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The digital government Americans deserve

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Americans are turning to digital solutions for everything from banking services to healthcare to travel. Yet despite large investments by the U.S. government in digital technologies, government continues to lag behind. As a result, U.S. citizens have very low levels of satisfaction and confidence in the government's ability to deliver services that meet their needs and expectations, according to a 2014 Accenture study. If the new administration wants to make the U.S. government a leader in information technology and innovation, here are five strategies that can help build a digital government that Americans deserve.

1. Provide improved digital government experiences

The first step agencies should take is focusing on the digital experiences of their customers. One of the biggest expenses in government budgets is the amount of money spent supporting an application or enrollment process, such as getting a license or applying for a program. The average online digital transaction costs about 10 cents, while an in-person transaction cost $35 or more. To help reduce these costs and deliver better services to citizens, all forms and transactions should be able to be completed on a desktop and mobile device online.

Another way agencies can streamline processes is ensuring they are 100 percent digital, including digital signatures. By adopting electronic signature solutions, government employees and citizens can sign documents and forms from anywhere using a browser or mobile device, reducing costs and improving workflows -- two goals that every government leader wants to achieve.

Many of these recommendations are already outlined in the Office of Management and Budget Circular A-130, the Government Paperwork Elimination Act and the E-SIGN Act, but they have yet to be fully implemented. This is why it is critical for OMB to develop a "digital experience" report card that agencies would be required to submit on a regular basis that could measure progress and user satisfaction around these topics: Website and Forms optimization, Digital Analytics, Personalization, Mobile Targeting and Messaging, and Digital Asset Management. This report card should add specific metrics that define a modern digital experience. OMB might also think about mandating that agencies create a "Digital Experience Officer" to help improve citizen services and internal operations via digital tools.

2. Consider TCO and commercially proven tech

Over the last eight years we have seen an increase in government agencies bypassing commercial offerings in favor of custom-developed solutions that are more expensive, not as functional, take longer to implement and lock the government into the trap of never-ending modernization cycles. This is especially true for large, complex IT modernization initiatives with significant operating and maintenance costs. In fact, most agencies spend approximately 80 percent of their total IT budget on maintaining legacy systems, according to Government Accountability Office and the Information Technology Industry Council.

Instead, agencies should consider the total cost of ownership and commercially proven technology as the first choice when making procurement decisions. The commercial sector often delivers superior digital experiences that are easier to maintain over time for less money while providing support and maintenance, thereby reducing the demand on the government IT workforce. Leveraging proven commercially available technologies that have been deployed at scale and incorporate years of innovation will create the most operationally efficient government. At the end of the day, the focus must be on acquiring the best solution to meet the long-term needs of government and the people it serves.

Government should also encourage the use of open development and open standards, like those of the World Wide Web Consortium, when acquiring information technology to the maximum extent practicable. These standards ensure the sharing of data, prevent vendor lock-in, and enable interoperability between systems and technologies. The result? Government technology becomes more effective, regardless of the development process.

3. Reform FedRAMP and make cloud adoption easier

The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program was created to accelerate the federal government's adoption of cloud computing. Unfortunately, nearly five years after the program's launch, government has not fully realized its potential despite the numerous benefits of migrating to the cloud, such as reduced costs from sharing services and infrastructure.

If FedRAMP and cloud adoption are to be successful, several changes must be made that improve utilization and efficiency. First, Congress should give FedRAMP statutory approval to ensure its continuation and better outline its responsibilities. Second, FedRAMP should be integrated into the acquisition process to ensure cloud purchases meet federal standards. Additionally, operational guidance should be issued by the General Services Administration requiring any system that handles or is expected to handle sensitive information, including Personally Identifiable Information, Personal Health Information, and National Security/law enforcement data processed or stored by government agencies must reside in FedRAMP compliant systems. Finally, FedRAMP guidance should be revised to establish clearly that certain systems, including those that handle low value, publicly available or non-confidential information (or anonymized data), do not need to reside upon FedRAMP-certified systems.

4. Provide data-centric security solutions

Cybersecurity threats have dramatically increased over the last few years. The ever-changing cyber landscape requires that federal agencies take a multi-layered approach to information security, evolving beyond network protection to include new layers of defense at the data-level, otherwise known as data-centric security.

To improve data-centric security for government, we should:

  • Deploy "Data Protection" capabilities to all federal .gov civilian agencies by accelerating the new FY2017 DHS Continuous Diagnostics & Mitigation Phase 4 budget request. Capabilities such as digital rights management should prioritize high-value assets to protect the government's most sensitive data.
  • Incorporate data-centric security requirements to persistently protect information independent of storage and transport into future revisions of the government-wide requirements from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

5. Change the way IT is funded

One of the first priorities of the new administration should be the passage and implementation of the bipartisan Modernizing Government Technology Act. The MGT Act would establish two working capital funds for overhauling legacy systems: one for each covered agency and a mega-fund at OMB with government-wide authority. These funds would together help agencies migrate from existing legacy IT systems and accelerate digital modernization initiatives.

Now is the time for agencies to reevaluate the way they have been doing IT. We are at a tipping point in terms of how governments engage with the public, so IT leaders need to modernize their agencies and adopt digital capabilities to keep up with citizen expectations. If our nation's new leadership wants to truly transform the way government operates, overhauling its legacy IT systems is the place to start.

About the Author

John Landwehr is VP and public sector CTO, Adobe.

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