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White House Rolls Out New Plan for Digital Government

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, May 23 2012

The White House on Wednesday rolled out a new strategy document on digital government that sets out government-wide goals and priorities for dealing with citizens online, creates a new center at the General Services Administration to encourage agencies to get onboard, and calls for new government-wide standards for IT procurement.

White House Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel and Chief Technology Officer Todd Park unveiled the strategy Wednesday at TechCrunch Disrupt, a technology conference held in New York City. In their remarks, they framed the strategy as a sweeping reinvention of the way the government interacts with citizens online designed to make it ever easier for people inside and outside of government to improve service delivery for Americans over the web.

"We're going to build things to work anywhere, anytime and in a mobile-aware way," VanRoekel said Wednesday.

Among the changes called for in the plan:

  • Within six months, the Office of Management and Budget will release new government-wide standards for open data, content, and web application programming interfaces. Agencies will have another six months to make sure they are following those policies. They are also going to be asked to take two customer-facing online services and expose the information it delivers through APIs to "appropriate audiences," meaning some set of developers will be able to build applications around them without necessarily working in close concert with the agency providing the data.
  • Agencies will be asked to publish ever more data through APIs and as structured data, which are the building blocks of modern web design and mobile-ready websites. The White House line on this is that it will also encourage outside developers to build new businesses on top of government data.
  • The General Services Administration will establish a Digital Services Innovation Center to work with agencies to modernize how they interact with citizens on the web.
  • The White House will begin releasing its own source code on GitHub and launch a "presidential innovation fellowship" program to bring developers from the private sector into government for six-to-12-month projects.
  • The federal government will work to develop "MyGov," a prototype central hub for citizens to access all the services and information they're looking for from government online.
  • Through programs like one intended to encourage small businesses to compete for government business, the White House will work to change IT procurement practices and cut down on the number of high-dollar, low-output contracts. Other procurement-related initiatives include a government-wide vehicle for mobile device and wireless service contracting and government-wide guidance on bring-your-own-device policies.
  • Data.gov, the federal repository for government data available online, will transition away from being a hub for data files and towards a central clearing house of government APIs that developers can incorporate into web applications.

In scale and scope, the plan is similar to the Obama administration's 2009 Open Government Directive, which obliged agencies to identify and release "high-value datasets" — troves of data inside government that could be of use to researchers, entrepreneurs, journalists or developers — to the public, and to keep those datasets maintained. In practice, the directive often resulted in the release of many data sets that were already available online, although it also began an ongoing series of projects across federal government to improve access to information.

The plan also implements at the federal level a number of projects first tested at individual agencies. The idea of moving agency websites to increasingly use APIs and provide data through web services, for example, was a project engineered first at the Federal Communications Commission.

Moving federal code to GitHub and launching a fellowship program were ideas launched recently at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, although VanRoekel has discussed a fellowship program in the past.

The plan also brings more structure to the idea that there should be fewer websites with the .gov domain name. Last year, the White House announced a consolidation of .gov domains and a freeze on new .gov domains as part of an initiative to cut waste — something that didn't go over too well at techPresident HQ because of the relatively low cost of setting up and maintaining a simple website. In remarks today, VanRoekel announced a new mandate to stop creating new .gov domains, framed instead as a means of improving service delivery.

The strategy rolled out today aims to make it easier for citizens to find information that is now scattered across federal domains. Launching new web services within the domains the government already has, and consolidating data and services on those domains, is the new plan.

"We want to end the era where there are thousands of websites you have to go to," Park, the White House CTO, said.

Students, for example, have to go to 14 different websites in search of information about federal student aid, Park said.

"The Federal Government must fundamentally shift how it thinks about digital information," the plan reads. "Rather than thinking primarily about the final presentation – publishing web pages, mobile applications or brochures – an information-centric approach focuses on ensuring our data and content are accurate, available, and secure."

Close observers of what the government does online were generally pleased with the plan's content, but dubious about how well the federal government could do on execution.

"My immediate thing is, okay, well, how can we ensure that it actually happens, that they actually execute on it," said Jim Gilliam, a longtime digital activist. As Obama entered office, Gilliam launched White House 2, meant as a proof-of-concept of how the federal government could be working online.

"What I think is lacking is an incentive for the agencies," Gilliam said. Later in the conversation, he added, "from an agency standpoint all I see is, you 'should do this,' that's all."

John Wonderlich, the Sunlight Foundation's* policy director, was similarly skeptical.

"It's very hard to get excited about government-wide tech plans, when the people who write them leave, and then we get new plans," he wrote on Twitter. In another tweet, he continued:

"There's the OGD" — that's the Open Government Directive — "the OGP commitments" — that's the Open Government Partnership — "vivek's old 25 point plan" — released by former Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, who left federal government last year — "and now a new unified plan?"

One argument to make from inside government is that many of the tools necessary to provide basic structured data for developers via API are already there, thanks to a slow migration to the 21st century already under way in federal government. Many agencies already use modern content management systems like Drupal or Wordpress, which provide the ability to store content along with the kind of ancillary information — author, publishing date, subject matter, related articles and so on — that this initiative in part emphasizes. That's less helpful the more complex an API is expected to be — but it's a start.

The proposals in the White House's digital plan are all well and good, says Clay Johnson, who co-founded Blue State Digital and is a former director of Sunlight Labs, but they don't address a core problem: government paying far too much for information technology.

"it is bizarre to me that they're not taking procurement on, besides managing some economies of scale," Johnson wrote to me in an email. "Everything that they're saying they're doing is great stuff. But what they're not doing is anything remarkably close to procurement reform. Not even a "task force" to figure out how to buy web-based IT better or faster? They should at LEAST be starting to investigate that."

This post has been corrected to fix typos. It briefly gave the wrong name for the General Services Administration. It has also been corrected to fix an erroneous date. The White House announced its "Campaign to Cut Waste," which included an initiative to cut down on new domain names, last year, not this year.