When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, federal government employees across the country had to make dramatic changes to the way they operate. The country’s largest workforce shifted toward telework, and citizen services moved to being digital-first or in many cases, digital-only experiences.
Government digital service delivery, while ramping up before the pandemic, has become a front-burner issue in these unprecedented times. Federal agencies have increasingly adopted digital transformation tools at scale — cloud services, electronic signatures, virtual private networks (VPNs), web conferencing platforms, among others — to ensure mission continuity and drive more impactful citizen experiences.
Some agencies, such as the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have improved their user experience and employee productivity by updating their websites, digitizing paper-based forms, or using cloud-based electronic signature technology. The Department of Energy, as a leader in federal IT policy implementation, has accelerated compliance with the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA) by leveraging its Innovation Community Center (ICC) and artificial intelligence/machine learning technology to digitize more than 150 forms and use of electronic signatures to help streamline service delivery and reduce paper and overall costs.
There is still work to be done to improve digital service delivery in the Federal government, and the time to act is now. With the end of the government’s current fiscal year fast approaching, Congress and Executive Branch leaders must be prepared to push the boundaries on what’s possible in digital government. The opportunities are attainable but will require focus and prioritization from federal IT leaders and legislators alike.
One of the greatest barriers to the federal government’s digital service delivery transformation is a lack of Development, Modernization, and Enhancement (DME) funding. According to data from ITDashboard.gov, which provides budget and performance data on the federal government’s IT investments, only 21 percent of the total FY2020 federal IT budget ($14.5 billion) is allocated for DME funding, compared to 79 percent budgeted for Operation and Maintenance (O&M). As a result, federal agencies struggle to meet ongoing digital government congressional mandates or OMB directives such as the 21st Century IDEA, Creating Advanced Streamlined Electronic Services for Constituents Act (CASES Act), or OMB M-20-19: Harnessing Technology to Support Mission Continuity.
According to data sourced from Adobe Analytics, government websites in March-April 2020 experienced a visit growth twice as large as average compared to all other industries in the United States, especially on mobile devices.
Citizens have high expectations set by their online experiences with private sector banking, shopping, entertainment, especially now where the trend to move to digital is only increasing. In addition to reallocating funding, Congress should consider the recommendation of several congressional leaders to add 21st Century IDEA or a citizen service metrics to the future FITARA scorecard. These metrics would ensure that the modernization of federal agency digital services remains a top priority with government technology leaders and delivers meaningful value to taxpayers.
Congress should also vote to fully fund the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) above the original authorized level of $500 million to address current telework and IT modernization needs. This program has been chronically underfunded, not receiving an appropriation to match its annual authorized level of $250 million. The TMF is a critical program to help alleviate some of the DME versus O&M imbalance, will accelerate the adoption of federal telework services, and should also continue to follow the House Appropriations Committee guidance “to prioritize and fund those projects that have the most significant impact on mission enhancement and that most effectively modernize citizen-facing services.”
There is also tremendous promise in building better, more lasting public-private partnerships via the GSA Centers of Excellence (COEs). Legislation such as the Modernization Centers of Excellence Program Act, a bipartisan, bicameral bill introduced by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), would codify the existing COE program, while further encouraging agencies to utilize private sector innovation and proven commercially available technology to deliver enterprise transformation across mission-critical agencies.
The COVID-19 pandemic is transforming so much about how we live and work. Government is transforming too. Now is the time for Congress to enact policies and budgets that increase IT funding and make it easier for agencies to realize proven, scalable, and secure digital service delivery.