Federal IT setup: ‘It’ll kill us!’

The government has made progress in the last 15 years, but it's nowhere near a fully digital model.

An old idea for improving service to the citizen is getting a dusting off. In fact, those in the know are shoving aside the term itself, “citizen service.” The new word:  customer experience.

The notion goes something like  this. From the point of view of online visitors, the government should look as if it’s designed for what those visitors want. You want to start a business, and it might require dealing with five federal agencies. The idea says people shouldn’t have to know the complicated organizational chart of the government to navigate through what they want to get done. The idea took hold back in the President’s Management Agenda of President George W. Bush (page 24).

Fulfillment might be elusive, but the idea compels. Among the seven sets of recommendations it’s preparing for the next administration, the ACT-IAC government-industry group includes this: “Federal, state, local, and tribal government systems should reflect customers’ ‘life events, not agency structure.'” This particular chapter was principally authored by Martha Dorris, who before retiring from government worked in the Office of Integrated Technology Services at the GSA, where she was focused on citizen service, er, customer experience.

The introduction to the paper states, “Citizens live lives, have needs, and are frustrated when they interact with their government because it is complex, uncoordinated, and prone to error.” That’s all true. Yet Social Security, IRS, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and a host of others with whom a person might interact directly still largely exist as separate islands.

To its credit, the often-overlooked USA.gov leads — often through four or five clicks deep — to some semblance of integrated service, such as for federal benefits. The government also operates Benefits.gov. But that exposes the tendency, accelerated under the Obama administration, to launch a new, non-agency dot-gov for everything that comes along — Benefits.gov, HealthCare.gov. Login.gov, Data.gov, Studentloans.gov, Grants.gov, USASpending.gov, Cancer.gov, This.gov, That.gov. Each may be self-justifying, but added up they produce a new brand of confusion.

The government has made progress in 15 years, but it’s nowhere near a fully digital model.

One underlying factor still contributes much to how slow digital integration moves is this: Information systems are still mostly owned and operated agency-by-agency. That adds expense and complexity to building cross-agency applications, either by the government or private developers.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have pulled on agencies to increase shared services in an endless tug-of-war. Agencies have been dragged closer to shared services, but they haven’t collapsed into the real mud of it.

In other words, the so-called stovepipe nature of federal agencies proves remarkably durable.

At the ACT-IAC’s executive leadership conference earlier this week, federal Chief Information Officer Tony Scott remarked on this very phenomenon. He said, “Organizing our IT by org chart is just horrendous. It’ll kill us.”

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