Federal IT 'Playbook' Looks to Avoid Healthcare.gov Redux

White House digital services team urges CIOs to consider users' needs and iterative design as they roll out new citizen-facing IT projects.

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Credit: playbook.cio.gov

In the push to improve the delivery of government services while keeping costs in check, federal CIOs need to reevaluate the way the traditional ways they plan and implement new IT projects, senior administration and industry officials say.

At a recent government IT conference hosted by Adobe, Erie Meyer, the administrator of the U.S. Digital Service at the White House, touted the "playbook" that her team has created to serve as a blueprint for developing new services.

That document offers 13 "plays" that can serve as best practices for new IT projects, drawing on accepted wisdom in the design and development arena such as starting with the needs of the users, and building the project "using agile and iterative practices."

It's all a work in progress, as the rocky rollout of the Healthcare.gov insurance portal vividly demonstrated. The failings of that project, although certainly more closely watched than the typical government IT initiative, were hardly anomalous.

"I don't want to shock anybody, but that is not the only project in government that was over budget, blew its timelines and then didn't work," Meyer says. "There might actually be one or two more out there."

[ Related: Healthcare.gov Website 'Didn't Have a Chance in Hell' ]

The White House formed the U.S. Digital Service after the healthcare website had been largely fixed, and is seeking to apply the lessons of that experience to new IT projects. In addition to providing ammunition to opponents of the healthcare law, the persistently glitchy website was an embarrassment for an administration that prides itself on technical acumen and speaks often about the need to marshal technology to improve citizen services.

Included in those efforts is an emphasis on private-sector solutions, and the feds have set up a government-wide security review process for evaluating the security of cloud computing applications.

[ Related: Federal CIO Calls for Government-Wide 'IT as a Service' ]

Adobe Introduces Cloud Solutions for Government

Adobe took the occasion of its government conference to roll out a new product suite that it's calling cloud solutions for government, offering tools and resources to help the agencies create and deliver dynamic content and service through their websites.

Addressing a room of federal IT workers, John Mellor, Adobe's vice president of strategy, business development and digital marketing, noted that the government sector carries a distinctive set of demands that vendors need to consider when developing services and applications for that market. At the same time, some of the pressures for cutting costs and improving efficiencies that are driving the federal move to the cloud are not unknown in the private sector.

"Many of the technical requirements are unique, and Adobe is pushing very hard to drive those capabilities, those unique requirements you all have around security, reliability, openness," Mellor says. "But in a lot of ways, the demands on us in this room are very similar between government and between industry. And one of those is that we're always being asked to do more with less."

Meyer stresses the importance of the first item in the Digital Service playbook -- "understand what people need" -- as a guiding principal for new IT projects.

"The needs of people -- not the constraints of government structures or siloes -- should inform technical and design decisions," she says, reading from the document.

She recalls her time working in the Ohio attorney general's office before coming to the federal government. There, she had been working on digitizing the complaint forms that citizens would file to report a scam. The attorneys who were reviewing the project insisted on including the language "do not attach original documents" on the online form, an odd requests that for Meyer illustrates the importance of beginning a project from the perspective of the user experience.

"So I'm imagining the person rolling up their birth certificate and stuffing it in the USB port," Meyer says. "I understand the intention, but the feedback you're giving is really for a paper context and we're in a digital one. And that happens all the time."

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