Public-facing federal websites and digital services can often lag behind their private sector counterparts. A new law strives to change the status quo by promoting modernization of government agency technology and previously non-digital, paper-based processes.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif, introduced the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA) in May 2018. It passed the House on Nov. 29 and the Senate on Dec. 11 before being signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 20.
“I wanted to make sure that when every American interacts with their government, they have a positive experience,” Khanna told GovLoop. “Too many folks felt their experiences with government were outdated and not user-friendly; websites felt clunky, forms needed to be printed out, signed, and then faxed.”
Khanna noted that the legislation will facilitate the processes that the federal workforce uses to serve citizens and streamline interactions that Americans have with their government.
The 21st Century IDEA Act pushes for website modernization such that within 180 days of the law’s enactment, any new or redesigned website, web-based form, web-based application or digital service is accessible to people with disabilities, as per section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, maintains a consistent appearance, has a search function, avoids overlap with legacy websites, allows for functionality on common mobile devices, and is provided through a secure connection, among other requirements.
Within a year of the law’s enactment, the head of each executive agency must review their website or digital services and submit a report to Congress with estimated costs and a projected schedule to modernize their digital offerings.
On challenges faced pushing the legislation forward, Khanna stated: “We found a great coalition of supporters across party lines to help move this legislation. At the time, Democrats were in the minority, and thus structurally it was challenging to move legislation. Working with key Republicans like John Ratcliffe and Rob Portman helped us overcome that obstacle though. I also met and consulted with the White House Office of Innovation. They demonstrated that these issues are not partisan and that Congress can still work to pass the common-sense legislation.”
An important part of the law requires federal agencies to maintain digital versions, both online and mobile-friendly, of every in-person or paper-based government process within the agency. Within two years, any paper-based form serving the public must also be available in a digital format. However, the agency must maintain an accessible method of completing digital services for individuals who cannot use digital services.
“We know that digital interactions in federal agencies can save the taxpayer tremendous amounts of money,” Khanna said. “In the IRS, for example, in-person interactions cost over $40 on average, while digital transactions cost just $0.22 on average. The technology to make these experiences better and cheaper exist, and I felt that as the member of Congress who represents Silicon Valley, I was in a unique position to bring some of these innovations to our federal government.”
Electronic signatures are also promoted through section five of the law, which mandates that the head of each executive agency submit a plan to accelerate the use of electronic signatures within 180 days of the law’s enactment. It requires that electronic signatures align with the standards set out in the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, which was signed into law in June 2000. It “provides a general rule of validity for electronic records and signatures for transactions.”
There are requirements for chief information officers as well within the law that mainly focus on their responsibilities to “coordinate and ensure alignment of the internal and external customer experience programs and strategy of the executive agency.” They must also “continually examine the digital service delivery strategy of the executive agency to the public and submit recommendations to the head of the executive agency providing guidance and best practices suitable to the mission of the executive agency,” among others.
The last section of the law pushes for standardization between agencies, which should be coordinated by the CIO or a designated official.
“I’m confident that federal agencies will meet the requirements that are in this bill,” Khanna said. “Success will be the American citizen feeling that there is no difference between interacting with the private sector and government.”