Citizen Services

GSA sets the stage for update to federal sites and apps

website design (Shutterstock.com) 

The General Services Administration is setting the stage for agencies to implement new mandatory standards for updating federal websites and digital services.

The 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA) introduced by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) was passed in 2018 and requires all digital products made by the government -- such as websites and applications -- to be modernized for user and mobile friendliness, accessibility to those with disabilities, contain easily usable search functions, leverage secure connections, provide options for customization and be consistent in their appearance.

These goals will be achieved in part through new website standards developed by the Technology Transformation Services at GSA. Those standards were updated last year, and GSA officials said they spent much of Fall 2019 soliciting feedback from the Federal Web Council, the Federal CIO Council and other federal agencies.

As part of the IDEA Act, agencies were required to report to Congress in December regarding which sites and services they plan to tackle first and provide costs and schedules. GSA officials said will be providing videos and written materials to guide those efforts, but said they don't have insight into what agencies reported to Congress.

"Agencies can and should prioritize highest impact sites and try very hard not to boil the ocean, make continuous improvements, know where you are and create an action plan…and align with already identified modernization priorities as reported to Congress and OMB in their annual reports in 2019," said Jacob Parcell, Innovation Portfolio Director at TTS on a Jan. 22 call with reporters.

According to figures provided by the agency, federal websites had over 38 billion pageviews and 14 billion sessions in 2019. Officials cited GSA.gov, Commerce.gov, NIST.gov, Ready.gov, FederalCIO.gov and others as examples of federal websites that are already using the standards.

A new maturity model to guide agency adoption was also developed and released in December 2019. It pushes agencies to adopt an incremental approach to updating their websites and apps, focusing on incorporating user-focused design principles first, then incorporating user experience guidance for common functional components like buttons, forms and site navigation. The final step includes incorporating the project's design tokens and code components developed last year.

The standards are designed to provide a common design architecture and a better experience for users online.

Dan Williams, project lead, said the standards provide common stylistic pallets like colors and spacing units as well as functionality templates and layout choices. The goal is to provide a common template for the federal government's digital services while still providing the flexibility for agencies to customize their products. Williams likened the system to the rules that govern sports like baseball.

"No two games are exactly the same, but they're all recognizably baseball," Williams said. "Similarly, sites that use the system aren't cookie cutter clones, but they can adapt to the needs of their mission, to their context and…needs that are specific to the agency and project while at the same time promoting greater continuity of experience across the federal government."

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.

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