Improving the Government’s User eXperience

Welcome to your first day on the job. Here’s your Windows PC. Here’s your ethernet cable. Here’s your hardware token for VPN. Here’s your BlackBerry.

Remember new employee onboarding circa 2008? Unfortunately, 10 years later, and this is still the current state of user experience inside of many government organizations. The external user experience for citizens might be even worse, with services that impact each and every one of us still running on 424 million lines of 2000-era Active Server Pages code.

Things in the government move slowly. We all basically accept this as true. But why? Why are government employees and contractors forced to settle for yesterday’s technology? Why are we as citizens interacting with the government via decades old systems?

The government is responsible for a plethora of incredibly important functions and we are all part of its mission. We all want the government to be as advanced and sophisticated as possible; shouldn’t they have the same technologies the private sector and each one of us takes for granted on a daily basis?

Innovate all the things!

The government talks a big game. One of the biggest buzzwords in government for many years running is innovation. Innovation hubs. Innovation offices. Chief Innovation Officers. DIUx (that’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, for those not in the know). According to the buzzword bingo-winning innovation.gov website, “Innovation is a product, program, service, or process that is new, creates value and changes the status quo of government services… We’re from the government, and we’re here to help.”

That sounds good. That feels good. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite jibe with reality, nor does it truly convey the government’s realities. Innovation.gov goes on in its attempt to define innovation in the government context:

In the private sector, what fuels innovation is growth and more market share. In government agencies, mission impact and being good stewards of taxpayer’s money drives innovation. Therefore, incentives to innovate are very different.

Well, sort of. Growth and market share may be a part of it, but that’s mostly missing the point. In the private sector (and I would argue, life in general), there is generally a need to improve. Survival of the fittest. This evolution drives a determination to keep people satisfied. Provide for their needs in a way that they feel content and while incurring minimal hassle, and they will come back for more. They feel good, and you feel good, and your success becomes tied to their satisfaction.

Neither of these core motivational factors exist in the government. The government has no competition. We don’t have the option to go with a better provider with better customer service. You work with them, or you don’t get their services. You pay them, or you go to jail. In Fast Company’s series, The Government Fix, they sum it up perfectly. The government isn’t “worried that you might go somewhere else to pay your taxes, or that you’ll get so annoyed with trying to renew your passport that you apply for one from another country.”

The government is also not a sentient being with feelings, so it doesn’t derive satisfaction from yours and it doesn’t strive to improve itself. Again in, The Government Fix, the authors make it quite clear: “No one in government is rewarded for customer satisfaction… And the stated goals of most agencies don’t include citizen satisfaction.”

Slow down, government crossing

The government itself doesn’t “want” to improve, nor does it really need to improve. That is not to say that those IN the government feel the same. Government employees and contractors hope and dream of a better user experience on a daily basis. They legitimately want to innovate, but there are four basic barriers to technology innovation in the government:

  • the budget process – it’s hard to get funding for new things
  • the acquisition process – it’s hard to buy new things
  • security and compliance – it’s hard to use new things
  • risk tolerance – it’s hard to try new things

In a previous blog post, I gave an extremely high-level overview of the government’s budget process. As a government employee, you might be waiting two years for the funding needed for a major IT initiative. In parallel, you need to kick-off the acquisition process to buy the commercial technology, which itself takes months or years.

In another post, I explained how the government is still buying technology like it bought nukes in the Cold War, completely divorced from how everyone else buys the latest technology. When you finally have the funding and the contract to buy the thing, you then must work with your security teams to go through a full Assessment and Authorization, which again could take months to years.

If you’ve threaded the needle and made it through that gauntlet, you now have to prove your technology-based initiative actually works! Does it “create value and change the status quo of government services”? If not, it becomes shelf-ware and your political capital to do new things is eroded, and you may not get another chance to take a risk on innovation. Why would you?

More of the same; it’s just easier

This is why government innovation is largely an oxymoron. It’s far easier to just keep doing the same thing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, especially when you’re the only game in town. As I also covered in the Modernizing Government Technology post, while agencies spend more than $80 billion on technology every year, more than 75 percent of that is devoted to operations and maintenance of “legacy IT.” Furthermore, this spending profile is increasing annually, resulting in indefinite perpetuation of legacy programs and little to no R&D. Ten out of ten of the most-costly IT programs are simply propping up antiquated systems.

The fix?

All four of the barriers mentioned above must be addressed. Funding for technology needs to become more flexible and fluid. Acquisition must be simplified. Security and compliance requirements must be further streamlined. And the government needs to become a little less risk averse. Innovation requires the ability to fail fast and try again.

IT Modernization-as-a-Service across leading cloud technologies

If your organization is looking for help, Rackspace can assist. We offer expert guidance within the framework of the Modernizing Government Technology Act. Government organizations are confronting a daunting task: pursuing a “cloud-first” digital transformation in the face of complex, longstanding legacy technology and contract challenges.

By turning to Rackspace, you get a team of unbiased experts across a range of leading cloud and infrastructure technologies — built on a compliance-ready framework and backed by ongoing managed operations, continuous monitoring, security services, living compliance documentation and audit assistance. We are a web-scale managed service provider, delivering 24x7x365 hybrid-cloud management, operational support and security services as a packaged, on-demand, audited and pay-as-you-go service. You get the same commercial services that power the Fortune 100, in a compliance-ready state, with the additional security controls and governance necessary for your unique mission.

Brad Schulteis is Director of Government Solutions. Previously, he served as Principal Architect and security specialist for Rackspace. He has over 15 years of enterprise IT expertise, across the public and private sector. He previously worked at AWS World Wide Public Sector, supporting some of their largest US federal government customers. Prior to that, he served for many years in a staff position within the Department of Defense, managing all aspects of their private cloud computing platform. Brad's work on this platform earned him a DoD Value Engineering Award, Special Act Award and Joint Meritorious Unit Award. Concurrently, he served on many government IT transformation working groups and study committees. He has a proven track record of working with complex requirements and driving change throughout large IT enterprises. Find Brad on LinkedIn.

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