White House launches new digital government strategy

Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel and CTO Todd Park say open data will be the new default.

There’s a long history of people who have tried to transform the United States federal government through better use of information technology and data. It extends back to the early days of Alexander Hamilton’s ledgers of financial transaction, continues through information transmitted through telegraph, radio, telephone, and comes up to the introduction of the Internet, which has been driving dreams of better e-government for decades.

Vivek Kundra, the first U.S. chief information officer, and Aneesh Chopra, the nation’s first chief technology officer, were chosen by President Barack Obama to try to bring the federal government’s IT infrastructure and process into the 21st century, closing the IT gap that had opened between the private sector and public sector.

Today, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum on building a 21st century digital government.

In this memorandum, the president directs each major federal agency in the United States to make two key services that American citizens depend upon available on mobile devices within the next 12 months and to make “applicable” government information open and machine-readable by default. President Obama directed federal agencies to do two specific things: comply with the elements of the strategy by May 23, 2013 and to create a “/developer” page on ever major federal agency’s website. Here’s an excerpt from President Obama’s memo:

The innovative use of technology is fundamentally transforming how the American people do business and live their daily lives. Exponential increases in computing power, the rise of high-speed networks, and the growing mobile revolution have put the Internet at our fingertips, encouraging innovations that are giving rise to new industries and reshaping existing ones.

Innovators in the private sector and the Federal Government have used these technological advances to fundamentally change how they serve their customers. However, it is time for the Federal Government to do more. For far too long, the American people have been forced to navigate a labyrinth of information across different Government programs in order to find the services they need. In addition, at a time when Americans increasingly pay bills and buy tickets on mobile devices, Government services often are not optimized for smartphones or tablets, assuming the services are even available online.

On April 27, 2011, I issued Executive Order 13571 (Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service), requiring executive departments and agencies (agencies) to, among other things, identify ways to use innovative technologies to streamline their delivery of services to lower costs, decrease service delivery times, and improve the customer experience. As the next step toward modernizing the way Government works, I charged my Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO) with developing a comprehensive Government-wide strategy to build a 21st century digital Government that delivers better digital services to the American people.

Today, the CIO is releasing that strategy, entitled “Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People” (Strategy), which provides agencies with a 12-month roadmap that focuses on several priority areas.The Strategy will enable more efficient and coordinated digital service delivery by requiring agencies to establish specific, measurable goals for delivering better digital services; encouraging agencies to deliver information in new ways that fully utilize the power and potential of mobile and web-based technologies; ensuring the safe and secure delivery and use of digital services to protect information and privacy; requiring agencies to establish central online resources for outside developers and to adopt new standards for making applicable Government information open and machine-readable by default;

aggregating agencies’ online resource pages for developers in a centralized catalogue on www.Data.gov; and requiring agencies to use web performance analytics and customer satisfaction measurement tools on all “.gov” websites.

Ultimately, this Strategy will ensure that agencies use emerging technologies to serve the public as effectively as possible. As a Government, and as a trusted provider of services, we must never forget who our customers are — the American people.

While Kundra and Chopra set in a motion of series of reforms, from more transparency on IT spending and waste to an ambitious open government data program to adoption of cloud computing to improved IT security and a modern approach to open innovation, they left an immense portfolio and set of challenges for Steven VanRoekel and Todd Park to take on and implement against. Many of those challenges remain the same, including attracting talent, reforming procurement, data quality, and the reality of agency mainframes that are still running on COBOL.

“There are many things the federal government should do to improve IT performance and efficiency,” said Darrell West, vice president for government studies and director of the Center for Tech Innovation at the Brookings Institute, when asked for comment. “It can quit adopting expensive legacy systems that are obsolete from the moment they are purchased and move towards more nimble strategies.  There are many new apps that are available through the federal Apps Store and agencies can use them to improve performance and cut costs.  In the medical area, there are 40,000 mobile health applications.  Technology should be a money saver, not a money waster.  The key problem federal officials face is overcoming economic interests that are vested in the past, not the future of technology innovation.”

Big visions matter, in terms of inspiring the country to action or a historic course, from building transcontinental railroads to sending men to the Moon to starting up a new government agency. Implementing against that vision, however, in a time of great budget pressure, increased demands for government services online and falling trust in institutions, is just as important.

Today, VanRoekel and Park have put their own stamp on the future of digital government in the United States with the introduction of a digital strategy for
21st century government, which went online this morning. (In a notable upgrade to the way such policies have been released, this digital strategy was coded in HTML5.)

They introduced it to the nation in an decidedly non-Washingtonian sort of way, traveling north to New York City, a city that has become one the global epicenters for data-centric digital government under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to directly engage Gotham City’s community of tech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and (civic) developers at TechCrunch’s Disrupt Conference. Video of their announcement at Disruptis embedded below:

Whether their “pitch” for smart government gets funded and supported is an open question. One measure will be whether this trip results in new recruits: Park and VanRoekel urged the developers and entrepreneurs in the room to “join a startup called the U.S. government” as one of 15 “Presidential Innovation Fellows.” Park said in New York that the fellowships will focus on five areas: a USAID campaign, open data across the federal government, releasing more health information, an online system they’re calling “MyGov,” a request for proposals program to help startups with procurement.

You can watch Park and VanRoekel answer follow up questions from writer Greg Ferenstein (@ferenstein) on procurement, the role of the private sector and emerging technology in the video below:

Park and VanRoekel took questions from the press on a call following their presentation. Molly Walker published audio of their discussion of the digital strategy, which you can listen to in the player below:

What’s next for open data?

There have been longstanding questions about what constitute “high quality datasets” for years. VanRoekel, in past conversation, has identified an activity that many Americans engage in — looking for real estate. Buying a house is the single biggest purchase many citizens will ever make.

Now, VanRoekel and Park are talking about releasing more data that could actually inform that purchase. The challenge is that the third parties that they want to have use it need to have it be high quality, regularly updated, standardized and accessible. For instance, developers making energy apps don’t want data published every quarter: they want it every week, every day or, if possible, every hour.

To learn more about how they’re thinking about these challenges, I interviewed Park and VanRoekel yesterday about the components and thinking behind this strategy. My discussion with VanRoekel follows. Look for an extended discussion with Park and video from TechCrunch Disrupt later today.

This digital strategy has been coming for a long time. What’s in it?

VanRoekel: Over the last 10 months or so we’ve been hard at work on a bunch of divergent strategies, thinking about our web presence as a federal government, managing the 1,800 .gov domain names we have out there, and tens of thousands of websites and millions of pages. We’ve been focused on mobile and the consumerization of technology and that impact on government. And as you know, I come storming in with a passion around open data, making data machine-readable and accessible, unlocking the potential of that data, as you and I talked about last time, and many times at the FCC. We had a moment this winter when we realized these divergent strategies were really converging into one thing, where they were all parts of a bigger strategy, which breaks down into several areas.

This first is an information-centric approach. That pillar is about making data openly available as the new default across government.

The second is around a shared platform, where we can share resources across government, removing duplication and leveraging existing projects that we’re doing.

The third layer is all about customer centric-government. Typically in the government, we very tightly couple the presentation of stuff with the stuff itself. Finding that stuff is nearly impossible, if you have to navigate a quagmire. The nature of this is embracing the new application delivery model, looking at how we deliver content and data more effectively to Americans. Also, how do we create, across the customer-centric platform, a way of creating government as a platform, where we have a common approach to building applications on top of government data. Our goal is to bring government to Americans where they live, versus expect Americans to come to government, where we are. We saw this in the past, with weather and GPS. Combined, there’s over a $100=billion dollar industry, if not more. We now, as Americans, probably take that for granted, in the ability to just connect in and use that data from the government. We have unending examples of places where this government data can be unleashed to the private sector and to American citizens to provide better e-services.

The last pillar, which I won’t go into depth now but that it’s very important that we’re doing, is that we’re building consistent methodology around security and privacy. We’re calling on a bunch of groups in this strategy to help us on that front.

How will government become more data-centric?

VanRoekel: Yesterday was the three-year anniversary of Data.gov. It was an important first step to raise the awareness of people around data. It largely was a bulk upload, bulk download system. It didn’t manifest in data being digital by default through the entire lifecycle of that data. It was sort of an add-on, to take the step of getting it to Data.gov. The key difference in what we’re doing here and evolving Data.gov — which will be involved, as part of this — is architecting data for openness.

There are some very specific deliverables in the strategy itself, including a government-wide open data content and web API policy and then work with NIST and others to identify standards and best practices for interoperability to scale that across government. We will have, from its creation to its dissemination, open data as the new normal. We’re going to, as part of this, inspire investing in IT systems that respect open data and think about open data.

This also bridges into big data and that roadmap as well. The next step of that is thinking about web APIs, how we build for modularity. It’s about how we deliver our content and manifest systems in a way that allow APIs to do that. Part of this deliverable will also be about expanding Data.gov to also be the metadata catalog of all data in the federal government. It won’t be a place where you use data but it will be a place where you find data, discover data or discover the relatedness of data. We also intend to take Data.gov and add some API key management and some other technology there, so it is the developer platform of all this stuff.

As you remember from the Open Government Directive, where we directed all agencies to create a “/open” page. Part of this deliverable will be all agencies creating a “/developer” page, to start to build the catalog of citizen-accessible web APIs for their systems.

This may all be a bit abstract to a non-technical citizen. Why is open data important to the American people? Why is this a strategy that’s important enough to elevate to this level?

VanRoekel: For citizen-facing discussions and the conversation I’ll have with consumer publications, I start with the customer-centric element and think about what are those applications that will be delivered by government and go drive a new set of normals and value systems. I always harken back to examples like GPS, like weather, but we can also look at early agencies that have done a better job, in the realm of health, tax, or travel, including that MyTSA app on your smartphone giving you wait times and security gates at the airport nearest you, or travel tips. Those are possible from unlocking government data and making that government data available to application providers.

To the TechCrunch crowd, I’m going to talk about real estate. When you’re buying a home, why doesn’t it manifest to you the myriad of data that the government has locked up about school quality, healthcare quality, infrastructure investments, broadband, everything else that people really care about when they’re picking a place to live? We don’t do that — we do roof composition and the number of bathrooms, and that’s typically the extent of it. Some services are doing a better job with other government data but largely it’s pretty silo’ed and not very specific to what Americans really care about.

How will this strategy result in those releases happening in the format and timeliness that making that kind of data useful would require? How do you drive the timely release of data in a consumable format from agencies, given the technical challenges they have?

VanRoekel: That’s why we’re launching the strategy now. It couldn’t more important to manifest those things across all of the opportunities we have. From declaring that open data is now the new default — that you have to, when you create datasets, do so in an open way — when we say that when you buy IT systems that interface with data, they need to be purchased in a way that respect the aspects of open data, when you talk about dissemination of data, we’re going to inspire in the strategy different aspects of agencies building and delivering open data solutions. The first tranche of this is that each agency has to do two of them. That’s a “crawl, walk, run” approach. You have to have the magic mix of all of these elements: great policy, great technology, and great people leading the way. That’s what we’re trying to bring to bear to get there. We’ve been kind of haphazard. There’s been no one at the top saying “thou shalt do this.” Now we have that with this strategy.

President Obama has talked about information technology with some frequency, in the context of the importance of American innovation, improved government services and job creation. How much have you talked with the president about this strategy? How closely has he been involved in helping to shape it? How much support do you have from him?

VanRoekel: We have an incredible amount of support, both from the president and his staff. He was excited enough about this strategy that he insisted in actually issuing a memo as a cover page for it. This presidential memorandum is basically telling agencies “go do this stuff. It’s important,” talking about the necessity of unlocking this government technology on behalf of citizens. That doesn’t happen very often, with him weighing in on the importance of what’s happening here.

If you look at how well agencies have complied with the “/open” requirements, in terms of simply updating their open government plans, you’ll see some laggards. What policy hooks will you have, with respect to making sure the deliverables in this strategy come through?

VanRoekel: The important part of this is that we have one policy out there. Policy doesn’t go all the way. Policy should be a place that gives framing and direction, and inspires people to act. It explains the art of the possible. Part of this is just education on what is the possible and how we do this. I think the important part that will make this stick long term includes three things.

One is oversight. Part of this strategy will be working with agencies to create reporting mechanisms — and those reporting mechanisms will be built in open, standard ways that allow people to create easily accessible dashboards that track agency progress on these deliverables, so we can put some pressure on people from an oversight standpoint. The new normal for dashboards needs to be open data as the feeds, and allowing people to build on top of them.

The second part is regular accountability in meetings with us. We’ve got other mechanisms to touch base with people, too. I care a lot about this. At the FCC, I mandated this stuff and watched and saw it through to some really successful endpoints.

The third — and this is probably one of the most important elements — is injecting this into the different parts of doing business within government agencies. It’s getting the permit team to do new things. It’s getting the IT team to buy and deploy things in new ways.

Luckily, we’re not starting from scratch. I think agencies generally —- and IT professional in those agencies — want to deliver against mission. They also care a lot about this stuff. They know this is the new way of doing things. They just need to be empowered in a way that gets them to that end point. We’re not going to get a huge tide of resistance. It’s going to bring them measurable value.

Part of this strategy is around mobile consolidation, including contracts and other things which are going to save them a lot of money in this fiscal environment. We’ve got a nice forcing function there.

How much is the “bring your own device” (BYOD) wave in government and enterprise driving this data-centricism of this digital strategy? CIOs are stressed about not being able to get mobile app development talent to create multiple applications for multiple platforms.

VanRoekel: It definitely is part of it. We have to walk that careful walk of being device and vendor-agnostic, in terms of the strategies we lay out. We don’t want to be creating a marketplace winner through policy. We also have to be cognizant that we really have to open up the doors here for us to utilize these government systems in new ways. I know that’s not going to be a sweeping phenomenon right away. We need to get stuff moving in the right direction. I think this is the way we do it. We do it by getting agencies to deliver solutions that are decoupled from the underlying data and ride government like a platform. We rapidly prototype and create single websites presence for the government. We get the private sector to step up and deliver solutions as well.

So you want agencies to be “dogfooding” the same data and web services that will be consumed by third parties?

VanRoekel: I think there have to be places where, when we unlock the data, it makes sense for us to actively deliver solutions against that data. That’s either proof-of-concept work or actually deliver solutions against it.

This post has been updated to add audio and video when it became available online.

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