Clear business cases, careful user interviews and strategic outside alliances can be far more important than the technology itself.
Digital government is that rare priority from the Obama administration that has been embraced and emphasized by President Donald Trump's team. Yet agencies continue to confront a range of budgetary, cultural and operational obstacles.
According to the digital services experts recently convened by FCW, however, the technology is rarely the trouble, and analog considerations are always the most important.
The Sept. 13 discussion was on the record but not for individual attribution (see below for a list of participants), and the quotes included below have been edited for length and clarity. Here are the highlights.
The first challenge: Defining digital
Digital government initiatives rarely get traction without stakeholder buy-in, and the discussion participants acknowledged that there are still differing interpretations of just what is being bought into.
"In my current environment, it's all about things online," one longtime digital specialist said. "What's the strategy for the ecosystem online? In other areas that I've been, that's not how they define it."
"We all have different interpretations," another agreed, adding that her agency views digital offerings primarily as a means of enabling customers to self-serve and reducing the load for call centers and in-person support.
A third participant stressed self-service of a different sort. "Digital is taking things that had not been searchable before electronically and turning that into searchable information that can be accessed using a range of digital tools so that we can find our own information better," he said, "so that we can analyze it more effectively with digital tools and aggregate it. It's that whole range of things that can be done with information that is now in electronic form."
That analysis is critical for agencies and citizens, another participant said. Digital initiatives can "use data to actually drive conversations and…have a huge impact on what we are asking the public to submit to us," she said. "When you have paper forms, you have to fill out everything because each form is its own thing. When you have digital forms, you can start to change to the mindset that we're collecting pieces of data."
How to make the business case
Top digital talent and dedicated funding are still tough to come by, but most participants said it was surprisingly easy to craft a compelling business case. The key is to focus on the mission impact, not the specific technologies behind those changes.
Several noted that digital is by far the most cost-efficient channel for engaging with customers. "Walk-ins, for us, are somewhere in the $60 range," one executive said. "Phones are $30. Digital is less than a dollar. It doesn't take a lot of math to see that."
And oftentimes, the returns are more significant than per-customer savings. One participant cited a Transportation Department effort to digitize the data that logs safety problems with truck drivers and their vehicles. When those records were on paper, he said, "bad actors [were] essentially spoofing identity to stay on the road."
Now, DOT is "quantifying lives saved, based on the data that we have on accident rates associated with the bad actors," he said. "What's interesting is we had to coax that out of them. I think they were so enamored with, 'We are moving to the cloud. Isn't it great?' It turns out they had a better story than they thought to tell."
Others, however, spoke of the challenge of finding the money to deliver needed functionality. Digital Freedom of Information Act services, for example, don't save lives or deliver significant cost savings, and a simpler process for FOIA requesters can actually increase agencies' workload and expenses.
"If you're not getting fee-for-service, you do have to struggle with funding and prioritizing the use of the money that you have," one participant said.
On occasion, Congress legislates the business case. Another participant pointed to the database that was built to help screen visa applicants after dangerous individuals were allowed into the country because the old microfiche-based "watch list" was impossible to keep current. Congress passed a law mandating a globally accessible, real-time database and authorized a fee-for-service model to help fund it.
Digital Services Expert, Office of Management and Budget
Senior Advisor, Consumer Engagement and Education, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Assistant Director for Communications, Census Bureau
Partner, Public Sector Digital Strategy and Design, IBM Global Business Services
Senior Advisor for Innovation, Department of State
Acting Director of Digital Strategy, Department of the Interior
Director, Office of eDiplomacy, Department of State
Director, Online Engagement, Operations and Media, Internal Revenue Service
Associate CIO for IT Policy and Oversight, Department of Transportation
Executive Director, VA Digital Service, Department of Veterans Affairs
Senior Advisor, Department of Veterans Affairs
Associate Director, Customer Service and Public Engagement Directorate, Citizenship and Immigration Services
Director, Product Management and Strategy/Operations Community of Practice, U.S. Digital Service
Director, Office of Information Policy, Department of Justice
Virtual Student Foreign Service Coordinator, Department of State
Digital Engagement Lead, Department of Education
Susan E. Wedge
Vice President and Partner, IBM Global Business Services
Note: FCW Editor-in-Chief Troy K. Schneider led the roundtable discussion. The Sept. 13 gathering was underwritten by IBM, but both the substance of the discussion and the recap on these pages are strictly editorial products. Neither IBM nor any of the roundtable participants had input beyond their Sept. 13 comments.
At the other end of the spectrum, that official said, are the smaller digital projects that border on shadow IT. Such projects are relatively inexpensive and "so close to the business end that the business owners don't engage with the systems side as much as they used to because they don't need to," he said. The challenge is avoiding more of the silos and duplication that digital services teams are trying to erase.
Those teams rarely have such budgetary reserves, however, and multiple participants said it's more difficult to fund tools that facilitate their work across multiple projects than it is to fund a single initiative.
"Internally, we don't have the resources we need to be efficient and effective," one said. "The collaboration tools that help an office get a policy form and the outreach associated with it in three months,…that's an amorphous thing. It's made it hard for us to justify internal collaboration tools that build efficiency for all the different things we do."
Don't forget the internal customers
Roundtable participants also said agencies too often overlook their own employees and focus solely on outside customers. But internal processes can offer some of the clearest returns on a digital investment.
"I think digital presents a really interesting opportunity to better align our portfolios with the service that we're providing," one participant said. "A lot of times, we think of digital as this very front-of-stage conversation. How do we use digital as a way to get to the backstage aspects? Whether it is the tools that we design for the employees to process the thing, or potentially, how do we let computers do what computers do really well and save the hard, human-facing stuff for humans?"
Moreover, with employee-facing systems, "you can quantify the inefficiency and the cost of inefficiency in real numbers," another said. "If you know you have 100 GS-10s doing the same thing and it takes them two hours to do a task instead of 30 minutes, that's actual, tangible money."
Recognize when you're not so special
Another key to maximizing digital's impact is borrowing from previous projects rather than reinventing every wheel, participants said.
"There's a mysticism that we are allowing to fester around some projects in government," one executive said, "as though every single project is entirely boutique, when in fact a lot of these operations look very similar."
When it comes to call-center systems, web-based tools that monitor an application's status and other common needs, "these are problems that we probably need to figure out how to templatize to some extent," he added.
"Reaching out is something I think we often forget," another executive said. "We don't have to recreate the build every time. Pick up the phone and call."
She acknowledged, however, that one must first know whom to ask. "I wish there was a better destination where we could share all of our information in some sort of knowledge base," she said. "We don't really have anything like that across the government."
"We need an integrator," another participant said. "We need somebody who is responsible for looking at what we all have in common, in terms of systems, and how do we integrate to make sure that we're learning from each other, that we're not reinventing what has already been invented."
The value of outside allies
And if agencies are slow to ask other agencies for help, they're often outright opposed to looking outside government. That's a mistake, several participants said, because many associations and other intermediaries have sprung up because the federal government's customer experience is so bad, and they have valuable insights into what changes are most needed.
"There are organized groups out there who actually have a decent handle on customer needs," one participant said — from veterans organizations to transportation associations to the tax-preparation industry. Such groups often "have an ax to grind, so you have to be careful about that, but they're essentially a part of the value chain."
"You don't necessarily have to disintermediate them," another participant said of such groups. "There's a case to be made to do that over time, but for a little while anyway, take advantage of the fact that they're there and pump them for all they're worth. Don't treat them as enemies."
Don't do digital for digital's sake
More than anything, success depends on seeing digital as a means to a mission end, not as a goal in itself, participants said.
"I'm not going to call out my agency as a shining example of everything being perfect," one executive said, "but we have an experience office and we are doing a lot of research to connect everything that we are doing with the people we are serving. I think that's changing some of the thinking about modernization — whether it is legacy system modernization or digital modernization. [We're asking] how do we transform the agency and do it from a customer perspective, not how do we make this thing shinier or digitize it."
In addition, she said, "sometimes we open too many doors, digitally speaking. You have all of these different channels, but really, it isn't about creating all of these open doors. It's about really, truly managing the quality of the information that you provide, even if you only do three. The biggest challenge is to make sure that the data fits the experience and is consistent across all channels. Otherwise, we're defeating the purpose."
A digital specialist from a much smaller organization agreed and said agencies of all sizes can fall into that trap. And although there will always be calls for additional features and digital functionality, she said, "the simplest, hardest thing in the world is to tell the truth. That includes saying things like, 'This is a crappy contract,' 'You bought the wrong thing,' or 'You're two years down the road building something and you never talked to the users.' Just being able to stand up and say that is a nontechnical, very difficult, extremely valuable component of making digital services succeed."
Remember: Technology is the easy part
Almost to a person, the roundtable participants agreed that culture and change management, not technology and digital strategy, are the true hurdles.
"The business rules and the intricacies of the agency work that we do really has to be sort of constrained and [reexamined] to really deliver those experiences down the road because you can't solve those unless you really tackle the underbelly of it," one official said.
A participant who has worked at multiple agencies said another key challenge comes back budgeting. "There are different offices that own different touchpoints," she said. "One office owns one interaction, and they are all building their own thing. That one touchpoint may be fine, but in the context of the whole experience, maybe we're asking the same question 15 times. If you're thinking in silos, you're never going to get to that true digital strategy."
And although the Trump administration has praised the power of digital transformation, several participants said tangible support has been harder to find. They bemoaned the many vacancies, from federal CIO down to agency digital director posts, and said thousands of broken links to Obama-era documents had damaged the credibility and utility of sites governmentwide.
"We've been in some of the conversations with the Office of American Innovation," one official said, "and we've seen focus, at least in words, around human-centered design and improving citizen services. But when it comes down to people in roles to do the things, I think that's where it gets hard."
Another official voiced concerns that customer experience efforts are less valued now. "I see that dissolving, and that saddens me," the official said. "I think we can build all the great digital stuff in the world, but if it's not what our customer needs, we've failed."
Yet another participant, however, saw a silver lining in the changes. "There was a lot of centralization" in the Obama White House, he said, and "a lot of positive energy, particularly around digital services, coming out of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, U.S. Digital Service and so forth." But without that center of gravity, others "are relearning how to create networks, communities of practice, in a decentralized fashion. I'm watching agencies remember that they can get each other on the phone and that they can host events directly themselves that don't require that logo from the White House at the bottom of the agenda. That's actually a really positive thing."