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9 Things You Should Know Before Debating, From Someone Who Actually Launched a Successful Government Website

BY Merici Vinton | Thursday, October 24 2013

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Editor's note: Merici Vinton was one of the first employees of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as digital lead. She assisted the agency's chief technology officer Eugene Huang and its special advisor (and now Senator) Elizabeth Warren with the development of its technology and digital strategy. She oversaw the successful launch of and recruited most of the original technology and digital team. She left CFPB in June 2012. About twelve percent of the agency's staff are part of its tech team.

Over the summer of 2010, I had coffee with Eugene Huang. Eugene worked in the White House as a Senior Advisor to the US CTO and had been recently appointed as the acting CTO at a new federal agency called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He asked me: What would you do if you had the opportunity to make digital and tech work in government?

My response was threefold:
1. Never build a website that's too big to fail; instead, start small.
2. Let's do open source when possible (preferably always).
3. Let's have in house strategy, design, and tech.
None of this was particularly revolutionary in the private sector, however many government agencies at that time (and currently) outsource their technical capabilities to the point where the vision and strategy is out of house. Not only that, fixing a typo on a website can take 24 hours. My conversation with Eugene laid the foundation for what became our technology and digital team, as well as approach to digital services. Here's how we did it.

[tl;dr: Start small, have a vision, fix federal hiring and procurement. And stop putting website requirements in legislation..]

It's not impossible to deliver good services over the web in government.

The CFPB did it - and continues to. The FCC, Energy, NASA, EPA and probably many others do. Gray Brooks works with federal agencies to get them to use APIs when it makes sense (and maybe there should be more than one Gray). The Government Digital Service team in the UK continues to lead the way with its ability to infiltrate various government agencies and start to bring their services online in a user-centric way. Here's more on their strategy (aka: delivery) from their director, Mike Bracken.

But it requires leadership, vision, and stubbornness.

We had some of the most ridiculous battles at the CFPB about various digital things, from whether to allow blog comments (!!) to taking paper forms and making them make sense for the web, but you gotta keep your eye on the goal and make it happen. And all of this happened while we were literally creating a new agency, hiring people, and under intense political pressure from all sides. It helped immensely to have buy in and cover from Elizabeth Warren to help us achieve what we did; she even demo-ed filing a complaint or two prior to the launch of our complaint system in July 2011. We also received commitments from leadership to not launch until we had a working prototype.

Start small.

Duh. We launched a pretty basic, consumer facing public website in six to eight weeks (See techPresident's story from February 2011). From there we spent the next six months building the complaint intake system, as was stipulated by the Dodd Frank Act (more on that below). On our July 21, 2011 launch, the system took one type of compliant (credit cards); since then, the CFPB has added additional products - mortgages, credit scores, banking accounts, and so on. On launch we integrated our complaint system with a number of financial institutions; now the system integrates with over 100 financial institutions, the FTC, OCC, and 50 states. We did each rollout in small chunks and built more and more based on what we learned with each integration.

Make stuff simple (service design helps).

We took a 20+ page complaint form and turned it into this. We made the complaint form work for the web - and build the internal suite of services around it (to the extent that we could).

It sucks when the word "website" is mentioned in legislation.

The section of the legislation that created the CFPB (the Dodd Frank Act) mentions the word "website" once. For the Affordable Care Act, the word is mentioned 118 times. There's an entire section called "enrollment website requirements." That really sucks. Because that means that then you have a ton of (well-meaning) lawyers telling you, the tech/digital team, how to execute against legislation. Of course a private beta rollout would have been awesome, but my guess is that some lawyer said it's impossible because of an interpretation of the legislation.

Odds are that your big website project is going to fail anyway.

Government's not unique - the Standish Group CHAOS report puts the success rate of IT projects over $10 million at 10% while the chance of them failing or being cancelled is 38%. hasn't failed - yet, and hopefully won't - but definitely has a long ways to go. Within government, former Federal CIO Vivek Kundra created the Federal IT Dashboard to monitor IT projects across federal agencies. And promptly cancelled several large ones. The Standish Group has found that the number one factor determining IT project success is size. It beats out procurement, project methodology (agile or waterfall), technology choice, etc. That's why breaking things down to smaller projects is the number one way of improving success.

Procurement is a problem.

If you've been paying attention to this debate, you've probably heard this one. Government procurement guidelines make hiring the best companies to work with very difficult, but it can be overcome - it's a management and culture issue. And it's not impossible - at the CFPB we were fortunate enough to work with some of the most talented people I've ever worked with, who happened to be contractors. But that's because we, the tech team, were involved in the procurement process to whatever extent we legally could be. We had people who actually understand technology review the applications - this is rare, yet crucial to success.

But hiring is a much bigger problem.

The convoluted government hiring process makes it pretty impossible to hire the best people. This is something the CFPB and White House have attempted to improve with things like the Tech + Design Fellowships and the Presidential Innovation Fellows, respectively. The best teams are the most diverse teams and it requires involvement from your developers + digital team to actually get involved in recruitment (as opposed to leaving it to a gov hiring manager). And a last minute tech surge? I'm with the Mythical (wo)Man-Month - “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.”

And working in government can be awesome.

When the CFPB launched Know Before You Owe (its open and data-driven project to redesign mortgage disclosure forms), Professor Warren told us we changed how government works and raised people's expectations around service delivery from government. That's pretty cool. Engineers love hard problems and the government has got those in spades. It's up to the leadership in each agency to decide to make their organization a place where developers and designers *want* to work.

Finally, this:

Merici Vinton lives in London and works at the product and service design company, Made by Many. Follow her on Twitter.