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Digital Services Shouldn’t Feel Like Thumbscrews

April 30, 2015 Leave a comment

I’ve been a blood donor for 40 years. I like the cookies they give out afterwards. Over the years, the Red Cross, through which I donate most frequently, has improved its pre-donation process from a paper-intensive pain in the butt to a mildly annoying, semi-automated deal. Unlike the Transportation Security Administration, there’s no “Pre”-like arrangement under which regular donors can bypass the tedious questions about whether they’ve lived in certain places or engaged in particular behaviors associated with no-good blood.

Sometimes I donate via Inova. Once a year they team up with the Washington Nationals. You go to the ball park at a designated time and after making your blood donation, you receive two game tickets, a T-shirt and a park tour. I don’t mind seeing the massive underground beer distribution system one more time.

Inova-Nationals’ process for setting up your designated time provides a lesson in how digital services can, if badly designed, make a process worse than the old way of phoning and singing up. From a Nationals e-mail you follow a link to a page listing the entire donation day in 15-minute intervals. Pick your time, click on the “schedule” button next to it, and end up at an Inova logon page.

One of the most irritating features of the online life is the multiplicity of “accounts” you have to have. I knew I must’ve had an Inova account. Its logon page seemed to recognize my e-mail and donor ID, but I simply could not get past the multiple security questions, ending up stuck in a frustrating closed loop of dialog pages. So, I dialed the 866 number. After being on hold for about 5 minutes, a young operator came on and said, “Hello, Mr. Temin.” Caller ID. She made the appointment in literally 15 seconds. No passwords, IDs, security questions. They’ll check my driver’s license when I get there. I confirming e-mail came seconds later.

This is the sort of thing Mikey, Tony, Megan and the other stars in the government’s digital constellation need to keep in mind. People don’t want digital services per se so much as they want easy access to whatever services they seek.

One of the news sites published a report on a bogus-sounding survey of Americans, concluding we are not particularly interested in digital services offered by the federal government. The implication of the story is that the government is chasing something people don’t want. The particular research firm has a reputation for iconoclastic studies. It gets headlines. But the research and the story dutifully transmitting it are beside the point.

For the average American, the federal government is typically no more central to his or her daily thinking than the question of whether Queen Victoria should have annexed the Transvaal. So what? That’s what you should expect from a healthy, free people. Yet everyone at some point in their lives will need to interact with a federal agency. So it’s incumbent on agencies to have good online services. As Veterans Affairs CIO Steph Warren pointed out the other day, if the surveyors had asked whether people want fast, convenient and accurate results when they do need something from the government, 99 percent would have answered, “Of course!”

Open data, or the availability of federal agency data sets, also fail to catch fire with the American imagination. A Pew Research Center study confirms that two thirds of Americans in the past year have visited a federal web site. Most people were looking for some piece of information, not specifically wanting to download a data set. In fact, most people think government doesn’t do a particularly good job of sharing information. I suspect that’s related to what they hear in general media about government and the fairly low responsiveness to Freedom of Information Act requests so many agencies exhibit. Here again, that doesn’t absolve agencies from being thorough in how they release data. Data sets are’t suitable for mass consumption. But each one is highly relevant for some business, trade group or individual. And so agencies spend their time well when they put some effort into making their data sets accessible.

Blood donors interact with Inova or the Red Cross at most a few times a year. But when they do, they should have a good digital experience. By the same token, most people ping the government way less frequently than they do Zappos or Amazon. But when they do click on a dot-gov, they expect the same grade of experience.

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I hate to break it to you, but FITARA does NOT give federal CIOs total IT budget authority

April 19, 2015 Leave a comment

Sorry, but CIOs will not get the budget authority everyone has been reporting they will under the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act.

Now that I have not buried the lead, a little context.

One of the more intriguing recent Government Accountability Office look-sees didn’t get enough attention. I featured the report on The Federal Drive when I interviewed GAO’s Dave Powner, but I hope more agency executives take a look. The gist of the report is this: Federal chief information officers have to file a lot of reports every year, and  many of them are at least a partial waste of time. CIOs must file 36 mandatory reports, and a survey GAO conducted shows CIOs think 24 of the reports don’t help them much in managing their responsibilities as they relate to their departments’ priorities.

One big reason is that many of the reports concern progress on generic, government-wide requirements — IT strategic planning, capital and investment management, cybersecurity, IT acquisition, and e-government. GAO points out, the Office of Management and Budget directs CIO’s to concentrate on things like proper governance, meaning budget, acquisition and portfolio analysis. Or commodity IT, meaning data center consolidation, cutting redundant systems and using more shared services. That’s only natural, given OMB’s governmentwide view.

It’s a prime example of how large bureaucracies, both private and public, default to detailed process to achieve goals. The recipe approach indeed works in many domains where you want absolutely repeatable outcomes. If you are producing 1,000 wedding cakes a week or 1,000 airliners a year, process is paramount.

For CIOs the problem with all this process and reporting, aside from the cost and questionable relevance of much of it, stems from how little use it can be in resolving department-specific challenges. Filing 36 reports a year didn’t get the Veterans Affairs Department to Nirvana in scheduling and treating veterans, or Health and Human Services to stop wasting 15 percent of Medicare and Medicaid dollars. It won’t get NASA to Mars any time sooner, nor will it save State Department systems from being turned into a botnet for Russian hackers.

The reporting questions came just as it dawned on CIOs that the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) I mentioned at the beginning, is law. Now CIOs are awaiting OMB guidance on how to implement what passed as a large amendment to the 2015 National Defense Acquisition Act.

Some CIOs are asking what FITARA will really change. Its most widely-quoted visible provision gives CIOs authority over departments’ IT budgets. That authority was not given by the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act, which made CIOs the primary advisors to agency heads on IT architectures and investments. But it left primary budget authority with chief financial officers, consistent with Title 35 of Chapter 44 of the U.S. Code. CFOs understandably like and defend their budget authority, as many a CIO has learned.

In my reading of the law (scroll WAY down to Section 5101), CIOs still don’t get total budget authority. FITARA elevates CIOs such that “amounts appropriated … for information technology shall be allocated … in such a manner as specified by, or approved by, the Chief Information Officer of the agency in consultation with the Chief Financial Office of the agency and budget officials” (emphasis mine). So the complex interplay among OMB, CFOs and CIOs is still there, but now CIOs have more weight. What actually changes will depend on CIOs making the case for how they allocate IT spending. To the extent everyone else involved in the decision agrees on specific agency priorities, that shouldn’t be a problem.

A couple of CIOs I’ve spoken to note that because of the highly federated nature of their departments, there’s a long tradition of autonomy by large agencies over their own IT. That won’t be easy to change. Down-a-notch CIOs won’t give up easily. Department CIOs don’t want to become clerks, signing off on every little thing an agency level CIO decides to buy. If title defines the job, agency and bureau CIOs will have “deputy,” “assistant” or “associate” added to their titles. That might help underscore the superior authority of the departmental CIO.

FITARA might bring the beginning of the end for so many CIO reports. Section 5102 gives the CIO Council a bigger job. It’s supposed to “develop cross-agency portfolio management practices” and “issue guidelines and practices for infrastructure and common information technology applications.” All of this is to be “used as the basis for comparing performance across diverse missions and operations in various agencies.” I’m thinking maybe the CIO Council, which of course is made up of CIOs, could take over some of the common reports departmental CIOs are obligated with. Then, CIOs would have more time to think about specific departmental missions and playing nice with the CFOs.

There’s much more to FITARA. The law pushes data center consolidation, rationality in acquisition of software licenses, cloud computing, and reduction of duplicative contracts. Nearly every item in FITARA has been proposed either in law or by executive branch initiative going back to something called Reform ’88, launched in 1982. It made the cover of the first issue of Government Computer News, but rated only Page 7 in Computerworld.

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