Can You Top the Federal Digital Strategy?

The United States government has an ambitious, four-part plan to not only use the latest, greatest, most secure and most interoperable tech, but also to use that tech to stay in touch with its citizens. Enterprises in need of a 21st century digital strategy should look no further.

When you think of agile, forward-looking organizations with customer-focused, coherent enterprisewide digital strategies, what comes to mind? Silicon Valley startups, perhaps? Maybe a few select high technology companies?

How about the United States government?

Surprised? You're not alone. After all, the federal government has the admittedly well-deserved reputation of being bloated, wasteful, slow-moving and frequently dysfunctional. And there's no question the government is truly immense, where bureaucrats and politicians toss around figures in the trillions of dollars without batting an eye.

You'd think such an organization would be the last place to look for a world-class example of an enterprise digital strategy.

Well, think again.

Over the last few years, the Obama administration has been quietly assembling a number of technology initiatives aimed at streamlining expenditures, serving citizens and federal employees, improving security and leveraging 21st century technology trends to the fullest, including mobile technologies, Web application best practices, and modern architectural approaches. Spearheading this effort is Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel, who's using his many years of experience as a software industry executive to drive a comprehensive digital strategy for the entire U.S. government.

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If you don't actually work for the government, then why should you care? Here are three reasons:

  • If you are a US citizen, then the federal digital strategy signifies a new era of openness and value, as the government leverages technology to serve its citizens in more effective, efficient ways.
  • For people around the world, this strategy provides global technology leadership—the United States leading by example rather than by projecting power, which presents a new 21st century paradigm for our role as the only remaining 20th century superpower.
  • Most importantly, the federal digital strategy offers a blueprint for any enterprise struggling with similar challenges in an increasingly mobile, technology-centric world. There's no reason why your own digital strategy can't be as good.

Federal Digital Strategy a Reason to Be Optimistic

The federal digital strategy, officially called Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People, is the latest in a series of initiatives from the federal CIO's office to help the government do more with less. This mantra essentially represents an optimistic view of the role of government—through the efficiencies of technology, we as citizens can get more value from our government, even as fiscal pressures lead to ongoing cost cutting. (After all, Americans love talking about reducing government expenditure until it comes to cutting the programs and services we like.)

The goal of the federal digital strategy is to have our cake while eating it too through the disruptive power of technology. To that end, its objective include the following:

  • Keeping up with the pace of technological change by securely architecting systems from conception for interoperability and openness.
  • Enabling U.S. citizens and an increasingly mobile government workforce to access government information and services anywhere, anytime, on any device.
  • Purchasing and managing devices, applications and data in intelligent, secure and affordable ways—in essence, getting mobile "right" from the beginning.
  • Leveraging government information to deliver better services as well as to spur innovation across the country. An essential element of this objective is to ensure that all information is open and machine-readable by default.

At the center of the strategy is the role of architecture. Architecting systems for interoperability and openness is the key to operationalizing an information-centric model for both structured information (data) and unstructured information (content).

Traditionally, the government has architected systems for specific uses at specific points in time, leading to long-term inflexibility and extensive duplication of effort. Furthermore, the tight coupling of presentation and information inherent in one-off, bespoke solutions has made it difficult to break out of the vicious cycle of expensive, inflexible IT solutions.

To address these longstanding issues, the federal digital strategy delineates four core approaches—an information-centric approach, a shared platform approach, a customer-centric approach and a platform of security and privacy. The desired result of this strategy is a careful balance between security and openness. It's important for agencies to respect the presumption of openness by publishing information online. As a result, privacy and security concerns must not unnecessarily stifle the government's ability to architect for openness and engage with the public.

The Four Approaches of the Federal Digital Strategy

The first of the four approaches is the information-centric approach. This shifts the focus from managing documents to managing discrete, open data and content that agencies can tag, share, secure, mash up and present to citizens via multiple channels, maximizing the usefulness of the information. Rather than thinking primarily about the final presentation—publishing Web pages, mobile applications or brochures, for example—an information-centric approach focuses on ensuring data and content are accurate, available and secure, independent of presentation. In fact, the federal digital strategy calls for treating all content as data—in other words, turning unstructured content into structured information.

Another essential element of the strategy is the requirement that agencies expose information in a machine-readable format, with the addition of valid metadata and access through Web APIs. There is also an increased emphasis on improving the quality, accessibility, timeliness and usability of government information through the use of open standards. The goal of the information-centric approach is to establish a "new default" in which agencies must architect all newly developed IT systems for openness, exposing data and content as Web APIs at a discrete and digestible level of granularity.

The shared platform approach builds on the information-centric approach and seeks to eliminate inefficiencies, such as fragmented procurement and development practices, which waste taxpayer dollars and impede adoption of new technologies and approaches. To this end, the federal digital strategy calls for a government-wide shift to a shared platform culture that makes operational the prin¬ciple of "build once, use many times." The goal of this approach is to build for multiple requirements at the same time, using common standards and architectures, and phasing out the use of custom-built, proprietary products in favor of open source technologies and approaches.

This shift is more cultural than technological, as the federal digital strategy calls for broad participation in open source communities, public crowdsourcing of ideas and shared ownership of common, commodity IT services across multiple agencies. Such commodity services include IT infrastructure (data centers, networks, desktop computers, mobile devices and so on), enterprise IT systems (including email, collaboration tools, identity and access management, security, and Web infrastructure) and business systems (finance, human resources and other administrative functions).

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the shared platform approach is the requirement that the government shift to an enterprisewide asset management and procurement model, which will lead to shared, government-wide solutions and contract vehicles. To enable this cultural shift, the federal government requires an effective governance structure that cuts across agencies and departments in order to drive the administration's IT policy. This plan is ambitious, to say the least.

The customer-centric approach is also at its core a change in culture to one of customer service. Everybody complains that the government is too complex and difficult to work with. As a result, an essential part of this cultural shift is the need to absorb the complexity of the government on behalf of the citizen. To this end, the federal digital strategy calls for a focus on the fundamentals of customer-centric design, a measurement of how well agencies are providing meaningful services to citizens, a focus of efforts on interactions that have the most value, the institutionalization of performance measurement and a continuous improvement of services.

At the center of the customer-centric approach is the comprehensive enablement of mobility, which is not just about embracing the newest mobile technology, but, rather, fundamental changing how, when and where citizens and government employees work and interact.

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Mobile technologies—including the devices, infrastructure, and applications that support a mobile citizenry and workforce—are a critical enabler of mobility, but are only part of the cultural and technological shift that mobility represents.

Mobility, therefore, depends upon device independence. The focus is on how mobility, not just mobile technology, fits into an organization, leading to a mantra of "anytime, anywhere, any device." To achieve this goal, the federal digital strategy calls for agencies to mobile-enable at least two priority customer-facing services to start, and to rework all their Web sites so that they follow responsive Web design. Doing so will ensure that content can automatically resize to fit on various screens and devices.

Finally, the federal digital strategy calls for a platform of security and privacy. There must be a balance between the need to protect sensitive government and citizen assets, given the realities of a rapidly changing technology landscape, while at the same time supporting information sharing and collaboration.

To achieve this delicate balance, the government must build in security, privacy and data protection by design throughout the entire technology lifecycle by integrating effective security and privacy measures into all new technologies, including mobile devices, applications, wireless networks and cloud computing initiatives. There must also be safeguards that prevent the improper collection, retention, use or disclosure of sensitive data such as personally identifiable information (PII).

This approach also supports device-agnostic security and privacy controls, with the focus on securing the data instead of the device. This is essential in the world of mobile technologies, since mobile devices have unique security challenges. Portability makes them easy to misplace, potentially compromising any unencrypted data or applications stored locally. Furthermore, wireless con¬nectivity lets users bypass an agency's secure network and connect directly to the Internet and other untrusted resources.

One important element of the plan to adequately secure mobile devices relies upon the inherent security of cloud computing. Hosting applications, operating systems and data in an appropriately secured cloud environment, rather than on a device, will limit the potential impact to an agency in the event a device is lost, stolen or compromised. The federal digital strategy, therefore, is forward-looking enough to realize that cloud computing offers robust security capabilities—despite the broadly held misconception that clouds have inherent security limitations.

Important Enterprise Takeaways from the Federal Digital Strategy

To achieve the goal of doing more for less, the U.S. government must efficiently build the modern infrastructure it needs to support digital government efforts while leveraging its immense buying power to reduce costs.

The story doesn't end there. Fundamentally, the federal digital strategy aims to be disruptive. While ostensibly focused on technology, it is in fact more about a shift to a culture where information is open by default, where sharing of platforms, information, and services is the norm and where security and privacy controls apply to data rather than devices. Most importantly, there's the cultural shift that the existence of the federal digital strategy itself represents—well-designed, architecture-driven organizational governance that clearly and concisely communicates the wishes of management throughout the enterprise in a way that supports the achievement of the stated goals.

There are important lessons here for any organization:

  • Does your organization have a shared platform culture?
  • What about a technology-enabled customer service culture?
  • Have you fully grasped the power and risk that mobility presents, leading to an "anytime, anywhere, any device" mantra?
  • Do you have a clearly stated, architecture-driven digital strategy that is more than a thought piece, but can actually drive change in your organization?

Yes, the U.S. government is immense, complex and bureaucratic. There's also no question many agencies will struggle to comply with the federal digital strategy. There will be delays, wasted funds and internal squabbles. However, if our government can implement a comprehensive, innovative digital strategy, then so can your organization.

Jason Bloomberg is the president and an original managing partner of ZapThink, a leading service-oriented architecture (SOA) advisory and analysis firm, which was acquired by Dovel Technologies in August 2011. Bloomberg is a thought leader in the areas of enterprise architecture, SOA and cloud computing who helps organizations around the world better leverage their IT resources to meet changing business needs.

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