GSA's Dave Zvenyach, USAID's Alexis Bonnell and the Interior Department's Larry Gillick were among the participants in FCW's Feb. 28 roundtable discussion. (Photo: Khary Wolinsky)
FCW gathered a group of federal leaders on Feb. 28 to discuss whether and how agencies are making progress on citizen engagement -- particularly as they build their business cases for long-overdue IT modernization projects.
Perhaps not surprisingly, participants said the key to providing better services is often not technology but people. Agencies need visionary leaders and employees who are empowered to try new approaches to serving a public that increasingly demands the sort of seamless customer experience they get from commercial online services.
In the course of the conversation, participants also discussed the creative ways they are finding around obstacles, including cultural resistance. And though agencies differ in their level of engagement with the general public, all agreed that improving the way they provide services is absolutely essential.
The discussion was on the record but not for individual attribution (see below for a list of participants), and the quotes have been edited for length and clarity. Here’s what the group had to say.
The operational benefits of engagement
“In my experience, there has been a real appetite to optimize, but we have separated the operational and programmatic backbone from the engagement side,” one executive said. “We’re doing optimization, but we’re not doing synergy. The challenge arises when you have people who are driven by one of those imperatives or the other. As an example, we made a very critical operational programmatic platform that was open to the world, so it’s certainly engaging, it’s certainly telling our story, but it’s also advancing our operations and limiting the administrative load.”
Another participant agreed that the two activities go hand in hand. “We’re pushing to have human-centric design involved in our IT modernization efforts to ensure that we’re solving the right problem for the right users at the right point in their journey. Then we’ll see the operational benefits as well.”
One of their colleagues cited dramatic growth in product management as an encouraging sign that agencies are making progress on citizen engagement. “18F and the Digital Services Playbook are industry best practices for finding the right product for the right user at the right time. It takes a lot of work to get there in the government, but I’ve seen exponential growth in just one year of people wanting to do that and trying to do that and asking for help.”
But others shared their frustration with some familiar obstacles. “I feel like there’s so much inertia in government generally, and then when you go into the world of IT, there’s even more inertia,” a participant said. “People will say, ‘We do focus on the user.’ And the answer that we’ve given is, ‘We’re going to go out and actually talk to them. We’re going to stand behind them and watch how they interact with our tools. We’re going to record it, and we’re going to go back and review it.’ If you’ve gotten the buy-in to accept that what the user is saying is valid, the tech piece is easy.”
Division Chief of Applied Innovation and Acceleration, U.S. Global Development Lab, U.S. Agency for International Development
CTO, National Archives and Records Administration
Vice President, Strategy and Lean Management, General Dynamics Information Technology
Deputy Director of Digital Strategy, Department of the Interior
Senior Digital Strategist, U.S. Patent and Trademark Organization
Bureau of the Fiscal Service, Treasury Department
Director, Product Management and Strategy/Operations Community of Practice, U.S. Digital Service
Chief Customer Experience Officer, General Services Administration
Services Product Design Lead, Office of GEOINT Services, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
Director of Outreach for the Cybersecurity Education and Awareness Branch, Department of Homeland Security
Chief Data Officer, Census Bureau
Assistant Commissioner, Office of Systems Management, Federal Acquisition Service, General Services Administration
Note: FCW Editor-in-Chief Troy K. Schneider led the roundtable discussion. The Feb. 28 gathering was underwritten by General Dynamics IT, but both the substance of the discussion and the recap on these pages are strictly editorial products. Neither General Dynamics IT nor any of the roundtable participants had input beyond their Feb. 28 comments.
A number of participants said the Paperwork Reduction Act stymies their efforts to gather feedback from the public. “We try to work with organizations outside the federal government that may have data because, due to PRA, we can’t actually ask our customers whether or not they like what we’re doing or if it’s useful to them,” one executive said. “We are severely hampered in what data we can gather.”
Another agreed that the legislation “is a pain point. We’re being expected to navigate it at the same time we’re getting pressure to engage citizens.”
However, one of their colleagues pointed out that there might be a good reason for the limitation. “Could it be to avoid overtapping customers? You come into a world where every single person wants to get feedback on every single thing. It gets to the point where you say, ‘Stop asking me about it.’”
“We should work on that, but it shouldn’t stop us,” another participant said. “We also think for any given tool, once we get to five people in user testing, we keep hearing the same things over and over. Do we need a survey of a thousand respondents? Not really. We just call people on the phone.”
Honoring the (legacy) pioneers
One executive offered some insight into the path to better citizen engagement. “I think the way we got here informs how we get out of it. We got here in part because we haven’t been able to make trade-offs or prioritize as a government. And part of it is that you have 172 task-based applications that were built because you have one person who had a particular need and didn’t have any incentive to work with other parts of the organization. And then the next person who had a very similar need bought something and so on. And of course, everyone said, ‘We’re all very different so we can’t possibly coordinate.’”
Fortunately, the executive added, “user-centric design and a product mindset can help you get past your organizational barriers and remember why we’re here in the first place — which is to do a thing that benefits people. Suddenly, the approach changes, and people say, ‘Yeah, it is stupid that we have three things that do exactly the same job. Maybe we should just have one thing that does that job really well.’”
A number of participants agreed that agencies need to be mindful of how they ended up with the systems they have now — and the people involved.
“Part of what we’re dealing with when we talk about legacy systems is the pioneers of the past,” one executive said. “In some ways, you have a coalition of the willing who have proven their capacity to do this before. Whether they did it right or effectively may be up for debate, but I think we have to be very careful of the narrative if we really want to do things that are going to stick.”
Others cautioned against focusing too much on any of the individual players. While the honor-the-pioneers idea has merit, one said, “we have to change structures and we have to change expectations. We have to change how we approach our budgeting internally. We have to change how we do our projects. We have to rethink how we do our acquisitions to support these outcomes. There are a lot of structural things that have caused people to bang their heads on the table. And I worry that if we’re not honest with ourselves to say, ‘Hero or not, the structure needs some change, we need to move in a different direction,’ we’re setting ourselves and them up for failure.”
Another executive noted that agencies often don’t have a clear-cut incentive to enhance their services. “One of the structural barriers to improvement in government is the fact that, for a lot of services, we are a monopoly. We are the only people who do this thing, so if you want to use it, you’ve got to jump through whatever crazy hoops we come up with. It’s very hard to measure and explain the value of changing it. It’s not an immediate one-to-one improvement. It’s a much longer tail in terms of seeing how the value of your investment plays out.”
A colleague agreed, saying: “You’re right, we are a monopoly. But what if you weren’t? I think one of the things that we don’t ask ourselves enough is: If this was privatized or if a competitor was allowed to enter the market, what would make you different?”
One executive said there is another way to frame the discussion. “In terms of investment, we started talking about the cost of doing nothing. What is this legacy system costing you? We’ll put together an end-to-end map that shows our customer journey across the organizational silos. We won’t show who’s responsible for what, but we’ll say customers had a really poor experience trying to do this in their journey.”
“We haven’t been shy about telling our entire leadership team, ‘A customer once said working with [our agency] is like working in Dante’s Inferno,” the executive continued. “Everybody in the agency can see this quote. What are we going to do about this?’”
Likewise, another participant said, “most people will respond to something that is data-driven or puts a human face on it.”
The need for ‘audacious’ leaders
The group discussed the pressure to adapt to the kind of services and user experience that Amazon and Apple offer, but one participant pointed out that “both of the companies we just mentioned have incredible clarity from the top about the fact that their business model is X.” The government, by comparison, can struggle to find that mission clarity. “It’s really interesting to step back and say, ‘Today, what business can I be in that is actually useful in a value proposition versus what I’ve been doing?’ That’s a really scary question because I can look at a lot of our work and say, ‘I’m not sure we should be doing that anymore.’”
That’s why the cultural aspects of change cannot be overlooked, the participant added. “When you’re trying to change structure, you’re telling someone they’re irrelevant or that they need to shift or whatever. The question is: Do we have commanders, if you will — in whatever shape that takes — who are audacious enough to say, ‘We’ve been in this business. We have an amazing history, but the business we need to be in now to be relevant is X’?”
One agency representative explained how a user-centric focus can spread through an organization. “Our innovation design group started to creep into the territory of our policy shop and started to think, ‘Hey, you’re really talking about how we do business.’ And the family got bigger because the policy shop realized, ‘If we integrate this into our learning and programming structure, then we add our relevance to it.’”
Then the procurement and legal teams got involved, “and now they function as a family, which is really critical because they validate that this is legal, this is safe, and you should do it.”
“You do good work, and good work then leads to more good work, and success builds on success,” one executive said. “We have to do a lot of carrots because we don’t really have sticks. And if you can’t hire a village of people, you can always empower the people you have.”
Another participant agreed, saying, “There are people in the trenches who are hungry to do the right thing. For any of it to work, you fundamentally have to have empowered people and have them pointed in the right direction.”