Biometrics and the Government

Waiting for the Windfall

To those of you just dying to know which pivotal government application will transform the biometrics industry catapulting a few entrepreneurial ventures with the best technology to the forefront of the government market, I have one just one thing to say: “killer aps” are more myth than market maker. And, if they exist at all, they usually do so only in hindsight. What is fundamentally more important to know is that “the government market ” is not “a market” at all. The government is a universe of markets including several broadly defined sectors such as legislature, judicial, general administration, a host of public services, law enforcement and military. Each sector is in turn a universe in itself, or at least a collection of multiple target markets. And these complex universes of opportunity exist for three levels of government (though sometimes less and sometimes more): federal, state or provincial, and local or municipal.

The development of tightly integrated biometric-based financial service systems that serve millions will take time to develop and deploy. While much of the focus within the biometrics industry has been on improving the accuracy, efficiency and reliability of sensors, devices and software, the technology itself is actually working well enough to satisfy real-world deployment requirements. The substantive issues have to do with database storage and replication, the interoperability of various biometrics, open source, vendor independent templates and enrollment processing and management.

Developing a solution for “the government” entails sifting through these universes and focusing attention on a few that are closely related by application, function and interagency communication. This is no easy task with proven technology, let alone emerging technology for which government sources are still struggling to define evaluation criteria and standards. Success in this arena requires more than just a special set of skills and knowledge. It requires business process rigor, focused commitment, confidence, a little bit of luck, the right connections, a willingness to define targets and above all, patience. (And the funds to back it up!)

The good news is that there are tons of targets. The bad news is that obtaining a government contract is a long, slow, often arduous process with no guarantees. Often the opportunity costs associated with forfeiting commercial business outweigh the benefit of the potential windfall. Then there is the reality that governments worldwide are facing fiscal crises ranging from inconvenient to the worst they’ve seen since WWII.

And if all of this isn’t enough to encourage a deep breath and thoughtful reflection, consider the following: Even in the US, where in some case biometrics have been mandated by law, government bureaucrats are hesitant to commit to relatively unproven technology and in spite of homeland security concerns, may not get the budget to do so. This has perpetuated the typical environment of “consideration” and “exploration” rather than direct action. While this is great for the overall potential of the industry, it does not help vendors struggling to generate revenue now. Demonstrable ROI for administrative tasks, particularly around eGovernment, where the benefits are high and risk factors low (relative to the pursuit of terrorists) may offer a faster path to success.

Government opportunities abound and as biometrics are proven effective in the commercial sector uptake will accelerate. Nevertheless, it will be slow going and offer limited immediate opportunities for direct biometrics revenue.

C. Maxine Most, 2003