environment and the platforms we’ve standardize on, platforms like ServiceNow, say, “Is it about delivering a service?” If it’s about delivering a service, let’s start with the idea that ServiceNow is the place to modernize that application. Other kinds of requirements in an organization might fit elsewhere. Inside a government agency, I want everything that should be in ServiceNow to be in ServiceNow. Things that fit better somewhere else? We should do them somewhere else, right?

Because that agency will get further faster. They’ll be more successful when they deploy their requirements in the right place. When we don’t do that, we start to add technical debt into our environment. So we might buy the most modern SaaS platform out there. But if it’s not a good fit for what we’re doing, we’re going to spend a lot of time, we’re going to spend a lot of money, and we may be able to get something that functions in the end, but the process of getting there will make it feel like it was too hard, make it feel like it was the wrong choice. And then you got to maintain it. 

And that becomes complicated, too. When you pick the product, you pick the platform that is purpose built for the kinds of requirements that you’re trying to implement, where there is a close alignment, you just go a lot faster and you have better results, and there’s less risk for the project going south. And that’s sort of the core: that you know the answer here.

What are the applications? What do they do? How are they aligned to the technologies available in an organization? And anything that service deliverable. Those things in my mind and in my experience as a CIO fit in a service delivery platform—fit in ServiceNow.

Sean: So within all that was a great answer. Thank you. What gets in the way, and how do you think a partner can best help clients take advantage of the new capabilities?

Jonathan: The first thing as we start to think about these processes—say it is a service delivery thing, we’re going to put it in ServiceNow—the first question I always ask is, “What’s the data? How does the data flow through the organization?” The data is a representation of the work that’s happening. And what are those workflows? And do we understand them? And again, very often, these things are super well documented in an organization. So, the first step is we have to understand the workflows. We have to understand how the data flows. And if we can do that now, we’re setting ourselves up for success because we know what we’re trying to tackle. In the next piece is—and where partners help quite a lot is—what does the future look like?

It doesn’t have to be exactly from a workflow/process perspective what you have today. A lot of these processes grew up over time when we didn’t have these kinds of technologies, when we didn’t have mobile devices, where people were more focused on working in offices. We have a much more hybrid workforce now, and people are doing work on mobile devices.

And your customers are interacting that way too. So that very well may change that process flow that would be ideal for the work that you’re doing for serving the mission. So we gotta be able to rethink and redesign these processes as appropriate. And partners help there all the time.

So one step of that discovery piece is what’s that process. The second part is that’s what it is today. But what could it be? And what should it be? And how can we use ServiceNow to make that process even better? Even easier to interact with? And those are sort of the foundational things.

And at that point, now we’re ready to build something. You do these things iteratively, of course, but you can’t just say, “Hey, we’re going to start a project, and we’re going to buy ServiceNow, or any technology, for that matter,  and expect that to be at the panacea.

There’s a lot of important work to do with the ServiceNow partner in order to get real value out of the important investment you’re making in ServiceNow. And then I think the last piece, Sean, that I always advise on is you really need to understand how you’re going to measure the impact of the work.

How do you measure success? What is success? And then, how do you use that to show value to your stakeholders and to—might be to the program officials that you’re working with on a project, it might be to members of Congress, it might be to different stakeholders, other constituencies, whomever.

But you have to be able to measure that—what you’ve accomplished—that there’s value there. You then prove something, which always goes back to you needing to have a baseline. If I’m serving a customer this way today, what are those key metrics, and what are they so I can prove that this was a really good investment because those metrics have improved and I’m serving customers better. And I think when you do that and you get out there and you can tell a real, transformation story about how this investment ServiceNow created a real difference in the way we serve the people that rely on our agency.

And that’s a very powerful conversation that you can have with all those different groups that you can have with your internal customers. You can have with your agency customers. And that becomes a very virtuous cycle, I think, because successful transformations yield more opportunities for transformation. You follow these ideas. You have more and more success.

And slowly but surely, we build a very modernized and digital government that people begin to trust because when they interact with it, we have great experiences. And that trust piece is, I think, so crucial to how we manage our agencies and we manage our technologies to keep the data secure. We use trustworthy AI in this process.

And that trust factor is really important as we continue to have these kinds of modernization conversations.

Sean: Great. Well, that’s all of our time for today. And thank you so much, Jonathan, for taking time out of your schedule. Like, I know you’re busy. I mean, we’re all busy, but you’re really busy. And thank you for your time today.

Jonathan: It was worth a try. And I really appreciate this chance to have the conversation and look forward to me being able to continue with you in the future.

Sean: Great. And for those watching, please, again, like and share this out. and if you have ideas for us and things that you want to see, let us know in the comments below. And for now, take care. Bye bye.


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