Federal leaders overwhelmingly are excited and see the value in moving their agencies toward a more digital existence. But a new survey by the National Academy of Public of Administration and ICF International finds the majority of federal respondents need help to make lasting change to their agency’s services.
And that help is coming from the Office of Management and Budget.
Over the next few months, OMB will update two recent handbooks to help agencies adopt digital practices and take advantage of existing authorities under the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR).
Beth Cobert, the deputy director for management at OMB, said the administration has to help agencies get the skills and capabilities to move to a digital world more quickly and improve the quality.
To that end, Cobert said an updated Digital Services Playbook is coming very soon.
“We’ve received 100 comments of proposed changes to the playbook ranging from ways to improve the security of the site to making the playbook language more in plain English,” Cobert said Tuesday at an event sponsored by NAPA and ICF in Washington. “Using open tools like GitHub, one that I now use myself, has helped us to expand to a whole new audience of citizen Web developers, designers and writers — people who are outside of the federal sphere, but who can make meaningful contributions to strengthen our work. As one example, one of the commentators we heard from was a professional copy editor, who just happened to find the playbook on GitHub and decided voluntarily to use her skill to make a small public service contribution. She’s not a federal employee. She’s not a contractor. She’s an American citizen who wanted to help us create a playbook that is easier for everyone to understand. We’ve already incorporated many of her comments and those from others and plan to include more when we release next version of the playbook later this month.”
OMB created the USDS at the same time it released the two documents, and GSA launched 18F in March.
Cobert said these two organizations are part of how OMB is trying to tackle in multiple ways the challenge of ensuring employees have the skills necessary to implement digital services successfully.
“What we saw, for example, is when you can get some folks like the talented folks in Mikey Dickerson’s USDS team or in 18F is that a small number of people working with a larger number of people who are already here can actually transform those capabilities,” she said. “It’s explicitly part of their mission to not just to make improvements in the IT projects, but to help build the capabilities of the people we are working with. That’s, for example, one of the reasons that we started to do the work with the Veterans Affairs Department and to have a group of people inside the agency who are working day to day with their colleagues who want to do something different but may not have the skills to do it.”
Cobert said USDS is using the “train-the-trainer” approach to help spread the concepts of agile development and dev/ops.
“You work with somebody great, you see a different way of doing things and you then can translate to your team,” she said. “There is another component that we are working on in terms of actual training and capabilities. How do we bring some people in, get then trained up, increase their skills and awareness of what tools like agile are and how they are applied, and have actual training programs both on the acquisition side and on the IT side?”
OMB is working with the Chief Information Officers and Chief Acquisition Officers councils to develop these training programs. This workforce challenge is going to be a big part of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy’s priorities this year, Cobert said.
All of these efforts are part of the administration continued efforts to shift the government to a digital environment.
The White House first launched the Digital Government Strategy in 2012, followed with an assortment of initiatives, including mobile security baseline, the open data policy and much more.
Lack of communication hampers digital government
But even with all of these efforts, the NAPA and ICF survey of 500 federal managers who at least had the grade of GS-13 found broad and strong support for digital services and the use of mobile devices. But 65 percent of respondents said they don’t know if their agency has a documented digital strategy, or if it was implemented.
That was hugely surprising, said Sally Selden, a professor of Business and Economics at Lynchburg College, an academy fellow and former Government Accountability Office auditor.
“If you separate the sample into two groups, those who are involved in procurement and those that are not, for those federal leaders who are not, that percentage goes up to 75 percent,” she said. “The question raised by one of my colleagues in the audience here was how many agencies have actually adopted digital strategies? There wasn’t a clear response to that. There was a lot of uncertainty to what those strategies are and whether or not they are being implemented. Perhaps they are out there, but our survey doesn’t discern whether or not the strategies exist. What our survey demonstrates is people are unaware whether they exist and are being implemented.”
Additionally, the survey found 66 percent didn’t know if their agency is satisfied with the return on investment for digital technology, and 56 percent were not aware if or how their agency measures it.
There also is a lack of understanding — about 33 percent — about whether their employees or citizen or business customers are satisfied with how they are implementing digital technologies.
The NAPA ICF survey makes recommendations for each of their conclusions and they are all something agencies can do without legislation or policy changes.
IRS to move more services online
The IRS is one of a handful of agencies who has moved to the digital world successfully.
“At the IRS, we don’t really approach it as how do we have a digital strategy. Instead it’s really intended to be an enabler of conducting our mission,” said Peggy Sherry, the IRS deputy commissioner for operations support. “If agencies can look at it that way instead as opposed to an end in and of itself, then it becomes a whole lot easier for them to figure out how to incorporate it into their job.”
Sherry said the tax agency’s goal is to get more and more taxpayers to voluntarily comply with filing their taxes.
“Our job is to be able to make it as easy as possible for people to comply to reduce the tax burden, and to really look at ways to be able to deliver that mission in a way that does increase our return on investment,” she said. “What we do is look at a digital strategy of moving more of our services from people based or from bricks and mortar based to actually allowing people to be able to move online.”
Sherry said that end state means redesigning the business process with privacy, cybersecurity, mission, human resources and other experts in the room from the beginning. The focus has to be on what will give the agency the biggest return on investment and not what is most exciting or what is hot at that moment.
She said the IRS is breaking down the silos to talk about all these issues.
“We have actually an online services group that does nothing but really look at innovation. How’s Capitol One, for instance, doing it? How’s the Social Security Administration doing it? Really going out there and looking at the digital best practices,” Sherry said. “And then you have the business at the table. At the end of the day, we are only doing this because of the customer experience, the taxpayer experience, and how do you ultimately have those groups together, including public affairs to talk about the communications piece of it. That’s how the IRS approaches it. It’s not really driven out of one office ever. Each one brings their technical expertise into the conversation, ultimately still all rallying around what that end state is that you are looking for.”
Sherry said this online services group is on the business side, not technology side of the agency.
The IRS also is working with SSA on ideas or best practices they can share as well as a common identity management authentication system.
Sherry said over the short term the IRS is updating its strategic plan to include its digital strategy. She said in the near term the IRS would like to make it easier for taxpayers to pay what they owe to the government as well as sign up for installment plans online.
Sherry said over the long term, the IRS would like to have fewer personal touches with the taxpayer so, for instance, they can do corrections online.
And of course, the IRS budget challenges will impact these efforts, especially when it comes to moving legacy back-end systems into this digital environment.