Digital lessons the US government is learning from the UK’s experiences

SUMMARY:

The US government looks set to emulate the success of the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS), just the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ in the UK turns its attention to the need for a new Head of Digital to improve its online offerings.

United Kingdom and USA miniature flagsYesterday we took at look at the growing number of bi-lateral digital government relationships being signed between the UK and other nations, such as South Korea, Estonia and Israel.

Such alliances are building on the successes and good work of the Government Digital Service (GDS), the unit within the British government charged with driving through the digital revolution in the public sector under the command of its head, Mike Bracken.

In the US, there have been calls to emulate the GDS office, fuelled in large part by the debacle of the healthcare.gov website roll out. Even UK Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude has been tugging at the so-called ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK to point out gleefully:

“When the Obamacare website was released to universal criticism, it was interesting that a lot of commentators said ‘why didn’t they do what the British government is doing?’ Instead, they did it the old fashioned way.”

Well a US version of GDS looks all the more likely as part of the ongoing passage of a bill known as the Reforming Federal Procurement of Information Technology Act (RFP-IT) through the US legislative labyrinth.

The key segment of the bill – which is intended to wipe $2 billion from annual IT procurement costs in the US federal government – is one that proposes the establishment of a US Digital Government Office (DGO) that would govern the federal IT programme as well as create a DGO fund supported by 5% of the fees collected by executive agencies for various types of contracts.

article-1358792-0305604B0000044D-925_468x311The DGO would have authority over all agencies’ large IT projects which are currently run by individual government agencies rather than by a digitally-savvy central organisation with a broad overview.

One of the proposers of the bill is Democrat Representative Anna G. Eshoo who says:

“Studies show that 94% of major government IT projects between 2003 and 2012 came in over budget, behind schedule, or failed completely.

“In an $80 billion sector of our federal government’s budget, this is an absolutely unacceptable waste of taxpayer dollars. Furthermore, thousands of pages of procurement regulations discourage small innovative businesses from even attempting to navigate the rules.

`’Our draft bill puts proven best practices to work by instituting a White House office of IT procurement and gives all American innovators a fair shake at competing for valuable federal IT contracts by lowering the burden of entry.”

Her co-sponsor Democrat Representative Gerry Connolly adds that there is a need for shake-up of the Agency CIO role:

“There are more than 250 identified CIOs in the federal government, yet none possess the necessary authority to effectively manage IT investments. This has resulted in duplicative and wasteful IT spending, with taxpayers forced to foot the bill for massive IT program failures that ring up staggeringly high costs, but exhibit astonishingly poor performance.”

It’s uncanny how similar the RFP-IT proposals are to what the UK government has been rolling out in recent years, not least the attempt to shake-up the field of suppliers who bid for government business in order to include some fresh blood.

The same, but different

At the same time in the UK there are plans afoot for a new Digital Office, this time to manage the online services provide by Parliament, the UK’s governing legislature. (This is not a replacement for GDS incidentally).

The recommendation to set up such an office comes following a review of Parliament’s online services conducted by social enterprise mySociety on behalf of the management boards of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the two tiers of the UK legislative structure.

The review recommends:

  • Establishing a new Digital Office to bring together the management of all online and ICT services into a single organisation ­ an organisation driven by a mission to identify and meet the online needs of Members, parliamentary staff, and the public.
  • Appointing a Head of Digital to run the new Digital Office with that person held publicly accountable for delivering measurably rising levels of satisfaction with Parliament’s digital services from Members, parliamentary staff and the public.
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To be fair, Parliament has done OK in some respects when it comes to online offerings. Over the three month period from 11th September 2013 to 11th December 2013, Parliament’s online services logged 7.15 million visits from 4.9 million unique visitors in total.

Parliament’s main Twitter account has 227,000 followers (which is broadly in line with a comparison with the US Congress), the Parliament Facebook page has over eighteen thousand ‘likes’ and its YouTube channel over twelve thousand.

That’s the good news. The bad news:

  • There are only 6 people working on online services for the whole of Parliament.
  • The Parliamentary website has no idea of responsive design for mobile devices.
  • The navigation structure is dated.
  • Web design needs to be more task-centric.
  • Parliament’s website currently silos information in separate places, when it should really be connected together in a rich and user-­focused web of content.
  • Content is not currently presented for social media consumption.

The mySociety review found when Parliament introduced online services it was as an add-on to the core business of producing and publishing documents which led to the current structure of Parliament, with the Web and Intranet (WIS) team separated from the Parliamentary ICT team

Rather than picking one existing entity and naming it as a ‘winner’, we believe that the consensual thing to do is to announce that Parliament recognises that the gap between the internet and ICT services has collapsed, and that leadership experience in this new environment is required to lead a new organisation, restructured around this challenging new reality.

In a unified digital organisation with a new mission, the project managers would not be separated from the technical staff who would be delivering projects. Instead they would work closely together, and the managers would have direct responsibility for their staff. More than one interviewee expressed the opinion that the PICT/WIS split was a mistake, and we concur.

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The Digital Office concept would allow Parliament to adapt to the shifting needs of service design and delivery:

Traditional ICT services are founded on the idea that organisations have needs that computer technologies can help meet. Modern digital services are founded on the idea that it is humans who have the needs, and that technologies should always bend around what humans find easy and intuitive to do. Where possible, training is reduced or eliminated by tools that guide their users.

The excellent modern devices and services that billions of people now use every day have, by and large, achieved that excellence due to a ruthless focus on user needs.The Digital Office should be established largely to help Parliament shift its focus towards meeting the needs of staff, members and the public.

Meanwhile the Head of Digital post will be a powerful one with the ability to alter or cancel any digital project underway anywhere in Parliament:

With the appointment of an appropriately skilled and fully empowered Head of Digital, the speed of decision­-making and delivery of projects should accelerate markedly, compared with the current situation.

Success of both the Head of Digital and the wider Digital Office needs to be measured in more than hits and visits, advises mySociety:

They should be human-­centered satisfaction metrics based on users making it clear that their needs have been successfully met. The new Digital Office must also record success amongst more than one category of user ­ there should be metrics to show that the new Office is meeting the needs of staff, Members [of Parliament] and the public. Successfully serving only one or two of these groups would still ultimately be a failure.

The new office will also operate completely independently of both the House of Lords and House of Commons management teams so that it can make appropriate decisions without fear or favor, as mySociety notes:

Excellence in digital services always requires the ability to say ‘no’. Digital services that truly meet users’ needs require design discipline that is as much about what is left out as about what is included.

Without the power to say ‘no’, Parliament’s online services will not improve at the dramatic rate which is required to keep pace with user expectations.

We believe that most of the current tensions between the Houses in relation to digital projects is because Parliament is not currently configured to deliver digital excellence.

Once a new configuration is established, and once new goals are clearly set and agreed, we believe that both Houses will again conclude that the single, shared provider is the right model for Parliament.

Verdict

Encouraging to see the US government mirroring the actions of the UK in rethinking its approach to IT procurement and deployment.

In a land of innovation and start-ups it will be interesting to observe how ‘the establishment’ in the IT industry responds to attempts to open up the government market beyond the usual suspects.

Meanwhile the efforts to make the workings of the UK Parliamentary system more accessible to the citizen is long overdue.

The ‘Mother of Parliaments’ may revel in its proud history, but it needs to move rapidly onwards to the 21st century when it comes to access to and delivery of information online.