Rep. Connolly: Expect ‘scattered compliance’ with IDEA Act deadlines

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Agencies have about a month to deliver a website modernization strategy to Congress, one of several major due dates for the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience (IDEA) Act.

But Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s subcommittee on government operations, said he’s not expecting to see a comprehensive plan from every agency before the deadline.

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What Connolly does expect, however, is a rollout of the law similar to efforts to implement his signature bill, the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) nearly five years ago.

“Candidly, I don’t think there’ll be mass compliance. There will be scattered compliance,” he said last Friday. “The deadline will spur some agencies to realize they have to do something. We saw that with the data center consolidation. What it spurred was a more accurate count of how many do we have.”

Because of those parallels between FITARA and the IDEA Act, Connolly said it would be “perfectly logical” to add an IDEA Act grade to the ever-evolving FITARA scorecard.

“People don’t like coming to Congress and getting an F or D-minus,” Connolly said at an event at Brightspot’s Reston, Virginia office. “It’s embarrassing. And many who are reform-minded, who want to get right with the program, use the scorecard internally to say to the managers, ‘We’ve got to do better, and here’s a plan to do it.’”

Rather than just flunk poor performers, Connolly said giving agencies a letter grade on websites’ modernization efforts would give chief information officers and their staff metrics to show agency leadership.

“There are a lot of reform-minded people who want tools and ammunition to be able to wage the good fight. So we’re trying to help them. We’re trying to be allies to them in that cause, so that they can chalk up more successes within their agency,” he said.

In order to get momentum on website modernization, Connolly said Congress should also look at follow-up legislation aimed at providing more incentives to agencies who comply with deadlines, rather than just punitive measures.

And in some cases, persistence pays off. Next month, the government operations subcommittee will hold its ninth follow-up hearing on FITARA, which Connolly said sends a clear message to agencies that IT oversight is here to stay.

“In case you think Congress passed a bill, and we’re done, think again,” he said. “We are persistent in seeing this implemented and working with you, working with GAO and holding people accountable,” Connolly said.

Former Federal CIO Officer Tony Scott said when Congress passed FITARA in 2014, it started a conversation in the CIO community on accountability and metrics.

In particular, that conversation focused on getting an accurate count of agency data centers before moving onto the law’s central goal of consolidating them.

With that FITARA analogy in mind, Scott said CIOs looking to get moving on the IDEA Act should start by understanding the scope of their problem.

“I think that’s where it all starts. If you want to modernize websites, you’ve got to know how many you have, and you’ve got to know who’s responsible for them. You’ve got to know a lot about what you have before you can hope to change it,” Scott said.

The suggestion of adding an IDEA Act grade to the FITARA scorecard dates back to at least this summer, when Kevin Walsh, the Government Accountability Office’s FITARA executive, said future scorecards might include a grade for the law.

By Dec. 20, agencies must submit their plans to Congress on how to modernize their websites. The law also mandates that agencies make all paper-based forms available in an electronic format before the end of 2020.

The law’s first major deadline passed in June, when agencies were supposed to submit a draft a plan on how to broaden the use of electronic signatures.

The law also requires agencies to adhere to the General Services Administration’s Web Design System standards for website design, in order to give “.gov” websites a common look and feel.

But aside from templates and layout, Scott said agencies should build websites that point users in the right direction of the services that they’re looking for, and not bureaucratic details like org charts.

“The world doesn’t think in org chart terms. When I go to a government website, I don’t care how government is organized, I want the information that I’m looking for. When I go to a private sector website, or I go to Amazon, I don’t want to see their departments,” Scott said. “Any time that is reflected on your webpage, you automatically should get a zero, because it doesn’t reflect what the consumer’s interested in. It doesn’t reflect what you’re customers are looking for.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs, in recent years, has gone through several website overhauls. In 2015, the VA launched Vet.gov, a one-stop shop for veterans to navigate the same services that had previously existed on approximately 1,000 agency websites.

More recently, however, the agency has scrapped Vets.gov and migrated those services to an overhauled VA.gov. Following that website migration, the VA saw an uptick in online health applications.

While Connolly suggested that agency CIOs come together to identify agency best practices on improved digital services, Scott said cloud migration could be a “golden opportunity” to help agencies streamline their delivery of permits, appointments, loans and more.

“Today, all of those systems are uniquely created at a micro-level in every agency in the federal government. [That] sounds like a great opportunity for a cloud platform to me,” Scott said. “That could do 80% of the work that those systems do, and leave 20% for customization with the agency logo, or whatever it happens to be, to support their truly unique agency needs.”

But until it moves to the cloud, legacy case management systems at the IRS, for example, can’t communicate with each other. Those siloed systems prevent the agency from having what former National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson called a “360-degree view” of taxpayer services.

“Call the IRS today with a question — call six times and get six different people, and tell me how consistent the answers are,” Connolly said. “If you get it wrong, you can be audited. If you really get it wrong, you can go to jail. So there’s a lot riding on those answers, but the consistency is simply not there.”

In other cases, agencies can find it difficult to budget for multi-year website projects. The Technology Modernization Fund, however, loaned the Agriculture Department $10 million to revamp Farmers.gov to deliver “seamless service across our agencies.”

But the future of the fund’s resources hangs in the balance. The House approved a spending package for fiscal 2020 that would give the Technology Modernization Fund $35 million, while the Senate approved a deal that would give the fund no additional money.

While House and Senate lawmakers expect to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government running through Dec. 20, Connolly said that he’ll “continue to fight” for TMF funding.

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