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The Digital Government Strategy: The Vision and the Challenge

Originally published September 18, 2012

One of the first things that Steve VanRoekel did as Federal CIO was decide to brand his tenure – and the Administration’s new thrust into the IT arena – by launching the Digital Government Strategy (DGS). It was announced on May 23 but conceived very shortly after he took over the CIO slot late last summer. In any case, the DGS will be approximately four months old when this article is published. Most government strategies are considered to be in their infancy at the tender age of 120 days; but not the Digital Government Strategy since it is intended to be an action plan to be carried out over the course of one year.

It is important to recognize that this is not just VanRoekel’s strategy. Partial credit for his leadership must go to Federal CTO, Todd Park; and we cannot ignore that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) CIO Council in particular played an important collaborative role also. But in a sense it was important for VanRoekel and Park to establish their game plan and their vision soon after receiving the baton from their dynamic predecessors, Vivek Kundra (CIO) and Aneesh Chopra (CTO). And that is exactly what the Digital Government Strategy does.

First, let me say that in general terms I like it and applaud its scope and sense of urgency. By the same token, it faces some very real challenges. It is only fair that I express my concern after several decades of living inside the Beltway.

But first, what is the DGS and what are its principal components?

Its official title is “Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People,” and you can read the complete document on the White House website.

It is introduced by a good quote from President Obama that focuses our attention on the importance of the task at hand: “I want us to ask ourselves every day, how are we using technology to make a real difference in people’s lives.”

The DGS has three objectives it sets out to achieve:

  1. Enable the American people and an increasingly mobile workforce to access high-quality digital government information and services anywhere, anytime, on any device.

  2. Ensure that as the government adjusts to this new digital world, we seize the opportunity to procure and manage devices, applications, and data in smart, secure and affordable ways.

  3. Unlock the power of government data to spur innovation across our Nation and improve the quality of services for the American people.
So right away we can see that the strategy is about three things: mobility, governance and innovation. So far so good!!

After this opening, the DGS moves into more technical territory to explain what this future digital government should look like. The four key principles that underpin it are that it must be: a) information-centric; b) feature a shared platform; c) customer-centric; and d) protect both security and privacy.

Without going into a lot of technical detail on architecture, each one of these areas in turn features some key considerations or mandates.

How do you move to information-centrism?
1) Make Open Data, Content, and Web APIs the New Default
2) Make Existing High-Value Data and Content Available through Web APIs
What about the shared-platform?
3) Establish a Digital Services Innovation Center and Advisory Group
4) Establish Intra-Agency Governance to Improve Delivery of Digital Services
5) Shift to an Enterprise-Wide Asset Management and Procurement Model
And customer-centrism?
6) Deliver Better Digital Services Using Modern Tools and Technologies
7) Improve Priority Customer-Facing Services for Mobile Use
8) Measure Performance and Customer Satisfaction to Improve Service Delivery
Lastly, how are we going to insure that security and privacy are duly protected?
9) Promote the Safe and Secure Adoption of New Technologies
10) Evaluate and Streamline Security and Privacy Processes
Since I have been numbering in order to save you the trouble of counting, this leads to ten specific mandates that, in turn, have owners, milestones and deadlines. And practically everyone has been assigned a job to do. Aside from the fact that every agency is supposed to put their own plan in place to promote and move towards achieving these government-wide goals, there are several agencies that as usual carry an important load.

(Incidentally, GovLoop recently published an Infographics view that is very helpful to visualize the DGS roadmap. See The Digital Government Strategy Timeline - An Infographic, posted by Jeff Ribeira on August 9, 2012, at 10:30 a.m.)

The General Services Administration (GSA) is supposed to create an API catalog under Data.gov; establish the Digital Services Innovation Center; develop and issue a government-wide contract vehicle for mobile devices and wireless service; set up a government-wide mobile device management platform; and update the .gov domain guidance and procedures to make sure all new digital services meet guidelines and provide support.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is tasked totally or partially with the development of a government-wide mobile and wireless security baseline; reporting on its ongoing work on standards and guidelines for mobile technology; and developing guidelines, standards and education for digital privacy controls.

The Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the OMB (including the CIO Council) have all been assigned specific responsibilities for achieving these mandates.

Again, this is an ambitious roadmap, well thought out and with much to applaud. The vision is a good one. But there are some significant risks. I will only point out three:

First is time. The timeframe may just be unrealistic. Everything is supposed to happen in one year. If you look at the actual timeline, you will see the timeframe indicating when things are supposed to happen by quarters. There are only four columns encompassing one year. Now mind you, there is an election in November, and it is always interesting how things get front-loaded when there is that pesky requirement of getting re-elected for an Administration’s policies to be able to continue in place. But government moves slowly and many of these activities will require some procurement action, and that is usually slower than molasses, not counting the possibility of post-award protests and the like.

Second is money. All these mandates take money. The funds have to come out of either new appropriations or agencies must carve it out of existing budgets. At a time when the talk of “sequestration and financial cliffs” is rife and the possibilities quite real, this may be a serious obstacle to DGS.

Third is the GSA. While there is work assigned to everyone, the General Services Administration seems to have a fair amount of work placed on its shoulders. GSA is an excellent government institution with a long history of accomplishments. But it is also reeling from the recent incident that cost former Administrator Martha Johnson and several GSA executives their jobs because of an “over the top” conference in Las Vegas. It is under the microscope of several Congressional committees, and providing testimony and responding to questions from the Hill is, at the very least, time-consuming and distractive. The upshot of this is that it has a new Administrator in the process of stopping the bleeding via a series of cost-cutting measures as well as attempting to rebuild the agency’s morale and esprit de corps. It will be interesting to see how it will tackle all these added responsibilities.

In summary, the White House’s Digital Government Strategy is a good approach to move the Federal government to where it needs to be as it attempts to lead us into this brave new world that technology has wrought. But achieving it fully and successfully is not without challenges. We will continue to watch it carefully and report back to our readers in the next few months.

  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel


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