Digital Government

It's about the customers, not the stakeholders

18F's Greg Godbout

Greg Godbout wants citizens to enjoy a Disneyesque interaction with the federal government. (Image: LinkedIn)

How could the federal government be more like Disney World?

That was the question that framed the digital service-centered roundtable discussions between industry players and government representatives at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association's (AFCEA) monthly breakfast Tuesday morning.

Greg Godbout, the Presidential Innovation Fellow and 18F pioneer who now serves as the Environmental Protection Agency' chief technology officer, took the stage to set the tone.

Wearing jeans and a T-shirt in front of a sea of suits, Godbout recounted his recent family trip to Disney World, where 's "Magic Band" wearable allows guests to do everything from purchase items to open hotel doors with a wave of the hand.

"Every aspect of your experience with Disney World is part of one seamless organic digital service, " Godbout said. “That's how we should be able to interact with government, but we are so far from that.”

Recalling government co-workers who responded, "It's ok, we're federal employees, we're used to bad systems," Godbout said, "That day has to end."

He said the "cone of uncertainty" -- the demonstrated concept that early in a project's lifecycle estimates will often be wildly off-base, only becoming more accurate roughly one-third of the way into the project -- shows the lunacy of inflexibly relying on upfront estimates.

"This is why you see failure rates for federal IT systems in the 80 to 90 percent range," he said.

Most of all, he urged agencies to serve customers, not stakeholders.

"The goal of digital service should be to disappoint stakeholders," he quipped. "My entire career in the federal government has been disappointing stakeholders, and I see that as leading the way to success."

The roundtable discussions that followed included government reps from a wide range of agencies.

Emily Wright Moore, a U.S. Digital Service designer working with the Department of Veterans Affairs, argued that the VA must work toward a single logon for users accessing services, and she noted that legacy systems are a huge burden forcing personnel to learn "four systems instead of one."

Charles Sanders, an IT security incident response manager at Goddard Space Flight Center, spoke to the difficulties of procuring American-made technology in the "Made in China" era and the insanity of three-year federal budget cycles.

He called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' and FBI's approach to enabling employees to use their own devices for work "the greatest thing since sliced bread."

And on the subject of federal agencies' often lackluster delivery of web services, he echoed Godbout's exhortation: "You have to get in bed with your customer."

About the Author

Zach Noble is a staff writer covering digital citizen services, workforce issues and a range of civilian federal agencies.

Before joining FCW in 2015, Noble served as assistant editor at the viral news site TheBlaze, where he wrote a mix of business, political and breaking news stories and managed weekend news coverage. He has also written for online and print publications including The Washington Free Beacon, The Santa Barbara News-Press, The Federalist and Washington Technology.

Noble is a graduate of Saint Vincent College, where he studied English, economics and mathematics.

Click here for previous articles by Noble, or connect with him on Twitter: @thezachnoble.


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