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Why Can’t Washington Build a Website?

Nick Sinai | July 27, 2015| 1 min. read

Nick Sinai is former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer for the Obama Administration, a Venture Partner at Insight Venture Partners, and adjunct faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School.  Matt Lira is the former Deputy Executive Director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a former Senior Advisor to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and an IOP Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. Authors: Nick Sinai Matt Lira The 2016 presidential candidates like to talk about innovation, and they’re currently debating the tech- fueled “gig economy.”

The government spends $80 billion a year getting the Internet wrong. Here’s how to fix it. The 2016 presidential candidates like to talk about innovation, and they’re currently debating the tech- fueled “gig economy.”

Those are important issues, but when it comes to how government meets the digital world, there’s a crucial component they’re not talking about.

The American taxpayer is paying $80 billion per year for federal information technology. But if you ask anyone who’s applied for veterans healthcare, or searched for a job on USAjobs.gov, or tried to explore small business resources on BusinessUSA.gov, you’ll wonder where that $80 billion went.

They’re encountering websites that are confusing, complicated, and not mobile-friendly. Modernizing government isn’t sexy, but is incredibly important — especially given the pressure of budgets and the rapid evolution of consumer-facing technology. As a country, we risk falling behind.

To date, when the federal government invests in modernization, it does it the wrong way, often spending vast amounts on large and inflexible contracts that result in costly, inferior software.

The core competency of government technology vendors should be building systems that deliver great user experiences — not mastering the complexity of overly complicated procurement rules. Rather than thinking about the digital sphere as a chance to improve the way they do business, government institutions have mostly treated it as a new, online overlay to their pre-digital business practices.

Imagine if your bank were operating with the infrastructure available to it in 1972. Would you still be a customer?

Thankfully, we’ve begun seeing the seeds of change. In the past 18 months, under the leadership of Todd Park and many others, the Administration has quietly launched two new technology teams — the United States Digital Service (USDS) and the General Services Administration’s 18F. Between them, they have recruited over 200 experts to help federal agencies design, build, and buy modern digital services.

These new tech units are bringing the federal government into the digital age, just as a startup would: with a bias for action, an urgency of purpose, and through constant iteration. Top tech talent from Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others are joining up, eager to serve their country in this new and meaningful way.

Early results appear promising. USDS and 18F teamed up to build the new analytics.usa.gov dashboard that shows, both in real time and historically, how many people are visiting federal websites. They are also taking on larger projects, like working with the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department to simplify visa information and bring our legal immigration system into the digital age, with a strong focus on improving the user experience. But this is only a start.

Based on our experience working in the White House and in Congress, our recent time at the Harvard Kennedy School, and what we’ve learned about comparable efforts in countries like the U.K., we’ve seen that digital government can make huge leaps in serving citizens and saving taxpayer money. If it’s squarely focused on the needs of Americans, and how people actually use the Internet, it will make government smarter, more efficient, and more effective. Accordingly, we’d like to propose five common-sense, bipartisan principles for building a smart, digital government:

1. Digital by default. Our government should adopt a “digital by default” goal, where a simple, easy-to-use digital service is the primary experience for most transactions. Phone, mail, and in-person services would still be available for people who need them, but the focus should be on completing transactions digitally. The United Kingdom has begun successfully implementing a similar standard, estimating that it will save £1.7 billion ($2.6 billion) annually. By adopting this standard, U.S. taxpayers could save billions while still increasing the quality of services delivered.

2. Organize it around the user. Great digital services from companies like Amazon, Uber, and FedEx are customized around our individual preferences and needs — and don’t force customers to understand the inner workings of each company. Government sites, on the other hand, often reflect the complexity of the existing bureaucracy.

Why should a veteran have to navigate thousands of different websites, or need to remember a dozen usernames and passwords, to receive benefits and services from various parts of the VA? Secretary Bob McDonald has promised to reform the VA and make it more customer-centric — and he (and future VA secretaries) can’t deliver on that vision without starting to build simple, personalized digital services.

3. Smaller and quicker is better. Too much of the $80 billion annual federal IT budget is spent on large projects that take years to deliver anything, and are often out of date when they launch. The Social Security Administration’s beleaguered $288 million case management system and the Air Force’s failed $1 billion logistics software deployment are high profile examples, but the problem is much more widespread than a few bad headlines.

According a study by the Standish Group, more than half of large Federal IT projects studied were over budget, behind schedule, or failed to meet user expectations. Digital services should be broken into smaller parts, where the American people get new and improved services at least monthly. Frequent digital experimentation, and iteration, should be the norm.

4. Open up public systems. With bipartisan support, the Obama Administration has issued an Open Data executive order, posted thousands of data sets on Data.gov, and begun implementing the DATA Act to improve fiscal transparency. Yet there are still whole classes of data – like data from regulatory agencies – that are not sufficiently digitized, online, or easy to find and use.

By opening up systems, forms, and transactions, non-profits and companies can build new products and services on top of government data, similar to how TurboTax and H&R Block compete to provide easy-to-use software that securely submits your data to the IRS. High school students can fill out the free application for financial student aid (FAFSA) on the Department of Education’s website, but imagine if families could also submit data directly from their tax preparation software, or through a nonprofit dedicated to helping first-generation students go to college?

5. Update laws for the new era. Laws built for an industrial age are becoming impediments to building user-friendly digital services. Congress should act quickly to modernize and streamline federal IT procurement and hiring processes — it takes far too long for the government to buy technology, and far too long to hire technical experts. The Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA), which was enacted in 1980 to minimize the government’s paperwork burden on the American people, should be a chief target for modernization. The unintended consequences of PRA are creating unacceptable obstacles to developing modern digital services. For example, the PRA process only works around static printed forms — it has no mechanism to approve a digital “wizard” that could walk a Veteran through a disability exam or a benefits application in just a few clicks. Let’s update the laws to match the world we live in; otherwise our government will continue to live in the past. The next president will have the opportunity to modernize our government for the digital age, deliver a significantly improved user experience for all citizens, reduce costs for taxpayers, and repair the relationship between the people and their government. It is our hope that the next administration will seize this opportunity.