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10 Things to Know About the New Federal Digital Government Strategy

On May 23, 2012, Stephen VanRoekel, U.S. CIO, and Todd Park, U.S. CTO, unveiled what is officially called “Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People” (PDF). The federal digital strategy provides interesting new guidance for U.S. agencies.

Here are 10 key things you need to know about it:

1) Emphasis on providing “information and services anywhere, anytime, on any device.”

With mobile web usage exploding, this is a no-brainer. To do this, the federal government will need to embrace responsive design and mobile apps. Responsive design allows a site to look great on a desktop, tablet, or mobile device. It makes life easy for users and website administrators alike, because the site responds to user needs with no extra work to create different pages. To see responsive design in action, go to one of these sites developed by Forum One Communications: FreedomHouse.org, ICTQatar.qa. Grab a corner, and watch the site magically change as you make the window narrower.

2) “Enable the public… to better leverage the rich wealth of federal data.”

This is a huge problem and a huge opportunity for the federal government. The feds have massive amounts of data from which innumerable stories can be told, but often the data is either not exposed or formatted uniformly. The stories locked up in the data could help save money, increase knowledge, and even save lives. Making the data accessible will lead to a better understanding of how money is being spent, what works, and which programs should be replicated or cut short. Some excellent examples of leveraging data include County Health Rankings, Country Health Calculator, and the EPA Greenhouse Gas websites, all designed or built by Forum One.

3) “Create content and data once, and then use it in different ways.”

Over 40 percent of federal websites have no content management system (CMS) – which means every page is created in a vacuum. With a good CMS, you can tag and categorize data so that it appears on multiple relevant pages. A chart showing rising pollution levels in the Chesapeake Bay, for example, could be tagged so that it dynamically appears on pages related to water pollution, the state of the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland waterways, water quality data, environmental degradation charts, and other relevant pages.

4) “Shared platform approach”

The strategy guides agencies to “build multiple use cases at once, use common standards and architectures, participate in open source communities…” There is no need to build each .gov website from scratch. Some agencies have built, or are building, robust web infrastructures to handle agency-wide web demands. We are currently working with the EPA, for example, to create a Drupal platform that will become the basis for nearly all future EPA web pages. Since Drupal is open source, any enhancements may be shared with the wider community, thereby improving the overall product and reducing development costs for those who need similar features.

5) Information-centric approach

“Rather than thinking primarily about the final presentation — public web pages, mobile applications or brochures — an information-centric approach focuses on ensuring our data and content are accurate, available and secure.” The goal here is to make the information available and easy to access so that others (agencies, corporations, app developers) can use the data in whatever way they choose. For example, with the right API, per diem data can be used to create websites, mobile apps, and online calculators to power software that calculates travel costs and dynamically feeds expense reports, etc. With an information-centric approach, the possibilities grow exponentially.

6) Customer-centric approach

“Conduct research to understand the customer’s business, needs & desires…” Agreed! One key to a useful website is to:

  • Know who your primary audiences are (3-5 audiences tops)
  • Understand their goals and needs in visiting your website
  • Organize the website to help meet their needs
  • Test the website navigation, structure, and design to ensure your primary audiences can find what they need

 

At Forum One, we have completed user analysis through thousands of interviews, surveys, and focus groups. We create personas to represent the core users, and we refer back to these user personas regularly to help make decisions.

7) GSA will create a new Digital Services Innovation Center

“The center will work with agencies to establish shared solutions and training to support infrastructure and content needs across the Federal Government.” Essentially, the center will be there to help with cross-agency pollination of ideas, code, and technologies. The center will help agencies that are further behind learn from those that have more experience.

8) “Phase out custom-built technology…” and encourage use of popular open-source platforms

Open-source platforms are another no-brainer, and it is time for the federal government to more fully embrace them. Most agencies, including EPA, Energy, FTC, and the White House itself, are embracing Drupal, a popular open-source web development platform. Many open-source technologies have proven themselves to be secure, enterprise-ready solutions that are as robust as their proprietary counterparts.

9) 29 milestone actions

The report includes 29 milestone actions, including the owner, action, and timeframe (1-12 months) for each action. These actions range from “Launch a shared mobile app development program” to “Expand Data.gov to include a web API catalog that centrally aggregates web APIs posted on the agencies’/developer pages.”

10) What is missing? Social media

In general, I like the new federal strategy. However, I am disappointed that it does not encourage agencies to hold dialogues with citizens via social media. Social media is a powerful tool and can be used to educate, inform, dialogue, motivate, and drive action. It should be a core and growing component of any federal digital strategy. As with most things federal, some agencies use social media effectively, while others don’t. Most could use training and guidance on how to do it better.

Read the full report and feel free to get in touch with me if you have any questions.