Marking a distinct transition from the technological missteps of previous years, the White House has announced the formation of the United States Digital Service. Described as a "startup" founded by President Obama, the goal is to partner government with technology providers to create a more intuitive, modern approach to addressing national priorities.
"What if interacting with government services were as easy as ordering a book online?" writes the Executive Office of the President. "The challenges behind HealthCare.gov brought this question to the forefront, changing our government's approach to technology."
"The White House has announced the formation of the United States Digital Service."
Learning from past mistakes
Indeed, this reference to the issues that occurred during the launch of HealthCare.gov is telling. As the first major push to implement public policy via a major technological initiative, the seemingly unending issues hampered the site's overall efficacy and put a serious damper on the optimistic tone of the Obama administration. Rather than attribute the failure to negligence or mismanagement, industry experts like Aziz Gilani saw the site as an example of "too much, too fast."
"The federal government is just like every other enterprise out there," Gilani told CMS Wire. "It's facing a lot of pressure to join the world in Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) transformation, but then be able to release and maintain applications with the shortened sprint times required to support those types of applications."
Enlisting help from the world of tech
Through the USDS, the government aims to avoid the errors of the past by bringing technological infrastructure design in-house. To do this, the startup employs a team of engineers, led by Mikey Dickerson, a former Google engineer who played a key role in salvaging Healthcare.gov. Dickerson has been an outspoken critic of the government's previous efforts – or lack thereof – to embrace technology, saying that the private sector has long since blown past federal agencies in the way they interface with cutting-edge technology.
"First of all, government still calls it 'IT' and 'cyber' which the tech industry does not, and that's a clue right there," Dickerson told Gov Insider. "This issue has become particularly acute and visible to the public in a really painful way. Ten years ago the iPhone didn't exist and now innovations like smart phones, GPS and Uber are deeply intertwined across people's everyday lives – with government looking flat-footed by comparison."
"Different systems designed separately breed translation and communication issues."
Streamlining content design and dissemination
One of the biggest hurdles to government-sponsored technology is creating consistency across every agency. In previous years, the government eschewed a top-down approach to content design and consistency, opting instead to have each agency individually contract out for their technology needs. This led to a fundamental operational roadblock: Design would vary dramatically from agency to agency.
Beyond the aesthetic mismatch and user-experience incongruities stemming from this lack of consistency, disparate systems separately designed bred translation and communication issues. Cross-agency data exchange became difficult, contributing to the infamous delays associated with government agency communications. It also rendered the ability to generate data-rich hypertext effectively impossible.
These are essentially the same problems facing large groups of content creators who operate within the same company but are otherwise completely disjointed in their associations with each other. Agreeing to a common set of information architecture rules brings these groups into alignment. Establishing a common data-encoding standard lets them share their information more easily. Adopting a common set of tooling streamlines the collaboration and the overall productivity of each team.
The USDS is following a similar playbook. Its U.S. Web Design Standards program provides a style guide, mobile-responsive design constraints, and recommended open-source coding tools to create a seamless web standard across all agencies subject to federal oversight. Whether or not the USDS will broaden its scope to include content creation and management systems remains to be seen, but the push towards commonality inspires some optimism within the world of content strategy.