What Federal Government Can Learn from States in Going Digital


To speed delivery of citizen- and business-centric digital solutions, federal agencies can adopt best practices from states where online transaction-based services have been used successfully for more than two decades.

Angela Fultz Nordstrom is vice president of NIC Inc.

In the game of digital government, federal agencies can close the distance to the goal by taking a page from the states’ “playbook.”

Mobilized by President Barack Obama’s Digital Government Strategy issued in May 2012, federal government agencies exploring streamlined, more citizen- and business-focused digital government. But in the four years since the strategy was announced, progress has been limited, according to a recent survey of federal employees published by the National Academy of Public Administration.  

Most respondents – 81 percent – said their digital government focus is on automating workflow and other existing processes. Only 3 percent say their agencies are “re-imagining their business processes to better engage stakeholders,” which could mean the federal government is missing opportunities for “technology to make a real difference in people’s lives,” as Obama put it.

Delivering on the president’s vision means the federal government must improve on interagency collaborations and take greater advantage of the technologies on which users already rely.

Taking a Page from the States’ 'Playbook'

To speed delivery of citizen- and business-centric digital solutions, federal agencies can adopt best practices from states where online transaction-based services have been used successfully for more than two decades.

States’ approach to digital services has helped deliver solutions at no cost to government. In addition to flexible funding models, state government has turned to public-private partnerships to deploy more innovative digital government solutions in a quicker time frame. States also have employed new technologies to collect and share data, create efficiencies and drive user engagement.

Here are three areas where federal agencies might take a page from the states’ playbook:

Mobile: Anytime, Anywhere Digital Government Delivery

Citizens and businesses expect to be able to engage with government on their mobile devices – just as they do with retailers, entertainment and social media – to get whatever they need, whenever they need it, wherever they are.

Understanding that most constituents constantly keep their mobile devices within arm’s reach, states increasingly leverage the mobile web and wearable technologies to deliver services where their users already are.

Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, for example, launched a multifunction mobile app that makes it easy for citizens and visitors to enjoy the state’s outdoor activities. ACCESSDNR lets outdoor enthusiasts locate and get directions to nearby state parks, trails and boat launch sites, make reservations and get or renew licenses within moments.

Hunters can report harvests to the DNR in real time, and an integrated feature lets them upload photos to social media. The app, available on Android and Apple devices, including Apple Watch, also determines sunrise/sunset times based on the user’s location.

Arkansas coordinated services across multiple agencies to create a “personal government assistant,” Gov2Go. When residents provide basic information, the technology tracks the individual’s list of annual government interactions and then provides personalized alerts to them.

An individual might share his or her license plate number, for example; Gov2Go then looks up the expiration date and reminds the user when the vehicle registration is about to expire, that property taxes must first be paid and that the property must also be assessed. Gov2Go sends information to an individual’s smartphone and interacts with Apple Watch.

At the federal level, agencies can streamline information and processes to adapt them for optimal mobile functionality. One first step is to evaluate existing services to be mobile-enabled, meaning regardless of the device being used to view the information, the content scales accordingly.

Another area is to review all current paper processes. This year, the National Park Service is piloting Your Pass Now, a digital solution that makes park passes available for sale online. And, as with Gov2Go, the future is moving from a graphic user interface to a conversational user interface. Federal agencies should start planning now for a future in which individuals complete tasks by having conversations with a device, as opposed to touching a screen like we do today.

User-friendly Design: Customer-Focused Look and Functionality

Citizens and businesses are more likely to interact with the federal government online if government sites and processes are easy to navigate. Hawaii borrowed gamification techniques to change the way it delivers services to residents. The state gave its .gov site a fun, appealing design by adding game elements like badges, leaderboards and colorful graphics.

When Hawaii started the portal redesign process, fewer than 5 percent of its citizen and business transactions were conducted online. Just five months after introducing the “gamified” portal, overall adoption of online services increased approximately 20 percent.

Last year, Utah launched a redesigned website that broke down barriers between city, county and state services. The state studied how citizens and businesses used the site and learned they wanted frequent, quick interactions with government.

Utah created unique website entry points that facilitate simple, positive interactions. Based on the location of the user’s computer or mobile device, the site provides localized information and services at all three levels of government. Utah’s user-friendly approach propels tens of millions of transactions annually.

In the federal government setting, it’s important to evaluate how an individual or business interacts with your service or agency and create efficiencies accordingly, keeping the focus on the end user rather than the agency’s business process. Elements such as single-user accounts within a department or even across multiple agencies create significant convenience for citizens and businesses. Also, simply allowing for secure electronic payment processing and forms that can be completed and submitted digitally is an element of user-friendly design.

Multiagency Use: One Entry Point to Several Agencies

Several states have created “business one-stop” services that allow current businesses and future entrepreneurs to complete multiple agency applications and licensing forms from a single online entry point.

Oregon, for example, created a one-stop online location for business purposes. With Oregon’s Business Xpress, an entrepreneur can complete all of the required tasks to start a business from a single location – no need to navigate multiple agencies’ organizational structures to register their company names, pay taxes or seek financing.

With the scale of the federal government far exceeding that of state government, federal agencies may first look to consolidate processes within their own agencies. Some industries are regulated by the federal government. Within commercial truck driving alone, it could be beneficial to check a truck driver’s Compliance, Safety and Accountability score, crash and inspection data and drug and alcohol testing records all from a single location.

Public demand continues to advance the president’s 2012 digital government strategy. With more than 20 years of time-tested citizen and business digital government services under states’ belt, federal agencies can speed up their digital implementation by taking a page from the states’ digital government playbook.