Department of Veterans Affairs

Insights from federal digital design leaders

U.S. Digital Service

Ethan Marcotte and Karen McGrane have been on a roll lately featuring federal government design leaders on their Responsive Web Design Podcast.

The first episode, with U.S. Digital Service Designer Mollie Ruskin and Lead Front End Designer Julia Elman sharing insights into their design process and prototyping tools (OmniGraffle, Sketch, GitHub) and building the U.S. Web Design Standards, has excellent insights for those focused on this aspect of the civic experience.

Favorite quote from Mollie:

“I think that one thing that you have to just come to terms with in doing a project like this is that there are so many moving pieces and it’s a lot to keep track of all at the same time, and just to sort of like take a meditative, reasoned approach to that because it can be a daunting amount. I had been given that advice before I started, and it was about halfway through that I felt the zen of all of the pieces moving and realized that that was part of the beauty of doing this work, is that by us taking on this complex important problem, we were going to be making it easier for others moving forward. So, I would just encourage a can-do attitude and plow through those times where you feel like you’re building seventeen things all at once, because you will be.”

RWD has also featured designers from Vets.gov, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the U.S. Department of State.

Beta government

West Carrollton BETA

West Carrollton BETA

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.

GOV.UK:

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.

9 reasons why Vets.gov is the future of federal government websites

Source: Vets.gov

Source: Vets.gov

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a beta version of Vets.gov, and it’s the future of federal government digital development.

Here’s why:

Service-focused

Gone are the carousels, clunky blocks of information and seemingly self-serving updates on what the agency secretary is doing.

Instead, the user interface is focused on its core customer needs. There are limited graphics and calls to action, and the homepage especially shows discipline and confidence in its restraint, focusing on two user stories and popular, behavior-driven “Quick Links.”

Beta

This says it all:

“This site is a work in progress. We’re designing in the open.”

Secretary Robert McDonald explains why the agency is designing in beta. More on VA’s approach to beta and development methodology.

HTTPS

18F initiated HTTPS by default late last year, and this is important because it offers visitors the guarantee of a secure and private connection.

You can read more about HTTPS and why it’s important for government to adopt here, here, here, here and here.

No navigation

This is a bold and welcome move. No navigation menu and a focus on search and strong footer links shows confidence in design that emphasizes page-specific information with simple options to locate more or start from the beginning.

Digital Analytics Program

The General Services Adminstration’s Digital Analytics Program is an important effort to provide visibility into federal web traffic, and Vets.gov is participating in the program, as should every federal agency.

Active feedback

In the bottom right corner, there’s a feedback mechanism that allows users to give input on various aspects of the website.

“When you post an idea to our feedback forum, others will be able to subscribe to it and make comments,” says the site.

Having an open forum such as this allows users to see what’s been submitted and provides more transparency into the feedback. Most sites use a contact form which leaves the user wondering when and if it will ever be addressed.

Playbook

The Vets.gov playbook provides all aspects of the team — editorial, design, development — with guidance to build a unified website based on core principles and processes.

Open source

The website has its own GitHub repo where you can download, fork, issue a pull request or add feedback. From the playbook, it appears it’s using Foundation and U.S. Web Design Standards for front-end development, both of which are open source.

Easter egg

Hidden in the comments of the source code is the Abraham Lincoln quote, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” While this is mostly interesting to me and anyone else who might be looking at the code, it’s an important, constant reminder to everyone working on this project why and who they’re building it for.

Congratulations to the team working on this. While the GitHub contributor list (go Danny Chapman!) is short, I’m sure there are many others behind it, and they should be proud they’re taking a bold step and setting the standard for how federal websites should be built.

GitHub and the C-suite social

GitHubIn the early days of Twitter, it was easy and common to dismiss the infant social network as a simplistic tool that served a whimsical and nerdy niche.

Today, Twitter has gone from the technorati tweeting hipster conference minutiae to a platform driving the new world digital order. This didn’t happen overnight. But, when the flock of civic technologists set flight, the social government migration happened quickly and collectively.

Much like we pooh-poohed Twitter in those early days, GitHub, in its early crawl, is today dismissed simply as a tool for the diehard developer. However, as with any tool with great potential, innovators find new ways to leverage emerging technology to communicate, and government chief information and technology officers can effectively do this with GitHub.

There’s the obvious use case, such as contributing code and commenting on projects, much like Veterans Affairs Chief Technology Officer Marina Martin does via her GitHub account. It’s probably asking a lot for the C-suite to dive deep into code on a daily basis, there are other, more conversational ways GitHub can be leveraged.

Case in point, a few weeks ago, Federal Communications Commission Chief Information Officer David Bray and I had a Twitter exchange about the utility of GitHub. Immediately, I created a repository (think “folder”) on my personal account, and set up a new “What questions do you have for FCC CIO David Bray?” issue (think “discussion”).

To Bray’s credit, and perhaps surprise of his public affairs office, he humored me by immediately joining GitHub, posting replies to a number of questions about FCC open data, open source, cloud hosting and web operations. Over the course of an hour, there was a genuine, real-time conversation between a federal CIO and the community at large.

Despite wide adoption of social tools by public sector innovators, most of the C-suite remains decidedly analog in terms of engagement and sharing of relevant information about the inner workings of our public sector institutions. A cursory survey of government chief information and technology officers shows they abstain altogether or, when they do, generally give random personal updates or staid posts with a heavily-sanitized public affairs filter.

The emergence of GitHub may change this for the government technologist, especially those willing to engage fellow coders and citizens on projects in an open, fluid environment.

Former Presidential Innovation Fellow and current GitHub government lead Ben Balter has since followed suit and created a government-focused “Ask Me (Almost) Anything” repo featuring Q&As with Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Mark Headd and staff from the newly-minted 18F.

GitHub’s repo and issues features are natural communication tools for C-level technologists who fancy themselves innovators leveraging emerging tech in new, creative ways.

For the IT C-suite, the GitChat is the new Twitter Townhall, a way to instantly and directly connect with peers and the general public and be asked anything.

Well, almost anything.

Government contracting: An example of cheating and the solutions

Photo: House Oversight and Reform Committee

Photo: House Oversight and Reform Committee

As discussed in the previous post, there have been some issues in the U.S. government lately with government contracting.

Due to businesses misrepresenting their sizes, there have been several protests filed by the businesses that should have been awarded the contracts. The Small Business Administration is so backlogged, though, that they are having trouble keeping up with the number of complaints.

Ahead is a case of recent government contracting fraud along with the solutions that will soon be implemented in order to keep it from happening again.

The problem

One of the more famous instances of government contracting fraud is a case against Strong Castle, Inc., a government IT solutions company. The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform reported that a series of contracts adding up to $500 million were awarded to Strong Castle on less than trustworthy grounds.

The contracts were being awarded by the Internal Revenue Service who spends $2 billion annually on informational technology. Due to this huge amount of money being invested in IT, the competition among federal vendors for the IRS’s IT contracts is high.

The owner of Strong Castle, Braulio Castillo, claims his company certifies for woman and minority-owned (SWAM), a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned (SDVOSB), and that their central quarters are located in the Chinatown district of Washington, D.C. (a certified HUBZone). The first claim is true, the second is questionable at best, and the third is a flat-out lie.

The set-aside contracts mentioned above are designed to help disadvantaged business or businesses owned by the economically disadvantaged compete in the federal market place.

So, in order to qualify for the small business set-aside contracts, Castillo committed fraud. Castillo was able to get away with most of this fraud because he had an insider relationship with the IRS Deputy Director for IT Acquisition, Greg Roseman. This relationship expedited an otherwise lengthy contracting process while favoring Castillo for the awards.

Because Castillo “qualified” for these set-aside contracts, his company was able to easily access and win contracts that were meant for small businesses that actually need them. According to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Strong Castle took advantage of “weaknesses in the certification processes.”

Castillo took advantage of the loopholes by setting up an office in Chinatown and calling it the central office, in accordance with HUBZone regulations that the central office of a business must be located in an underutilized business zone. The problem is, Castillo and his wife – also an executive at Strong Castle – worked out of a house in a wealthy Virginia neighborhood.

HUBZone regulations also require that employees working in the HUBZone live in the HUBZone. To circumvent this regulation, Castillo hired full-time university students to work in the office who lived in the HUBZone, which might have been fine, but it turned out that the students didn’t actually live in the HUBZone. Castillo tried to get the students to move to HUBZone by threatening to fire the students if they didn’t.

The worst part is how Castillo qualified for SDVOSB status. Castillo injured his foot during football while he was at the U.S. Military Academy in 1984. He was the Academy for a year before he transferred to a university in Southern California where he continued to play football. Castillo claims that this foot injury gives him service-disabled veteran status.

He also later changed his story during the certification process to say that he received the foot injury during a school orientation to make it seem like he was injured while on duty. When he moved to Southern California he had several successful years of playing football with no problems.

The solutions: What’s being done, how is fraud being prevented

Outside of the government and the federal vendors, companies like BidSync are consolidating the whole procurement process, inadvertently preventing fraud: from soliciting vendors, receiving bid notifications, to requesting purchases. The product manager of BidSync, Adam Magalei, firmly believes there is more to the procurement process than just purchasing.

Government-wise, the in-depth report from the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform – from which the details on Castillo’s dealings were gathered – claims to be a deterrent to any federal contractor who may or may not consider getting involved in contracting fraud or abuse. While this may not be the end all solution, it is certainly a step in the right direction to keep federal contractors and government agencies honest in their work.

Truly, Castillo is very upset about the report, stating that it cost him “contracting partners, lines of credit, and goodwill among [their] important government customers.” View his full statement here. Any company who reads how much it cost Castillo’s business will think twice before attempting any unsavory contracting practices.

Because the set-aside contracting programs are so easy to manipulate the government is attempting to reform the weaknesses found within them. The programs are self-certifying, so anybody can apply and register under them, but it’s going to take a considerable amount of regulations in order to make sure everyone is staying honest when they are self-certifying, which is one of the reasons that the government is unifying contracts into an “open-book” format.

Even more so, contracting officials within the IRS and other agencies need to have more training when it comes to recognizing fraud, conflicts of interest, and other attempts to game the system. It’s important for officials to recognize when a company is attempting to acquire a contract that they don’t qualify, especially since that contract is set-aside for populations that really need it. The IRS is deemed at fault almost as much as Castillo in this case.

Conclusion

While there are businesses that attempt to dupe the system and take advantage of programs set-aside for disadvantaged populations, and sometimes get away with it, there are steps being taken in the right direction so that government contracting fraud, especially according to business size and qualifications, happens less often. There will be businesses that always try, but in the coming years they are less likely to succeed.

Cabinet members brief Amercan citizens in Year One videos

President Obama’s Cabinet taped Year One videos to highlight their respective department or agency’s 2009 accomplishments and or goals for the next year.

What do you think? Which are most informative? Authentic? Is this an effective way to familiarize citizens to public servants and put a face on government?

Secretary Robert Gates, Department of Defense:

Secretary Steven Chu, Department of Energy:

Secretary Ray LaHood, Department of Transportation:

Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack, Department of Agriculture:

Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, Department of State:

Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Environmental Protection Agency:

Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, Department of Treasury:

Secretary Janet A. Napolitano, Department of Homeland Security:

Secretary Gary F. Locke, Department of Commerce:

Secretary Hilda L. Solis, Department of Labor:

Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Department of Health and Human Services:

Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar, Department of the Interior:

Ambassador Ronald Kirk, United States Trade Representative:

Ambassador Susan Rice, United States Ambassador to the United Nations:

Director Peter R. Orszag, Office of Management & Budget:

Attorney General Eric Holder, Department of Justice:

Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, Department of Veterans Affairs:

Chair Christina Romer, Council of Economic Advisers:

Secretary Arne Duncan, Department of Education:

6 government sites crowdsourcing citizen ideas

Local governments and federal agencies are leveraging crowdsourcing feedback tools such as UserVoice to gauge citizen feedback. Here are 6 examples.

What other agencies are doing the same?

Ideas for Seattle

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On behalf of Mayor-Elect Mike McGinn, welcome to Ideas for Seattle. The strength of our city comes from our talented citizens. We need your input during this transition so that we can work together to make Seattle a better place for all of us.

Santa Cruz City Budget

Santa Cruz City Budget

This is your city. Though these challenges are shared with a nation and indeed the world, we need to come up with our own solutions. How would you like to see the city handle these trying times?

Ideas for Austin

Ideas for Austin

What are your ideas to prepare our city for the 21st century economy?

openNASA

openNASA

Welcome to the official openNASA feedback and ideas forum. Do you have an idea? Do you recognize a good idea when you see one? We want to hear from you!

Department of Veterans Affairs Website

Department of Veterans Affairs Website

St Louis County Crime Incident Map

St Louis County Crime Incident Map

Welcome to the official feedback forum for the St Louis County Crime Incident Map. Do you have an idea to improve our site? Do you recognize a good idea when you see one? We want to hear from you!