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By Bill Brantley
July 21, 2015
Rebooting the digital infrastructure of the federal government is one of those thankless tasks with low visibility but is vitally important. This may be the most enduring legacy of President Obama’s administration; if he can accomplish this Herculean task.
Toward this end, the Presidential Innovation Fellows were created and is now housed in the cool-sounding government startup – 18F. 18F is part of the larger U.S. Digital Service and was created through the recruiting efforts of President Obama and his Chief Technology Officer, Todd Parks. The idea is to recruit the technology stars from Google, Facebook and the other successful West Coast technology companies to lend their expertise to federal agencies. If it worked for Facebook then why not for the government?
Sales are at the heart of the successful Internet companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. Ninety percent of Google’s revenue comes from selling ads. It is true that Google is innovative and funds many worthy projects. Even so, Google became the company it is today because it monetized search. Google, Amazon, Facebook and the other tech companies have perfected the art of compelling users to click on advertisements, games and other money-making applications.
The 18F techies bring this customer service mindset to federal agencies. This is not a bad thing and agencies can certainly improve their customer service. However, the government is more than a vending machine where tax dollars go in and services come out. I realize that not all 18F techies have the government vending machine perspective. Some see government as “a vehicle for coordinating the collective action of citizens.”
However, do the federal agencies see government as a platform or as a vending machine? Because of Obama Administration directives to improve customer service, it is easier to improve the delivery of government services with a new app or a more user-friendly website. Improve the user experience (UX) and maybe citizens will not notice that behind the easy-to-use mobile app is the same old Weberian bureaucratic process.
There is a rare opportunity to improve not just the UX for the American public but to improve the citizen experience (CX). Much has been written about the dangers of the disconnect between the American government and its citizens. Could realizing government as a platform with the opportunities for citizen collaboration: agile, transparent government processes and real-time performance reporting repair this disconnect?
The U.S. Digital Service is a necessary catalyst for helping agencies to improve citizen experience and creating government as a platform. The next step is to replicate the 18F model in the agencies. Rebooting the various digital infrastructures of the agencies is going to take a concentrated effort with close collaborations between technology experts and the agency’s subject matter experts. There is no one government digital infrastructure but a collection of infrastructures with different architectures, capabilities and limitations. Centralizing legacy digital infrastructures will be resource-intensive, take many years and diverts attention from the real issue of providing a better citizen experience.
The better alternative is to work with the existing agency technologies to improve the citizen experience. Cloud technologies allow agencies to transition smoothly from building and supporting massive information technology (IT) infrastructures to having their digital infrastructure supplied as a service. Moving to the cloud will relieve agencies of the burden of maintaining legacy digital infrastructures. Then, agencies can free up resources to focus on their mission and improve the citizen experience. This will require not only technological expertise but also communication expertise, strategy expertise and public policy expertise. All this expertise can be found in agencies now; it just has to be coordinated and focused toward the goal of improving citizen experience.
The greater lesson that government can learn from the technology startups is not how to modernize a digital infrastructure or create an app. Some government agencies already do a fine job with their infrastructure (NASA for example) or building mobile apps (the Department of Labor and the Census Bureau are major innovators in developing apps). What the technology experts from 18F can teach agencies is how to use design thinking and user experience concepts to develop the citizen experience field. Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Amazon and other technology companies have valuable lessons on how to use technology to encourage people to collaborate, contribute and coordinate around a common shared purpose. The technology companies used these user experience techniques to grow into multi-billion dollar companies. Maybe these same techniques can also be used to improve how government agencies operate and provide a better citizen experience for the American public.
Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Maryland (College Park), George Mason University and the University of Louisville. He is also a former Federal government employee. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. He can be reached at http://about.me/bbrantley.