So far, digital services have fizzled

Some federal agencies are struggling mightily to move from the e-gov era into the age of so-called digital services. They want to move from workable online transactions to data-driven “user experiences” — especially if leavened with a dash of artificial intelligence.

The distinctions sound like typical IT jargon but, in fact, there is a difference. Think of the online experience you have now with the sharpest online vendors. They know your history, your preferences, allied products you might want, even supplied from other sources but integrated into their site. They can anticipate your needs such as when you need refills or replacements of whatever.

Sometimes you get messages like, “It looks like you’re trying to…”

Big difference from the early “pet toys dot-com” days when it seemed miraculous to order and pay for things online in one-to-one, tunnel-like connections. That’s the era the government remains stuck in for the most part. You do VA business at VA.gov, IRS stuff at IRS.gov, Social Security matters at SocialSecurity.gov.

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This came to mind the other day in two interviews. Zack Rosenburg is the founder of a housing disaster recovery nonprofit in New Orleans. In my interview, he suggests having people pre-signed up for FEMA relief, rather than having them sign up in the confusing aftermath of a flood. He says this could be accomplished through IRS records.

I asked about this in an interview with Deputy Director Joe Nimmich. He says FEMA doesn’t have the capacity to register everyone in a state, just in case a disaster hits here or there. What sane agency head would agree to take on a project like adding millions of people to eligibility roles without any prospect that most of them would ever need your services?

But FEMA wouldn’t have to undertake this work in a digital services model. An algorithm would flag eligible people using data the government already has. Among them, agencies know where everyone lives, whether their home is in a flood zone, whether they have flood insurance, and whatever other factors go into determining eligibility. The emergency worker on the ground would poke a Social Security number or some other identifier into a mobile device and voila — your temporary mobile home is that way.

Since the first digital government strategy came out back in 2012, not a ton has happened, frankly. The General Services Administration’s 18F group — those Millennial smarty pants — got a comeuppance from the GSA’s always-dangerous inspector general for spending too much, hiring too fast, and generally mismanaging things. Fair enough. 18F’s losses, at $33 million in the last fiscal year, qualify as non-trivial for GSA. But compare that to the administration’s pushing for a $3 billion IT modernization fund, in part so the digital services model might flourish with up-to-date systems.

Silicon Valley being the current shiny thing, GSA is doubling down by hiring a Pixar executive, Rob Cook, to run its Technology Transformation Service — two weeks before the presidential election. We’ll see how that goes.

A digital services approach won’t come from GSA or the White House or any external group. It has to start with program managers and their ability to imagine how digital services could improve what they deliver to their constituents. Or how it could create whole new service. Add their ability to marshal the data and services outside of their direct control and convince political leadership to go along. Do that, and the coding is relatively easy.

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