Dan York, the director of data transparency for Office of Governmentwide Policy at GSA, said this will be the first major change to the portal since the Office of Management and Budget released it in 2009.
“We went ahead and actually split it up. We split up the back end data input from agency facing [and] from the public consumption, the external facing. So it’ll wind up being two applications. The public will only ever see the one,” York said on Ask the CIO. “But behind the scenes, there’ll be two. The IT Collect API, which will be agency-facing API-only application that is the data ingester. Then the front end will be the visualization platform, which what the public will know is the Federal IT Dashboard. When they go to ITdashboard.gov, you’ll see all the pretty pictures that the visualization platform has to offer.”
York said the new portal will follow the best practices in terms development as outlined by the U.S. Digital Services. It will use web standards, ensure 508 accessibility compliance and it should be easier to navigate, have a much improved search capability and an advanced search capability that lets users type in a keyword and then filter down by agency or by cost or by CIO rating, or whatever they want.
“If you don’t know quite what you’re looking for, but you want to see more about a thing, you can search the whole federal government’s IT portfolio for a couple of keywords and filter down to interactive visualizations. There’s the agency analysis pages that will allow the user to select data points within a set that they want to see, and which agencies they want to see the data for and then toggle on and off,” he said. “You can also create some custom visualizations or custom data sets within a range. We’re hoping it will be of great value as users will have the ability to access the data directly because we will post the API publicly.”
York added the broad goal is to make the data that the government already collects more available, more transparent, more visible and, hopefully, a little more ingestible.
An end to the data debate?
Over the years, the complaints about the IT Dashboard have mostly centered on the data, particularly the accuracy and timeliness. The Government Accountability Office and OMB sparred over the data because of OMB’s decision to withhold updates until the annual budget is made public. GAO previously said that hurt the overall effectiveness of the tool.
York said GSA hopes the new dashboard will solve some of these challenges because the previous portal basically froze during the months around annual budget process development.
“The new IT dashboard will allow agencies and OMB to more regularly update the site and allow the public to see that data,” he said. “As opposed to submitting your whole Exhibit 53 like they do now, they can send an update for just the thing that needs to be corrected or just the part that needs to be updated. Then the public can see those updates over time.”
GSA developed the new dashboard after receiving $3.5 million in the fiscal 2020 Defense authorization bill, which was part of the Office of Management and Budget’s plan to move the control and management of the dashboard to GSA.
“We spent the next year, 2021, both keeping the legacy site going and making sure it can still do its function and accepting submissions as well as planning and developing the new site. Then in 2022, we’ll be releasing the new site to the public and turning off the old one,” York said. “The most direct impact to the public will probably start in mid-March when the new site is launched.”
OMB added minor updates
The new Federal IT Dashboard will replace the one OMB launched in 2009 during the early days of the Obama administration. Over the next 12 years, OMB made some minor updates, but many believed a facelift was more than necessary.
Kris Rowley, the former chief data officer at GSA, said the dashboard is important to ensure there is transparency for IT organizations across government.
“From what I can tell, it will be more visually appealing and offer more ways to slice and dice the data,” said Rowley, who now is the chief data officer at the Conference of State Bank Supervisors. “It hopefully will give users multiple ways to see and consume data. The fact they are modernizing to use an application programming interface (API) for data collections is huge step forward. I imagine with all agencies trying to develop data standards, that had to be challenging.”
Rowley said by improving the overall visualization approach, the dashboard should be more customer friendly, whether those customers are agency CIOs or other executives, or the general public.
“If their target is to be able to make this information more consumable, they are doing the right thing. It’s knowing your audience, and that is hard,” he said. “When it started, remember it was all pie charts. There are better ways to provide information today.”
York said GSA took an agile, customer-centric approach to the upgrade.
“It was really meeting with our stakeholders and customers, testing wireframes, testing new user acceptance testing, bringing the feedback back to the developer and making changes,” he said. “We identified three primary user groups of agencies, OMB, even different factions within themselves, which is the management side and the budget side, as well as GAO. We went through wireframes with these three different user groups and various sessions. We built the wireframes into a test site and they tested it, and then we iterated on that.”
When new Federal IT Dashboard goes live soon after the White House releases President Joe Biden’s 2023 budget request, it will feature mostly capital planning and investment control (CPIC) data.
Streamlining data transparency
But York said GSA is working with OMB and agencies to identify additional data sets to add over time and connect to as a way to provide a more complete picture of federal IT spending.
“I should mention that we don’t we don’t want to be the one system to rule them all. You don’t need one dashboard that has every possible data set you could ever imagine. We do want to be the place where you can go and if we have the data great, if we don’t, we can show you where it is,” he said. “The data that we can ingest via API and display is great, otherwise hopefully we can streamline the transparency efforts more broadly.”
Rowley said he is most interested in seeing the criteria for the CIO ratings of projects using the green, yellow and red criteria.
“Identifying the risk factors that make something yellow is hard, and how do they report it publicly and how do they articulate that it’s yellow? Are they going to put information out that for how they will course correct?” he said. “Too often projects go from green to red, but yellow is critical to how you course correct. It also tells you a lot about the IT organization in how they course correct. To have so many green and red projects is not as useful if they don’t articulate what makes something yellow and what is process for improving health of the project.”
York said GSA will continue to iterate the dashboard after the initial launch, including offering an advanced version for agencies using Technology Business Management (TBM) framework and other data.