For those unfamiliar with the concept of beta, it’s a term used in software development to push a public prototype to get design and functionality feedback, as well as test and report technical bugs before launching the project as an official service.
Standard operating procedure for government digital services is to create an extensive specifications document and develop a waterfall project management strategy for executing. Once the project is finalized internally, it’s released to the public as-is without any intention of collaboration or feedback from those who will actually use the service.
Beta has eliminated the fear associated with a big launch. Knowing that beta is the beginning of a collaborative process eases that fear and creates a feedback culture that is much-needed in digital government innovation.
More and more, particularly at the federal level, such as Vets.gov, government is releasing web-based projects this way, even openly and proactively discussing the beta as part of an on-going, iterative process. Locally, larger cities such as Boston are also going beta.
Beta as described in 18F’s “Project Stage Definitions“:
Stage and test working software on the public web for use by a subset of the target audience. Implement changes based on user behavior and feedback. Resolve policy compliance or technical integration issues. Define and then validate statistically significant metrics for improvement.
The objective of this phase is to build a fully working prototype which you test with users. You’ll continuously improve on the prototype until it’s ready to go live, replacing or integrating with any existing services.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:
This beta release of Vets.gov is just a beginning. We’ve launched it with deep content in the two benefit categories you’ve told us mean the most to you: disability and education. There are many more to come. We’ll be adding new information and tools ongoing. But we wanted to get vets.gov in front of you now, as we build it, so you can tell us what’s working for you and what isn’t.
At ProudCity, we’ve launched our first city beta and, as a government service provider, we’ve learned a great deal about traditional blockers to innovation, and how we can help overcome them. It’s exciting to work with governments who embrace the beta mindset, especially knowing the end product, particularly for true software-as-a-service offerings, will only get better over time.
If you work inside government, demand beta from your digital services providers and bake it into your acquisition process. If you have the luxury of an internal development team, begin building the culture and communications strategy for deploying this.
There are internal, cultural, procurement and process issues governments must address, but ultimately it’s worth redefining the way services are delivered, and these obstacles are easier to overcome than you might imagine, and will be as more governments adopt the concept of beta.
Beta government is the new standard.