It’s Time for a National Digital Strategy

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And its focus should be to drive simplified citizen interactions across government.

We recently celebrated the first anniversary of the President’s Management Agenda. From the Centers of Excellence to the Technology Modernization Fund to the draft Federal Data Strategy, there has been great activity over the past year. There’s more to come with a host of new policies expected from the Office of Management and Budget before the end of the summer. The federal government is building strong digital muscles.

Success, however, “begins with the end in mind,” so one must ask: What is the end goal for all the digital capabilities we are building? The PMA does not describe this end state in detail, other than in broad terms related to IT modernization or using data as a strategic asset.

I suggest that the United States needs a national digital strategy to guide the ongoing development of these capabilities and chart a course for a truly integrated federal government.

Denmark, Australia, the Republic of Korea, and the U.K. all have strategic approaches to direct their nations’ use of IT. As a result, these countries rank in the top 4 of the United Nation’s E-Government Development Index as reported in their 2018 survey. The U.S. ranks 11th on this list, behind Sweden, Finland, Singapore, New Zealand, France and Japan. We must do better.

I believe that a national digital strategy should embrace the following concepts:

  • We must treat the citizen as a customer of the whole federal government, not just one program or agency.
  • IT should be customer focused, integrating citizen experiences that cut across agencies.
  • Government should utilize automation and customer self-service to streamline interactions with agencies.
  • Foster cross-agency data sharing to break down silos, drive efficiencies, and mission success.
  • Support a virtual government re-alignment to organize services in meaningful ways for citizens.

An excellent starting point for a U.S. digital strategy is the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act. The law requires that government agencies make customer experience a priority by offering modern, consumer-focused IT capabilities, such as mobile-friendly online options for paper-based forms and digital signatures. These are important initiatives, but they maintain an agency-by-agency focus and a government that is not integrated from the customer’s perspective.

Ironically, another important starting point goes back to one of the earliest “e-government” initiatives. Benefits.gov was launched in 2002 as part of the PMA and has been serving citizens since. The site pulls together information across multiple government programs and helps citizens understand how to access resources that might help them achieve their personal goals.

Nevertheless, the current approach is the antithesis of a 21rst century digital government. For example, the site lists 58 different loan programs run by at least six agencies. Citizens can enter information to describe themselves and answer simple questions about their needs, directing them to a list of programs for which they may qualify. However, it does not help them apply for benefits. It just directs them to contact the agency that runs the program and begin an independent application process, eventually re-entering all their personal information multiple times.

Orchestration and automation are cornerstones of first-class customer experiences. In a modern, digital government, the data provided by the citizen would be shared via API with the respective loan processing systems within each corresponding agency and begin a loan application. Conceptually, artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities could provide the citizen back with a tentative loan decision and speed the process.

A foundation for the U.S. digital strategy must be to use data to break down silos, create efficiencies and drive simplified citizen interactions across government.

There are additional benefits to charting a strategic approach to a digital government. First, every administration proposes bold plans to move functions from one department to another in the spirit of better alignment. While an actual realignment is unlikely, a virtual realignment is possible by collecting digital capabilities that cross agencies and presenting them to citizens in a consolidated way. Further, a cross-agency focus on citizen data and system integration create new opportunities to combat fraud and improper payments.

When a citizen interacts with the federal government today, it is not a consistent experience, and in some cases, can be in a very disconnected manner. It does not have to be this way. The United States is well-positioned to create a national digital strategy to capitalize on its data, recent IT modernization investments and related legislation to drive streamlined government and greater citizen engagement.

Jonathan Alboum is the chief technology officer of public sector for Veritas.

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