A Good Day for Digital Government

Like any field of work – or movement, depending on how you view this agenda – digital open government has its good days and its bad days. A bad day is when a state makes it easier to fight requests to release information. A good day is when government adopts policies and practices that will not only make more data available, but will drive efficient use of resources, sensible strategies for communicating with the public, and lay the foundation for increased innovation in public sector technology.

Today is a good day.

Today Federal CIO Steve Van Roekel and Federal CTO Todd Park published their new Digital Government Strategy, with the full force of the President behind it. Alex Howard has an excellent summary of it over at O’Reilly Radar, but in brief, the strategy is supposed to “provide agencies with guidance on improving digital services and to enable the government to thrive within the fast-paced, ever-changing world of technology.” There are no silver bullets, but Park and Van Roekel have gotten a lot right in this plan, and if the federal agencies can really make this document come to life, the US will be taking a pretty big step in the right direction.

At Code for America, we’ve recently been impressed with the UK government’s innovation efforts, particularly Gov.uk and the design principles behind that work. Brilliantly, the UK team’s principles begin with “start with needs*,” where an asteriks snarkily reminds us that the authors are referring to user needs, not government needs, since yes indeed, that does need to be said. Park and Van Roekel pick up on this thread in their strategy, including “customer-centric” among their core principles, and elaborating:

The customer-centric principle charges us to do several things: conduct research to understand the customer’s business, needs and desires; make content more broadly available and accessible and present it through multiple channels in a program- and device-agnostic way; make content more accurate and understandable by maintaining plain language and content freshness standards; and offer easy paths for feedback to ensure we continually improve service delivery.

That’s a great list, but saying these things should happen will not simply make them so. Happily, there is also considerable attention given to the importance of a shared platform across agencies, particularly a content delivery platform (or several) that presumably every Federal agency can use. This promotes a vision I can get behind. Less procurement, more content strategy and hopefully plainer, more accessible language. (For a great example of this, see OpenCounter, the CfA Santa Cruz team’s “minimum viable product” that makes the business permitting process understandable.) Less custom code, more consistent design and user interfaces. What WordPress has been to media and technology, perhaps we will soon have within government (and whether it’s WordPress, Drupal or none or all of the above is not so much the point). But it’s clear today that at least government has gotten clear on one important point: content delivery isn’t a hard problem in the outside world.

So how’s all of this going to actually happen? A key driving force behind this strategy will be a newly created “Digital Services Innovation Center,” led presumably by Park and Van Roekel. We’ve seen these centralized innovation centers become a theme at the local level: Philadelphia and San Francisco house Chief Innovation Officers, and in Boston, there’s the Mayor’s Council for New Urban Mechanics. These structures have proven effective at exploring new opportunities and aggregating the risk involved in executing on them. What will be interesting to see with the Federal model is how a new department like this will be able to startup and deliver on such a broad mandate affecting a myriad of agencies. Fortunately, there are commitments to procurement reform, shared services, and intra-agency governance, which should help pave the way.

Reading through the report, you’ll find a heavy emphasis on mobile technology, which is also great to see. As our fellows are doing their research in cities across the county, mobile keeps coming up as an important consideration. What’s great is that smart design decisions can lead to mobile-apps out of the box. Our Honolulu team is taking on the weighty task of reimainging the cities website to be more cititzen and service centric. The beta is called Honolulu Answers, and modeled off of Gov.UK, instead of a complicated, link heavy webpage, users are promoted with just a search box to ask their question of the city. Leveraging responsive design principles, the site is able to function just as well in your desktop browser or your iPhone: no app store download or custom link. It just works. This makes us happy to see a commitment to responsive design — and other web forward principles– in the federal strategy. From a code, time, and money perspective, you can do more with less.

But I guess that’s why the strategy ends with this sentiment dear to our own hearts, “Ultimately, this strategy aims to be disruptive. It provides a platform to fundamentally shift how government connects with, and provides services to, the American people.” This is the closest we’ve seen a government cogently articulate the vision of government as a platform, and while there’s still work to do — fostering citizen engagement, rewiring the existing way of doing things, and replacing the vendor ecosystem to name a few — it’ll rather difficult for anyone doing this kind of work today to deny: things are changing.

So should we really expect interfaces to government that are simple, beautiful and easy to use? Yes, we should. Whether this effort works or not, that’s part of our job as citizens, to expect our government to work, to hold it accountable, and to support it to do what we need it to do.

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