Digital government: A boon for information sharing?
The federal government’s Digital Government Strategy might focus on public interactions, but it could energize information-sharing initiatives among federal agencies.
The federal government’s initiative to share more digital information with the public could come with a whopper of a fringe benefit: Better information sharing between agencies.
The Obama administration’s Digital Government Strategy, rolled out in May, is primarily seen as an effort to make it easier for individuals to navigate government services and databases online, whether through desktop computers or mobile devices.
The basic underlying principle is that the federal government should be more customer-centric,according to the strategy. In designing systems and services, federal agencies should ensure that information is "accessible, current and accurate," wherever that customer might be.
But although much of the early talk has focused on public-facing systems, the strategy assumes a broader definition of "customer."
"The customer-centric principle holds true whether our customers are internal (e.g., the civilian and military federal workforce in both classified and unclassified environments) or external (e.g., individual citizens, businesses, research organizations, and state, local, and tribal governments)," the plan states.
In the long run, this customer-centric approach could be a boon for interagency information sharing. Traditional information-sharing initiatives have focused on developing interfaces between specific agency systems.
The Digital Government Strategy moves agencies toward developing systems with information sharing in mind from Day One, in terms of both building public interfaces and developing the appropriate security and privacy protections.
So although the strategy focuses on the benefits to the general public, its major components are just as likely to benefit government "customers."
For example, the plan directs agencies developing new systems to provide Web application programming interfaces that outside developers can use to create their own systems for tapping into the underlying data.
Less than three months after the strategy’s release, the Census Bureau came out with its first public API, which allows developers to draw on the bureau’s demographic, socioeconomic and housing data. Potential customers for this data might be a business exploring a particular market or federal, state or local government researchers studying larger population trends.
The plan also puts an emphasis on providing access in the mobile environment — what’s come to be known as an anytime-anywhere-any device strategy.
Agencies are required to "mobile-enable" at least two government services within 12 months, either starting with services currently not available online or optimizing existing online services for the mobile world. From there, agencies are expected to begin exploring new ways to leverage mobile and Web-based technologies to deliver information.
The strategy recognizes that more and more people are accessing the Web through smart phones and tablet PCs rather than personal computers. By and large, federal agencies are behind the curve, but that is beginning to change with the advent of bring-your-own-device policies.
Case in point: The Agriculture Department is launching a Next Generation Mobility Solution aimed at creating an IT environment that supports users working with either their personal devices or government-furnished equipment.
"The consumerization of technology and in particular mobile devices is forcing the use of personal devices into the corporate world, significantly increasing the speed, flexibility, and agility with which the workforce can react to change," according to the request for proposals for USDA’s Next Generation Mobility Solution.
The Digital Government Strategy presents an opportunity for agencies to capitalize on that speed, flexibility and agility.
In the short term, agencies are likely to focus their energies on applications and services available to the general public. In fact, in a report released in August, the American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council observed that the strategy appears to give precedence to services for the public rather than for the federal workforce.
Still, if successful, the strategy could create a "digital government" mentality that touches on every aspect of agency operations.