team shares lessons learned

Learn what it took to build

It’s one of the most widely praised government sites out there, but what did it really take to build

The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board has published a white paper about the process filled with lessons learned and best practices.

Michael Wood is director of the website and says the biggest challenge he and his team faced had to do with time.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed in February, 2009, and the Office of Management and Budget mandated that reporting start in October, 2009. This didn’t give Wood and his team a lot of maneuverability.

“The timing is the real issue, and that’s where the risk comes and that’s where — from a contracting perspective — that’s where you end up sort of paying, because there’s a large amount of risk. It is very complicated. It’s not a simple website. It’s a very complicated application.”

The Board used the Alliant contract because it was seen as the most efficient way to reach out to a large number of vendors very quickly. Wood says, somewhat surprisingly, most of the contractors didn’t even reply.

“They thought the risk was too high. We worked closely with GSA. We consulted with them. If you look at the timing for most federal contracts, GSA was telling us {that} most contracts take 260 days to get in place. But they were the ones who said we should use this mechanism and we concurred with that and were able to put a contract in place very, very quickly — and it worked.”

One of the reasons the project was able to get completed so quickly had to do with the close relationship between the Board and Smartronix, though Wood says the fact that his team is really knowledgeable about IT helped, too.

“These are people in the federal space that understand IT, so this is not us just relying on contractors to tell us what’s the right thing, or did they do the right thing? Our people knew as much as they did, so we were able to form a very, very integrated team and were able to move on and solve problems that way.”

One of the more interesting aspects of is that it is the first governmentwide website to exist fully in the cloud, though it didn’t start out that way.

“We went with a traditional model basically because of the high profile of the website. If you looked at the development of it, we did a lot of development and testing in the cloud. That was what made us successful. That’s why we could do it so quickly. Then, we transitioned to the cloud this spring, and it took us about 12 weeks to do that. The interesting thing that we have that other federal sites may not have is — there’s no confidential information or personal privacy information, so we were able to not be as concerned about some of the security things that other systems may be have.”

That’s not to say the site launched without kinks. did face scrutiny when it was discovered that incorrect, and sometimes nonexistent, congressional districts were initially listed on the site. Wood explains that, though it was partially due to user error, the site needed to be fixed, as well.

“It was an obvious QA problem, which we fixed fairly quickly. We now have a US Postal Service API that, when you go into the site, if you’re in Rhode Island and you have a Rhode Island zip code, you can’t put in a Utah congressional district or more congressional districts than a state will have. . . . Part of the [problem] was the development cycle. If we had had a longer time to develop it, we might have baked some of that in early on, but we didn’t. So, as we see problems, we go in and fix them.”

Read more:

What it takes to create and run

Lessons learned from to help Treasury

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