The U.S. Digital Services Playbook is the Future of Digital Business
by Tom Wentworth
Last week, the Obama administration unveiled a new program called the U.S. Digital Service. The Digital Service is a team of America's best and brightest digital strategists, who will collaborate with U.S. government agencies to make digital experiences more consumer friendly, and help the government better respond to the pressures of digital disruption. This initiative was created based on learnings from the successful partnership between public and private sector in the turnaround of the Healthcare.gov project.
A core part of the President’s Management Agenda is improving the value we deliver to citizens through Federal IT. That’s why, today, the Administration is formally launching the U.S. Digital Service. The Digital Service will be a small team made up of our country’s brightest digital talent that will work with agencies to remove barriers to exceptional service delivery and help remake the digital experience that people and businesses have with their government.
One of the first outputs from this team, is a new digital services playbook, outlining 13 key plays based on best practices learned across public and private sector digital transformation projects, which hope to guide Federal agencies through the successful implementation of digital projects.
"The American people expect to interact with government through digital channels such as websites, email, and mobile applications. By building better digital services that meet the needs of the people that use our services, we can make the delivery of our policy and programs more effective."
This digital services playbook contains fantastic advice for any brand or government. Here are three of the key "plays" I found to be most insightful:
"Our choices for hosting infrastructure, databases, software frameworks, programming languages and the rest of the technology stack should seek to avoid vendor lock-in and match what successful modern consumer and enterprise software companies would choose today."
Federal IT is still dominated by legacy technology vendors like Oracle and IBM, who are deeply embedded at all levels of government. Those in the technology sector know that legacy enterprise software is often the cause of failed IT projects. A 2012 McKinsey study revealed that 17% of lT projects budgeted at $15 million or higher go so badly as to threaten the company's existence, and more than 40% of them fail.
As a solution to the failed IT projects of the past, the digital services playbook wisely suggests that agencies should "Consider open source software solutions at all layers of the stack".
For example, the initial version of the heatlhcare.gov site was was open-sourced on GitHub, and it used a collection of open development platforms and frameworks including Bootstrap, Backbone.js, and many others. But the much larger part of the application wasn’t - the back end and its connectivity to all of the health care exchanges. Indeed, it was the proprietary piece of healthcare.gov that failed, and proprietary vendors like Oracle took most of the blame.
"When we collaborate in the open and publish our data publicly we can improve Government together. By building services more openly and publishing open data, we simplify the public’s access to government services and information, allow the public to easily provide fixes and contributions, and enable reuse by entrepreneurs, nonprofits, other agencies, and the public."
One of the main lessons from Healthcare.gov project was the need for openness and transparency in the development process. Healthcare.gov was delivered as a traditional "waterfall" software development project, with little transparency into the project timelines, requirements, etc. Modern application development practices minimize risk and unwanted surprised through processes like code reviews, unit tests, standup meetings, and the continuous delivery of code.
And one great piece of advice is found in the checklist for this section: "When appropriate, publish source code of projects or components online.” The White House has taken this advice, including in 2012 where they published the Drupal source code for We the People, the online petitions system that has been a popular way for the public to engage with the White House. By open sourcing We the People, the White House was able to get feedback, ideas, and code contributions from the public, in order to quickly iterate and improve the application.
"At all stages of a digital project, we should measure how well our service is working for our users. This includes measuring how well a system performs and how people are interacting with the system in real time. Our teams and agency leadership should carefully watch these metrics to proactively spot issues and identify which improvements should be prioritized. In addition to monitoring tools, a feedback mechanism should be in place for people to report issues directly."
Is the U.S. Government becoming a lean startup?!?! It would seem so. One of the key recommendations made is to "use an experimentation tool that supports multivariate testing in production"
A/B and multivariate testing allow the government to test new ideas with website visitors in order to constantly improve the site. The multivariate testing process is a powerful technique that combines and tests different elements of a webpage: colors, headers, call to action elements, headlines, video, images, layouts etc. Multivariate testing allows for data-driven decisions, eliminating the speculative decisions typically made based on the HiPPO– the Highest’s Paid Person’s Opinion.
It's great the see the U.S. Government recognize the importance of digital excellence, and that the tools and processes of the past aren't going to work:
"As technology changes, government must change with it to address new challenges and take advantage of new opportunities. This Administration has made important strides in modernizing government so that it serves its constituents more effectively and efficiently, but we know there is much more to do."
The Digital Services Playbook lays out a great foundation for digital transformation that applies to any government or brand.