Story Jam: Digital Transformation
Jan 26, 2022
[Animation description: A mosaic of pictures representing a variety of people of different races, age and gender appear on the screen. A title box appears over this image.
Stories of Change Story Jam January 26, 2022]
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Hi. Good afternoon, everybody. We are going to go ahead and get started. We already have around 55 people, so people are showing up and voting with their hands, I think we’re going to go ahead and get started.
My name is Joiwind Ronen. I’m a partner here at Wheelhouse Group, and I am delighted to host today’s Story Jam. We launched the Stories of Change initiative last year as a way to give voice to the remarkable stories of resilience and innovation we are witnessing all around us. Our hope is that, by learning from our collective experiences we will all become better drivers of change. And looking at how many people are already here; it looks like we have folks right now from the from the Northeast, but I imagine more from across the country. It looks like we have a great group to get that started.
If this is your first story jam or first-time hearing about this work, I want to show you some of the awesome resources for both government and industry leaders, especially in the technology field that we created over this past year. I’m going to go ahead and share my screen.
Can everybody see that?
Okay, so this is the website for our Stories of Change initiative. It is at wheelhousegroup.COM/storiesofchange, and it really gives you the opportunity to submit your own stories and to get more involved in this ongoing initiative. It also has the top five superpowers that every change leader needs and resources that will support you and being more effective.
So, as you can see, the one we did most recently is about how to engage with both your customers and your employees, specifically in a cx context. And we have different playbooks and podcasts listed here. We also have some great resources on investing in inclusion, including a guest spot blog on why CIOs should invest in a more accessible government. We also have a focus on authenticity and why great leaders are authentic. And some ways that you can become a more authentic leader. I know we all struggle with how do you sustain momentum in times of change, so we have some focused resources here as well, including some videos and how-tos. And finally, we have resources on master storytelling – really what we’re doing here today. How to be an effective storyteller and what leaders need to know to be more effective. So, I hope you’ll go ahead and check that out after today’s story jam and share it with folks as well.
So, this year we are focusing our resources on digital transformation in 2021 our company was asked to join the digital services coalition or the DSC, as we call it. And we are bringing a focus on the people side of transformation to this organization.
At the DSC we were introduced to a whole new set of partners who shared with us many stories of how they were redefining how government does digital. So, we decided it would be fun to invite some of those DSC companies here today to share more and we also ask them if they would bring their government partner to highlight the importance of collaboration. We know how important it is that government and industry, work together, hand in hand to create successful digital transformation. So, today’s event is really a chance to showcase and celebrate some of these stories and to share key insights from the very leaders who made them happen.
Some of the stories will be very specific and focused on places like the Internal Revenue Service and Veterans Administration while others will include more of a government wide perspective on cross government issues like accessibility and procurement in the digital transformation context. While there’s no real swag at these virtual events (unfortunately) I promise we’ll all walk away with a notepad full of lessons learned.
So, just a few housekeeping rules, the session is being recorded and we will post it on our website so that you can share it with others. On the same website that I just shared with you, before. The format for today’s event is part storytelling and part discussion, we hope to keep it lively, interactive. And because we have so many people on the call here today (I think we’re up to about 75) I want to ask that everyone be respectful of the special space we are creating together here today.
Please mute yourself and stay off camera. If you have not already renamed yourself, please make sure that your name, organization, and pronouns are listed. To do that, you can click on the participants screen and if you hover over your own name and click the more button, you can rename yourself there. If you are called on to ask a question that you already entered in the chat, please do come off mute turn on your camera if you wish, and please be sure to introduce yourself.
Throughout the session will be adding polls and chats to keep this lively and fun so let’s go ahead and try the first one together. I’m about to put a poll up here on the screen. Waiting for it to pop up here… here you go. You can see the first one, and you can always click on that poll and you can move it anywhere you want on your screen. And then you can also click on any of the choices down below to register your response.
So, it asks: why are you here? Because:
- Digital transformation is my life’s work, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the afternoon.
- This is a new area for me and I’m curious to learn about digital transformation.
- I’m a fan of one or more of your speakers (this is the one my husband will be voting for).
- I needed a non-caffeine energy injection today.
Let’s see – it looks like about 45 people have responded; I’m going to give it another few seconds here. Okay, I’m going to go ahead and end the poll in 5..4..3..2..1.
And we can see the results here. It really is a kind of even spread here of people that know a lot about digital transformation, people that know a little, and maybe some folks that were coming in because they were interested in hearing from one or more of the speakers.
So great job successfully completing your first poll. I’m going to go ahead and turn it over to our first speaker here today.
Traci Walker will really help us all get on the same page. That poll showed that we’re a little bit scattered in in our knowledge and understanding and hopefully Traci can get us all on the same page. It’s been a real pleasure to work with her. Traci is the Executive Director of the Digital Services Coalition. And previously, we worked with her in her role in government in the US Digital Services.
So, Traci, given that we have this large group here today on the call, and we all have different levels of expertise. Can you start by explaining what is digital transformation, how was it kind of evolved over the years and, what is its relationship to customer experience that we’ve been hearing so much about?
Traci Walker, Digital Services Coalition (she/her/hers): Great. Thank you so much. Happy to be here today and hoping to tell some of my stories. It’s definitely difficult to narrow them all down to a short amount of time, but I will try my best.
So, for me, I know that digital transformation is pretty well defined in industry, but what it actually means in government to me is that it’s the process of updating the skill sets, technologies, experiences, and strategies necessary to enable digital interaction with both internal and external government services. We talk a lot about the customer side of things, but a lot of the times, most of government’s customers is its own internal processes and things that also have to be thought about and looked at.
Prior to 2014, when the US Digital Service, Presidential Innovation Fellows, and 18F all started to become known and the term digital services starting to become well known, there were already many efforts underway, that had already kind of been brought in by the Obama Administration, to bring government up to the speed of this century with technology.
So, at that time I was working at the White House doing the purchasing of the IP supplies and services for the administration. When they [administration] first came in, their first experience with government tech in 2008 was pretty dismal. Imagine you won this election on social media platforms, and you come into the White House and the first thing you’re greeted with is a desktop (Gateway) from a company that had just gone bankrupt. So clearly, they were like “okay, we’ve got a lot to do and a short amount of time to do it, so what can we start doing?”
It was kind of cool, I did get to buy the first ever handheld presidential device Blackberry One. And, you know, it’s kind of interesting to see where we’ve, you know, come over the past several years with adopting technologies into the experience that citizens have, or the public has with the administrations as they come in.
So now, you know we have Presidents that use Twitter and social media to enhance their connection to constituents. And these are all things that, you know – when I kind of started working in the space – were very far removed from what we thought we could kind of get to. When you’re looking back progress looks so hard to see what that looks like, but now looking back what we’ve accomplished is really kind of cool.
Over the next couple years working there we brought in the concepts of cloud, open-source technology, agile software development when working with things like whitehouse.gov and the WAVES app for getting people and visitors into the White House. So, government was becoming more at ease with the concepts of digital service but didn’t quite grasp what was necessary. So, there were several policies that came out that helped push us along the way.
So, just wanted to highlight a couple of them in case you haven’t heard of them, and you can kind of reference them in the future if you need to.
On August 8 of 2016 the Federal Source Code Policy came out this was key because it allowed agencies to consider a normalized open-source technology as a technology choice. This helps reduce vendor lock-in and proprietary solutions which require lengthy sole sources and did not allow modernization as rapidly as the commercial world. So, where we are today – a lot of that had to do with the technology choices that were even offered to us.
July 2020 (just recently) they codified in the federal acquisition regulation that the Micro-Purchase and Simplified Acquisition Procedures officially were increased to $10,000, $250,000 and the commercial item simplified acquisition process up to $7.5 million. Using simplified procedures and micro-purchases helps get digital transformation in the hands of people quicker because you don’t go through the acquisition process, which we’ll talk a little bit about later. My other story is related to that – how do you get through things quicker?
There was another memo that came out that helps define that agile software development services and things that are done in the commercial world – the products that are developed by those are considered commercial items. So, this really helps with like getting rid of cost accounting standards – which make it easier for small businesses to prime on contracts, which brings in non-traditional companies that didn’t have the ability to do the [previously] lengthy government requirements. So, it’s really opening up the door to the commercial world.
And then, finally, that kind of brings us to where we are with the most recent Executive Order around setting customer service standards. This is really cool and gives the Digital Service Coalition and a lot of people on this call the opportunity to really help define this. Because what it ties back to, specifically, kind of says establish service standards and measure performance against those standards and benchmark customer service performance against best customer experience provided in the private sector. So as the private sector, we need to help the government try to figure out what this looks like and how we can help them implement what customer service looks like for us. So that’s it for my first round of quick stories, but hopefully we’ll be able to chat and explain a little bit more how these tie into procurement and how these policies have actually pushed us forward. So, I’ll turn it back to you, Joiwind.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Thanks, Traci. That’s a really helpful introduction. I think it gets us on the same page. And not to worry, Traci will be back. She’s going to speak to us again at the end of the session so if you have some questions go ahead and put them in the chat. We’re going to do some questions throughout, but we’re also going to save a lot of time for questions at the end.
So, without further ado, I’m going to jump into our first storytelling dynamic duo. I’m pleased to be joined by our crew over at the IRS. And as many of us know, this agency has had a real spotlight on it during the pandemic. Last year we highlighted the story of tremendous flexibility and adaptability that IRS exhibited in getting payments out to people who needed it.
Wheelhouse has been a longtime partner of IRS and we are so excited to highlight another important story. So, let’s start with you, Kira. You’re a part of IRS’s online services team and are the lead for user experience and information architecture, including on the main IRS.gov website. I’d love for you to give us an overview of how you recently helped transform the IRS website and what was your vision and how did you begin to approach it?
Kira Prin, IRS (she/her/hers): Awesome – yeah, hi everyone! Thank you so much for joining and thank you so much for having me and Christine here. So, it all started a few years ago, actually. We redesigned the homepage in 2017 and we moved it and migrated to Drupal and then in 2018 the 21st century IDEA legislation was signed into law. So then in 2019 some of our tech advisors and some of us were thinking about how we could continue improving our website. At the same time, within online services, we started working on the Online Design
Guide (ODG) so we could have a cohesive and seamless experience with all the design elements across the site in IRS applications. So, we thought about which page we could redesign that we could use the ODG design elements and showcase how important the 21st century IDEA legislation is for us. Well, what is more public and visible than the homepage?
So, in 2019 we, together, started defining the scope of this project, it can be huge if you are not careful. So, we were defining the scope, we were putting together the research plan, and then we were ready to start testing in 2020. And then pandemic happened. We had had everything ready for the end of March, and then at the beginning of March everything changed. So, we had to be resilient and changed all of our plans to be virtual for that first round of testing. So basically, we have been thinking about redesigning, step by step, different parts of our website to improve the user experience way before the Executive Order that Traci was talking about, IDEA, and the Taxpayer First Act. It has been a long journey, but he has been a very good one, as well.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Awesome. Thank you so much for getting us started, I now want to turn it over to your partner in crime, Christine.
Christine in your role as a Senior UX researcher at Mediabarn, I think we’d all like to hear more about how you applied your tech and problem-solving skills to truly keep the customer front and center during this redesign. I’d love to hear more about the lessons learned that you would share with other government agencies working to transform their digital presence. And before I jump in with you, I do want to let you know we’re going to put a chat out for all of our audience to also share some of their own experiences, while Christine is presenting. Thanks, Christine.
Christine Steiffer, Mediabarn (she/her/hers): Great. Thank you. And thank you so much for having us, this is a great, great opportunity to share a little bit about the IRS story. Like Kira mentioned, you know, it took a lot of a lot of brainstorming, a lot of behind the scenes work to get this project on its feet and there were a lot of different setbacks. Luckily, we were able to sort of navigate a lot of those challenges that I know some other agencies also had to deal with, especially when it came to the pandemic.
But I think one of the things that was really important to our team was when we wanted to look at a page, such as a homepage, we really wanted to test a variety of different angles. How you might approach a homepage for a large agency such as the IRS – something so many different kinds of people need to interact with. And so, our first round of testing, we centered a variety of different kinds of versions of a homepage that sort of spoke to different perspectives. And we tried different, kind of more modern layouts – really a variety of very different styles. And then we iterated.
The next round we centered around a more of a set style that was a little bit more cohesive, and we tested certain design elements within that more cohesive style. That allowed us to really better understand what it was that taxpayers were looking for in a homepage experience for the IRS. And it really allowed us to hone in on what is going to make taxpayers feel the most heard by our agency. One of the things that we tested, that you’ll now see very prominently if you go to IRS.gov, is this phrase “how can we help you?” It was overwhelmingly popular and when we saw how popular it was and when we talked to folks, we really knew that we were sort of onto something that could really change the impression, in a maybe small but influential way, for taxpayers.
The actual work – the research work – that we did was very crucial… but I think one of the key takeaways that I learned was that it is not just the research work, but the other half is also turning that research into a story that inspires action in the team around you. We had to take that design that we sort of cohesed around and we had to tell that story of why this is the IRS homepage to many different stakeholders, to many different groups of folks. And we had to sort of tailor that message, a little bit, to each of those different stakeholder groups to let them know that their particular users, the mindset that they’re coming from, and the programs that they’re running that they will be impacted by. We wanted to make sure that they knew that we were considering all of those perspectives.
It was really, really an honor and just a great joy to be able to not only do the research, but then be able to tell the story of the taxpayers and telling people why it matters that we are making this an easier process for folks and making the services that we provide easier to access and more helpful and easier to understand. And it’s always great to have platforms like this, as well, to be able to continue to that story, so thank you.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Thank you, Christine. I’m curious – either from you or Kira – I’m really struck by this ‘how can we help you’ notion. That’s a really different way of thinking about things than people generally think that the IRS thinks about things. So I’m curious, even though the scope here was small (of the webpage) how did you really take this to the employees and help employees think differently? Because if customers come to the web page and they just have the [good] experience there, but then all their other experiences are not like ‘how can we help you’ it really is a meaningless engagement. So how did you think big picture, while you were focused on the website itself?
Kira Prin, IRS (she/her/hers): I can start Christine, and then you can chime in if you want! So, we basically did a couple of things. We invited some of our stakeholders to observe some of our user testing sessions. We had one round of testing in March 2020 and another one in March/April 2021. We invited a couple of our stakeholders to join and hear from real users what they thought about that the design that we were putting in front of them and the content that we were using in the design, so they [stakeholders] could understand. After we would come back and show them the report with the research results so they could understand where we were coming from. So, we did that part.
And then, as Christine was mentioning, we have a lot of external audience groups, but we also have internal audience groups that we need to tailor our message for. So, before each of our presentations during the socialization phase of the project, we would meet and then we would tweak things around in the PowerPoint presentation so then we could explain it in a way that they [internal stakeholders] could understand why we were using the content that that we were using and where we were putting it. Which was small mostly important for us, because the place that every single section of the homepage is right now was fully driven by the user feedback that we received during the testing.
What we believe strongly believe, in all, is that data can change minds. And it is all about how you can present the data so then your stakeholders can accept it, understand it, and then champion it. So for us, that is a very important part of our process in every single redesign that we do.
Christine Steiffer, Mediabarn (she/her/hers): Absolutely. And the only thing I’d add on to that is just to highlight one of the data points. In that user testing that we did, we talked to a variety of audience groups and that ‘How can we help you?’ phrase – even though, when we designed that version that included that we weren’t necessarily thinking that all groups would be attracted to that – we found across the board that everyone loved that phrase and connected to that phrase so much. It was almost like that’s exactly what you want the IRS to say and to hear from the IRS is that kind of calm, friendly, message ‘How can we help you? What are you here for today?’
Kira Prin, IRS (she/her/hers): And Christine’s right. We had some people – and this is something I wanted to bring to this audience too – it is incredible how many users, when we have user testing sessions, how many users say ‘Is this for the IRS? I didn’t know the IRS care about my experience!’ Or they would say ‘Oh, this is for the IRS? This looks modern!’ Or ‘when is this going to launch? I would use it!’ Those comments make us feel we are on to something and the ‘How can we help you?’ catch phrase was everything for a lot of people. In fact, Christine would ask ‘which one is your favorite design?’ and then they would say for example ‘it’s A, but with the ‘How can we help you?’ from B’ and then that’s what we did at the end.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): I love that. Thanks so much for sharing. I especially liked that notion that data can change minds. That’s something I’m going to take away from this session.
We are going to go ahead and move to our next speaker and we’re going to actually pull out the aperture a little bit and go across government now. I want to introduce Jessi Bull. Many of us know you as a former member of the DSC and are excited to see you back in government again – now at GSA. You’re known for being forward-thinking and for spurring innovation, and so we’d love to hear how you’re thinking about government as a whole and what are you working on to support digital transformation through your work at 18F and the Technology Transformation Service.
Jessi Bull, GSA/TTS (she/her/hers): Absolutely! And thank you so much for having me. It’s always exciting to be a part of conversations in groups like this – of change makers and creative thinkers trying to transform something critical like government services. I’ve worked on a few projects at the Technology Transformation Service since rejoining the Government last year, and I wanted to share a couple of overarching themes that we’ve been focusing on.
So, first – and this might sound obvious – but we’re working to ensure that digital transformation efforts revolve around the complete user. That means we can’t just think about the scope from one particular project or one particular program, but rather the myriad of ways the government writ large is engaging with people at key moments in their lives. And you see this in the recent Customer Experience Executive Order that Traci mentioned earlier. That order lays out key moments that matter for the public and gives directions for agencies to respond to them in a more holistic way.
And so, while I think that many of our project teams are already implementing Human Centered
design and thinking about holistic service experience on the projects that they’re working on, a challenge that I would levy to this group and a challenge that that we are working through at TTS is to think about ways that projects and programs have an opportunity to work together to impact the person or the user in a more complete way. So, this is what we’re spending energy on at TTS. How do services and programs – even when they’re happening at different agencies – impact the public? How can our teams and efforts do more to break down operational silos and challenge, rather than reinforce, the status quo? And what are the small ways that we can build out new connections between programs and agencies so we have a strong foundation to grow.
And the second thing we’re focusing on is connecting transformation efforts in a deeper way. So, I talked a little bit about looking wider at services and programs across agencies to make sure we’re supporting a unified rather than a fragmented experience for the public, but it’s also important to be thinking differently about who’s in the room and who is making decisions for programs and services that are substantially federally supported but are actually carried out by non-federal employees. So, in other words, digital transformation in government has to bring multiple levels of government to the table. True change is holistic and that means that state, local, and tribal governments should be included in both the decision-making and the implementation of these big changes.
It’s exciting to see how many of the high impact service providers are administered by state agencies. This creates an incredible opportunity for TTS and others to support local implementers in new ways. So, identifying which services can be shared but also creating tooling that empowers agencies to adapt to meet their local needs. Creating things like shareable design patterns and model procurement language. It also means working more directly with state and local governments who are supported with federal funds.
You’ll notice that most of the themes that we’re focusing on at TTS are some iteration of ‘work in a more holistic way.’ In tandem to this we’re also excited to expand our shared services such as login.gov and cloud.gov. For example, as many of you know, the login program recently received funding from the technology modernization fund to scale up its identity management services significantly. We’re excited for these tools to be more widely available to help that velocity to transformation efforts across government.
So, to summarize I’d say digital transformation at this stage of maturity for the public sector means that TTS and others are focusing really on breaking down silos and barriers – both vertically and horizontally – and expanding share tools and services to help us all move faster.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Thanks so much Jessi! It’s interesting to think about both the notion of the complete user but also, kind of, this more complete government or this holistic approach to government that includes state, local, federal.
I’ve worked with GSA for a long time, and I think most mostly it’s been focused on federal and cross government, so I’m curious about the shift to include state, local, and tribal. Is that because there’s so much funding that’s going to be flowing out that direction now under this administration or why the shift, and how are you thinking about that?
Jessi Bull, GSA/TTS (she/her/hers): Yeah, I think it’s both. I’d also say, I think that focus has always been there, but I think that it’s exciting to see those conversations kind of shift and expand in new ways. Many government programs have always been state administered, so there’s a lot of federal programs where the money is set at the federal level and a lot of the policies are set there, but then the actual offices carrying it out, the employees that are actually on the front lines aren’t federal employees – they are State employees and municipal employees that are really on the ground. And so what I think I’m, seeing as a shift here is that more and more of those folks are being brought into the conversation and decision making earlier in the process. I think in a similar way to in human centered design and user centered design the core tenant is to bring the end user into the decision-making process – they’re the source of truth, they are the ones sort of experiencing the service in the end. And I think I see a parallel here, where you know the levels of government that are actually the ones that are on the front lines and implementing these programs are being brought in at an earlier stage to say ‘this is the thing that we’re thinking about – how would we make this happen?’ or ‘we’re trying to build a tool to make this happen and it’s going to actually end up sitting at this level’ so let’s bring in those folks earlier to have their voices be heard in kind of a newer way.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Thank you. Jessi, Traci shared this term with me the other week, she called it ‘the boomerang generation.’ How we are having a lot of folks now who were working in government and going to industry and coming back in [to government] and that it’s really a very positive thing. I know that you spent a bunch of years in government and a bunch of years in industry and now you’re back. How are you feeling and what made you want to go back to this time around?
Jessi Bull, GSA/TTS (she/her/hers): Great question! I think, for me, working in the public or the private sector, that there are some key differences of how some of the workflows, what the expectations are, and how you engage with partners and clients. That, I think, really complement each other, and so I think, from my personal experience I’ve always found that I really like, kind of, being the glue between people or organizations or initiatives. And so, for my personal perspective of my career being able to kind of sit at multiple seats at the table, helps me understand other people better and bring them together more effectively. And I think I was really excited to come back into federal service because of the focus on digital transformation, specifically, that’s been that’s been happening under this administration. And I think a lot of the work of past administrations is really culminating in some really interesting ways, and so I just I think this is an incredible time of change, and I really wanted to be kind of on the ground and a part of it.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): That’s great. Well we all wish you luck in this new endeavor.
So, we are going to turn now – we’re going to go back to an agency specific story and we’re going to turn to VA. I’m excited to introduce a group of storytellers to talk about VA’s new cutting-edge mobile app so first we’re going to start with Leanna Miller. She’s a digital services expert and product lead in the Office of the CTO and last summer her team launched VA’s first flagship mobile app. Which brings together the most common the tools and a more accessible, user centered, and native experience. So Leanna, I’m interested in what lessons you can share, about how you really shift an app so quickly – tremendous speed, tell us more.
Leanna Miller, VA (she/her/hers): Hello! Thank you for having me. Obviously, there’s a lot to talk about, so I tried to really focus on what I think worked really well and is applicable elsewhere. As a product person my job, I think, is to A) represent the interest of the user and B) to identify and challenge the assumptions we’re making as we as we approach any project. Including existential ones like ‘should VA even be building a mobile app?’ You have to be brave, in terms of identifying what your assumptions are and be thoughtful about how you’re going to validate or challenge them.
I think about what can you ship that you can learn something to indicate which direction you want to go so you’re basically kind of right sizing the investment – the taxpayers investment – with your level of confidence. That means doing a lot of user research and understanding the landscape – what’s been built before, what’s been tried before, not just in your agency, but with your peers and other agencies. And then building from low five prototypes, to maybe you get a clickable prototype and put that in front of users and just follow what your users say. Kira was awesome in talking about making sure that you are following the data. So sometimes the data gives us answers that we don’t want and and it’s hard to kind of pull back. But just really being loyal and being ready to shut something down or change direction.
The second thing I would say is leverage what you have already. A lot of times what I see – and the reason that a customer experience gets really confusing – is because people are very focused on the program (or whatever they’re administering) and don’t take the time to kind of like get the lay of the land and leverage what’s already out there. So what relationships do you have? Who can you ask? How can you kind of get pull out? VA is massive but we’re all working in these massive organizations. And so, try to avoid building net new, and partner with and build upon what’s been working already.
And then give away the credit, making sure that you are thoughtful about it. This goes back to some of the questions that that Kira was also answering about bringing people in early and making sure – especially those of us who are really on the ground in the digital transformation work – there are a lot of people who have been there, trying to do this stuff for a really long time and we’re benefiting from the momentum of hard work of people and then also some of the policies that were mentioned earlier. So I guess be humble and give away the credit.
Poll your peers – who’s shipped something similar and for risks that you can’t anticipate or maybe a new technology or approach or tool. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people in your organization, in other organizations, in the private sector. If there are products that you admire don’t be afraid to reach out, sometimes people won’t answer but a lot of times they will. People like to be helpful and we’re all kind of working on the same team in terms of trying to make the government work better for people. So don’t be afraid to reach out. And again, you don’t have to start from scratch – a lot of people have tried a lot of things and learned a lot.
And so to recap: be brave in understanding and challenging your assumptions, leverage what exists already, partner instead of building net new, and ask for advice from a range of people who have attempted something before.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Thanks, Leanna. I really love that notion of leveraging what you have and then giving away the credit for it. I think we have another comment here from Jennifer Carlson at Apprenti that thanks you and says ‘great advice about using systems and infrastructure that already exists, and not start from scratch. Would love for government to double down on its existing working investments.’ And that’s something we could all get behind. So, thank you.
Next, we’re going to turn to your partner, Bill Fischer who leads VA work for Ad Hoc. Bill, I want you to tell us more about what it’s like building something so quickly that is also have such an importance, what kind of lessons can we apply here, more broadly, to transformation across the entire government.
Bill Fischer, Ad Hoc (he/him/his): Thanks, Joiwind. Good morning and good afternoon to everyone. Thrilled to be here to represent the Ad Hoc team.
So, there’s really three lessons learned that I think are applicable across government for embarking on digital transformation initiatives. Number 1: slow down before we speed up. Slow down to research and really understand the behavior of users, to validate the potential value of a mobile app before we speed up.
When we undertook this sprint in early 2020, actually right at the beginning of the pandemic, we really wanted to challenge ourselves and ask the question who are the veterans most likely to use a mobile app and why? And secondly, how our veterans currently managing their VA benefits and services? We determined, in conducting interviews and analyzing call center data, that a mobile app could, in fact, enhance the experience for all veterans and especially for veterans who were already enrolled in VA services, already had a VA.gov account, and already had access to a mobile phone. So, for example, we found through the research that 40% of all traffic to VA.gov came from mobile devices and we have certainly found that that percentage has increased over time. Again, as I reflect on the discovery sprint we quickly realized that, given the challenges of the pandemic and the limitations of in-person interactions, we validated that there was an increasing need to leverage a mobile app (through the user research) to get access to basic information, claim status, vaccine records. And also, to conduct very simple transactions – secure communications with your health care providers, making appointments, and access to a veteran’s crisis line. So again, really making sure we take that time to slow down and conduct that research and observe the behaviors of users to validate the need before we then speed up.
Second lesson learned, and Traci alluded to this earlier, as we thought about the technical approach we wanted to be mindful of our internal customers. So, we had a conversations around cross platform development, do we do a hybrid approach, do we build it from a native standpoint? And some of the considerations were really balancing development speed, infrastructure reuse, and the developer experience.
So the team concluded that React Native would be the most promising framework for the app. In the spirit of leveraging what already existed, we found that there were already a tremendous amount of React Native skills within the Agency. We thought that represented a really good opportunity from a technical development standpoint. We also concluded that a cross-platform approach would enable us to build one app, one code base that could then be shipped to both IOS and Android stores but, as needed, still enable us to use custom native code when necessary.
And the third key takeaway, last but not least – if anything, this is of increasing importance – is to design within accessibility first mindset. As a matter of fact, at Ad Hoc we just published an updated playbook on this, so I encourage everyone to go check that out. We wanted to be intentional about designing for diverse perspectives and experiences. So, for example, we met with disabled veterans at multiple stages of the work, including in co-creation workshops. We really wanted to ask ourselves the question how might we design for functionality and accessibility, before delight and aesthetics.
So, we really wanted to focus on kind of being that scrappy minimalist and identifying the functionality that would work well for all stakeholder audiences. More specific examples: we really focused on generous font sizes to put the content first. Focusing on simple plain language that everyone could understand. Considering color contrast, touch target size, text resizing across multiple devices, and then also being mindful of screen readers, voice commands, and Bluetooth keyboards. So, to put this into practice, we really emphasized on building that accessibility test plan. That covered the CAG and 508 requirements and that we included feature specific accessibility requirements as part of the acceptance criteria for user stories.
So, to sum up the three key takeaways are to slow down to understand – research and understand the user behaviors, secondly, keep things simple from a technical approach and development standpoint, and third, a design with that accessibility first mindset.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Thanks, Bill. Great lessons learned, you know I’m always going to go back and focus on the people side of change. I’m super curious, especially with an app, how do you make sure that it continues to kind of grow and evolve and that you have the employees at VA thinking about this app and are bought in and want to continue to support this? Either you or Leanna can answer that question.
Bill Fischer, Ad Hoc (he/him/his): Leanna, do you want to field that one?
Leanna Miller, VA (she/her/hers): Sure. A couple things – because of the audience here, I want to also bring in vendor employees too. One of the things that’s been really great about Ad Hoc is they understand that our strategy is to create a single and simplified experience for veterans. We don’t want a ton of apps, we don’t want a bunch of systems that veterans have to continue to navigate to access their benefits. And so, sometimes business development, they may have business development opportunities that really conflict with our strategy. But, they have done a good job of socializing the strategy and understand there’s plenty of work out there, let’s do the right thing. And if they keep doing the right thing and support us and support the vision, we will want to continue to work together. So just, given the audience, I wanted to flag that.
The second really powerful tool, to just touch on what Bill was saying (and this is in a totally different direction), is ask people to use the current experience with assistive technology so ask them to use a screen reader to apply for a benefit, or to check the status of something, or to understand a particular process. I’ve seen that totally blow people’s minds and. Most people have never used the tools or seen anyone use the tools, so when you talk about accessibility people think about compliance they think ‘oh no I forgot to do it, I got to go back, my office is going to be mad at me.’ But when you have someone sit down and actually try to use something, it kind of it changes their minds in ways that just talking about it does not.
A quick one, which I talked about this a little bit before, but frame what’s come before you in a positive light. Talk about building upon the success that’s already happened, in terms of things have grown and now we’re into the next phase of maturity of a particular thing, as opposed to saying this doesn’t work anymore and we’re going to go in a different direction.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Thank you. We did not plan this, but I feel this was a setup for our next speaker who is going to focus more on accessibility. So I’m going to turn this over to Mike Gifford from CivicActions and he’s going to talk more about how his work at GSA is facilitating accessibility and usability as a foundational component of digital transformation across the entire government.
Mike has been an awesome partner for us, this past year. He actually contributed a guest post to our Stories of Change work. He has almost 30 years of experience with digital accessibility, so we know who to go to when we have a challenging question. But he’s going to talk about the intersection of procurement and accessibility.
Before I turn it over to him, we are going to do another poll, right now. So you should see a poll popping up in just a second. I’m looking for it there, it hasn’t popped up yet. I’ll give you a preview… here we go. So, as we turn it over – how focused are you, folks on the call, on accessibility? Is it a lot? You do a lot of it and it is at the forefront of what you do? Maybe somewhat just a little bit, but you need to improve in this area? Or really not much at all, and this is a growth area for you or your organization?
This is also to tell who’s still listening and still participating in the call. Looks like we have some good numbers, nearly 45 people have responded so far. I am going to let it get up to about fifty and then I’m going to move it right over to Mike. Okay I’m going to go ahead and end this poll. So, Mike, it’s a pretty even spread here really divided between people that have a little and a lot, and some people who are just getting started, so I hope that helps and giving some foundation for your remarks next. Take it away, Mike.
Mike Gifford, CivicActions (he/him/his): That’s great. Thank you very much, Joiwind. I’m excited to share this story, because this is a great example of government innovation in the name of inclusivity.
We’d like to all agree that public technology should be accessible to as much as the public as possible. As we know, there are laws about accessibility, but it is also a human right. Yet, I think we’d also agree that the government struggles to make technology accessible to people with disabilities. This is partly because buying accessible digital tools is a real challenge. Most organizations have challenges with this and the government is absolutely no exception. Of course, there’s you know regulations surrounding government procurement, which is an additional layer of complexity.
Many of you have probably heard about Section 508 or VPAT. These are common terms when it comes to accessibility procurement. Just to let people know, VPAT stands for Voluntary Product Accessibility Template and it’s the most popular form of accessibility conformance report to date. There are also ones like the GPAT and there’s been other efforts to try and do this as well, but we won’t go there. Right now, the VPATS are submitted as either PDF documents or Word documents. These are generally not very consistent and are often inaccessible. Furthermore, they’re not structured so it’s difficult for procurement officers to compare apples to apples when they’re considering the conformance claims of different vendors. So, we see that the VPATS are no longer the current best practices.
I’m proud to say that CivicActions is now working with the GSA to make accessible procurement easier. We’re reimagining ACR – or Accessibility Conformance Reports – into machine readable formats that better support accessibility. Okay, so you’re probably wondering how do we do that? Well, we built something called the Open Accessibility Conformance Report or Open ACR for short. And this is the first open source technology for tracking accessibility compliance of digital products and services through all the lifecycles of development and maintenance. It has a key feature, because it provides a better understanding of compliance before launching product. This will reduce mitigation costs.
All of our work is open source and it is based on open standards so that it can be easily adopted and extended. We believe that this makes accessibility conformance more scalable for government, which is a top priority for this administration. When agencies have shifted to the Open ACR format for their procurement, they will be finally able to have enterprise-wide understanding of their accessibility challenges. Furthermore, it’ll be possible to see if there’s progress towards an organization’s inclusion goals.
This project is still running as a Minimum Viable Product, or MVP, but our team has built a document format that allows for reports to be validated against the common open standard. We’ve also built an editor that allows for organizations to constantly build meaningful Accessibility Conformance Reports. Just like with cybersecurity, digital accessibility is always evolving. This is a key component to greater awareness and inclusion within the Federal Government and another proof point of how digital transformation is helping us serve more of the public, better. Thank you very much.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Thanks so much, Mike. You know you brought up this connection, or you used the term security and accessibility in the same sentence. And we do a lot of work in the accessibility space with the Department of Labor, and I’ve been hearing some people push for that lately, as in, if you’re going to think about security and requirements up front, you also need to be thinking about accessibility up front. Tell me tell me about that that linkage and why you used those in the same sentence.
Mike Gifford, CivicActions (he/him/his): In so many ways, it’s part of that journey that you need to have for both. They’re both similarly complex issues. Your website or your software is never going to be completely secure, and it is never going to be completely accessible. It’s a matter of trying to go off and align your teams, and your culture, and your policies and technology, so that you can be better today than it was yesterday. And to aim to meet and, in fact, to exceed the standards – like Section 508 is a minimum standard, it is not a ceiling to reach, it is a floor from which to stand on. So, we’re trying to build that good customer experience, the basis should be Section 508 and then looking to extend that to support users and their needs, however, they are.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Right, and there’s two different kinds of users, right? There are the citizens using our websites and we need to make sure that’s accessible, but there’s also the government employee who are under certain regulations – and 7% of the federal work forces are supposed to be people with disabilities, 7% of federal contractors are meant to be people with disabilities. So, if you have workplace technology that you thought was accessible and you implement it and your employees can’t use it, then your employees can’t be successful in their job. And we see that a lot in government, where vendors will say ‘oh yeah, this is totally accessible’ and then they install it, and employees can’t use it. So
I’m impressed with this work that you’re doing to make sure that this happens in the procurement stage, at the beginning, because it’s so much easier to address at the beginning then after you’ve built something or installed something. So, thank you, Mike. Really, appreciate your work.
Mike Gifford, CivicActions (he/him/his): It is so important, so yeah definitely glad you raised that. Thank you.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Thank you, too. Okay, so I’m actually going to turn it over to our last speaker. I’m going to bring this back to Traci, who has tremendous experience in procurement. I don’t know if everyone knows this, but she was the former Director of Digital Services Procurement for the White House and everything that we talked about today requires an active partnership with procurement. So, I’ve asked her to share some acquisitions stories and specific examples she learned at IRS, VA, and others that might help all of us, be a little bit more successful in our work in digital transformation. Traci?
Traci Walker, Digital Services Coalition (she/her/hers): Alright, great and it’s a good segue with Mike going into the procurement piece, because obviously one of the big things that I also talked about in digital transformation is that we also have to upscale the workforce in order to do this. So, changing rules and regulations is one way to make change, but another way is to help enable the workforce that’s already there to understand what they’re trying to buy and what the market looks like when they’re doing that.
So, one of the other policies that got pushed, which was awesome, is the creation of a certification for buyers of digital services, called the Digital IT Acquisition Professional Training Program. There are many companies now in the DSC and others who are training this now.
And when I left government there were over 500 acquisition professionals who had this certificate, and I know that this number is already increasing there’s several cohorts going through. The idea is that you get the knowledge of digital services, human centered design, and how to actually buy and implement that into the hands of the people who have to crack and create the procurements around that.
So, how does that really help, though? Here’s a couple stories that I’ve worked on over the past years to kind of talk through that. When you think about the solicitation process in government, think and also realize that industry is the end user of the solicitation process. So, industry can use its voice to improve it.
One of the examples is when I first started USDS, recreation.gov was coming out with an RFP for a new, updated system. Many third-party companies wanted to access the data to create their own apps and help people book vacations in local places like California or other places specific to where they had a tourism industry. And they did not like the fact that the RFP did not really call out that the data was going to be open, that they had, you know, new modern technology. They were looking at it like this was going to ‘government as usual’ so they started blogging about it. It got picked up by O’Reilly media and other groups, and the recreation.gov
team got very upset and embarrassed about it because they’re like ‘we wanted to do good. how do we do good’?
So, they came to us at USDS and we worked with them iteratively. Then, even though they had many industry days up to this point, we kind of came in and changed the conversation about how do we focus on improving the experience for not only the end users of recreation.gov, but also the developer community who really wanted to use it. We helped them rewrite it and bring in agile software development. We focused on the customer. And then also making sure that the data was open. So now, the newly revised recreation.gov has been launched, and while not everything that they wanted was captured (because they wanted it to be paid like through third party apps but coming through the contract that was not how that quite works) but we are going to help you get the data so that you can create what you need to. And so, it was a really good success story. Then, because they came back and were very happy about how that process actually went after that.
The other point that we kind of alluded to earlier around some of the policies that changed around how do we use commercial items and how do we use thresholds, is that the government can move fast and iteratively. So, using simplified acquisition processes
that’s up to that $7.5 million – which government, for some reason, considers low risk. There’s a lot you can do with $7.5 million dollars. So, thinking about modular contracting – places like IRS (Pilot IRS) are doing a lot with simplified acquisition procedures, right now. They’re getting a bunch of companies to kind of do bake offs with your ideas and then going down through phases.
And then, also in other mechanisms like using IDIQs in new ways. So, at the VA they just recently awarded CEDAR – which is the Customer Experience, Devops, and Agile Releases – IDIQ. And what is different from other IDIQs is that this is meant to be modular and relatively small task orders compared to what government usually spends. With the idea that you’re going to have new ideas coming in all the time, you’re going to have new people, and you’re going to have new opportunities for companies to partner up and be part of that experience.
And finally, at VA they did some really cool things with the micro purchase threshold when that came out. Looking at the idea that government can now purchase things up to $10,000 without having to go through the acquisition process, this is really good for programs to get things in and test and try before you buy or try before you expand. I’m going to post a link here. The VA did a lot of micro purchases around an API strategy. And this is really cool because they used Github and they just kind of went out there and said, ‘we want to leverage what’s out there for us.’
So, looking at ways to do micro consulting and micro purchasing has really improved with that threshold. So, how do you start fast and do something really cool – a small prototype is you know something that people can see and start messing around with before they actually have to say ‘okay, we’re going to lock ourselves into a procurement that’s going to take a lot of risk’ and things like that. Looking at it first, and then trying to figure out how to expand it.
So, there are a lot of stories that come along with the procurement world, but I think those are three that just kind of really highlight what we can do right now to move fast and to get people – especially with that customer experience – trying things before you’ve committed your whole program and all of everything into a long, huge acquisition process. What can you do quick and fast and with the end users being part of it.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Awesome. Thanks so much, Traci. And thanks, Catherine, for putting some links in (and Traci as well) because there’s some really good opportunities for us all to take a look at.
So that concludes our formal storytelling round and I really appreciate everything you’ve shared. I know that each storyteller probably had a lot more they wanted to say. And so, before we open up the floor to general questions from the audience, I’d like to facilitate a quick talk-back round. And a talk-back round is for our storytellers to actually ask each other what questions you wish had already been asked, because you were curious about them or wanted to know more. And since you all did the work to get prepared for the session, I thought I’d give you the first right to ask each other questions.
So, we’re going to go ahead and put you all up on the screen here together. And if you all want to go off mute and go ahead and does somebody have a first question? And if not, I’m going to give you a really challenging one.
Traci Walker, Digital Services Coalition (she/her/hers): I have one for Jessi. You talked about the idea of the complete user. Can you expand on that a little bit more about what’s your goal and what’s your definition of what that looks like, and what you’re trying to get kind of from that perspective?
Jessi Bull, GSA/TTS (she/her/hers): That’s a great question and I think from my perspective – and I also would really encourage for everyone to check out the Customer Experience Executive Order that I think Traci mentioned and linked to earlier, because I think it gives some very strong examples and some prioritized areas for development and funding from this administration.
But I guess the way that I would sort of think about it is… so, when you think about a person interacting with some type of digital services product – maybe I am a new mom and I’m trying to get on to the WIC program or trying to get health insurance for myself and my family. I wouldn’t have a lot of things going on at the moment, so, while a well-designed WIC or food stamp application website is going to be helpful to me, it still doesn’t really answer the other questions of ‘but I still need health insurance’. Maybe I’m also looking for another job, maybe I’m looking for childcare services. Maybe all the above. And so, it shouldn’t be on me as a user experiencing the complexity of life to have to navigate 12 different government websites to get to get help.
The goal would be for the government to reflect back to the user the myriad of all of their needs, as opposed to reflecting back US Government is organized by these departments and programs, and so this department’s program is on this website and this program on that website. So, I think it’s really shifting the perspective when we’re creating interfaces from one that maybe reflects out from the government or sort of from the program and rather takes the position of who’s a person trying to access services, what do we know about them, what is happening in their life, and how can we meet all of those in a unified way.
Traci Walker, Digital Services Coalition (she/her/hers): Thank you very much.
Christine Steiffer, Mediabarn (she/her/hers): I have a question for Leanna. Actually, I just wanted to uplift, and you know, agree and just offer gratitude that you made the point of uplifting the work of others and how much the work that all of us are doing is built off of so much work that’s come before us. I know that I certainly feel that with my projects. So, I just wanted to maybe offer you an opportunity or others on this panel if you wanted to highlight anything in particular – a story, or something that you have built from as a result of colleagues, or maybe passed legislation that has led to the work that you’re able to do now that has enabled it.
Leanna Miller, VA (she/her/hers): That’s a great question, and thanks for the shine.
One of the things that we’re trying to do right now, and I would not say we’re successful yet, but right now VA has a lot of different apps, and they all look different. They all have different ways of logging in, and they do some overlapping things, and they’re kind of a haphazard approach. And, you know, apps are different than websites – so, we’re also thinking about what the app store experience is. I think what’s most important is that we ship a good option that works well for most people, but a secondary thing is [to consider] how do people know what to trust? What’s a VA app and what isn’t?
So, one of the things we really been pressing is that there’s this whole portfolio that folks have worked really hard on over the last many years, and it was very innovative for its time. They (developers) like bled to get the ability to launch these apps and I don’t want to come in and be like ‘oh, these things are crap we’re going to deprecate them and we’re going to move to this.’
So, it’s really that balance between this thing has grown organically in a very start-up mode and now we sort of need to take a step back and look. But they’re [the apps] their [developers] babies, so that’s a problem that I’m navigating now and trying to use my own advice. But it’s really, really hard to turn things off in government. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do –in government is to turn stuff off. So, that’s what I got for you.
Christine Steiffer, Mediabarn (she/her/hers): Agreed on that last part. We were all nodding. It’s very hard to turn things off.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Does anyone else want to respond to Christine’s question? I know Mike, you said ‘we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants’ [in chat]. Is there anything that comes to mind specifically?
Mike Gifford, CivicActions (he/him/his): Just that we’re looking at acknowledging other people. I mean there’s so much that that we’ve all learned from others and our tools that we’re building on. The whole infrastructure of the web is built on so much learning from other people. So, it’s just really great to acknowledge the people who’ve come before and have blazed the path that has made this possible. So yeah, I wanted to just to highlight that.
Kira Prin, IRS (she/her/hers): I just wanted to say that, for example, the online services team in 2020 redesigned the tax withholding estimator (it was formerly known as the withholding calculator), and it hadn’t been redesigned in 19 years. The person who created the withholding calculator back in 2000 was still here [at the IRS]. So, the way that we approached this situation was to bring him in as part of our new team. And he was (and still is) our biggest champion and the most important SME [subject matter expert] that we have for the Tax Withholding Estimator. We respected everything that he had done before for the calculator, and now he’s still doing it for us. So, we thought collaborating and bringing people in and making them feel a part of the project is a good way to appreciate everything that they have done before, as well.
Leanna Miller, VA (she/her/hers): I’ll just add that if you don’t mean it, people can tell.
You can’t fake it. So, learn more about what’s come before you, so that you can appreciate it.
Bill Fischer, Ad Hoc (he/him/his): Yeah, I was just going to say that staying on the learning path and staying off the judging path, I think, is super important. And really kind of taking that appreciative inquiry-based approach. So again, to start from a place of gratitude of what’s been done and approach it from a learning mindset. And having the courage to revisit any fundamental assumptions in the light of new data that you may learn throughout the process.
Traci Walker, Digital Services Coalition (she/her/hers): I was going to add one thing real quick. It would be remiss if we didn’t bring up the great work (of all the people) that has gone into the Web design standards. How there is a common look and feel to the government now that did not exist prior to that that work. It has been iterated on many times with a lot of you know, community accessibility, all the things are kind of baked into that. And now, when you see a website that does not look like that, that is more of a ‘what’s wrong?’ and you can automatically start… (I would say judging but now you’ve made me stop judging, Bill) learning a way for us to constructively tell them to come up to speed. That their website looks like the government of the older years versus what you now have come to expect. And that was completely not even thought about ten years ago – having a common look and feel.
And so, I think great work kind of goes in that space and seeing something across the government. That can organically grow because it was not mandated until the idea. It was homegrown with the idea that this should be a thing, and that idea was coming from the development community saying ‘this should be a customer experience expectation.’ And now that’s becoming the norm, so get that shout out.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Terrific. Any other questions or comments to the group wants to add? Okay, well, thank you.
We did have a question come in and it’s specifically for the IRS team. There’s a question about what are the next steps in terms of transforming the website? And I’m sorry if I’m not pronouncing your name right, Mari Globalrama posted that. I also noticed that Catherine Hooper responded as well, so I’m not sure the best person to respond to this – whether Catherine wants to come off mute as well, or Kira, but we would love to hear a little bit more about what’s coming next.
Kira Prin, IRS (she/her/hers): I can take that over and Catherine chime in if I miss something. But right now, it’s an exciting moment for us in Online Services. We are actually working on Phase 2 of a site navigation study. So, we aimed high with the homepage and now we’re aiming higher with the whole site structure. Again, we know it is very important for all audience groups that we touch with our website to have the greatest experience that they can have. Like Christine said, all of us have to deal with the IRS at some point, so we really want our navigation to reflect that. We know that it is important for you to have a good experience, to have all the information, to be educated about any questions that you may have about your taxes, and then be able to feel empowered about what’s next on your tax compliance journey. So, we are working on improving the global navigation and we also have many other content projects to get things going to also reduce the content that we have on the website. So, we have a lot of great strategic initiatives, and also smaller projects, going on right now that hopefully we can share with you another time.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Terrific. Thanks, Kira. I got a message via direct chat asking about the future and asking how people think things will be different in five years. Specifically, the question was to Traci about procurement – you talked a lot about micro-purchases and smaller purchases – where do you think we’re heading? If you could fast forward a few years, where do you think we’ll end up?
Traci Walker, Digital Services Coalition (she/her/hers): I really think that industry and government are starting to build trust again, especially in this space, which is one of the things that really gets in the way of being able to achieve the goals. There is always a little bit of finger pointing, and that comes from a long history on both sides looking at we have to get things done. But as the concept and the idea of failure as part of the process becomes more normalized [trust is improving]. You can go back to the drawing board and start things over and the whole system doesn’t have to be conceived and built all in one big shot – that you have the ability to do that.
Working together and building that communication and trust is going to improve a lot of how we get through acquisitions. It’s going to improve a lot about how we get things delivered. And it’s going to open the boundaries and barriers between talking to the people that need the services the most.
The other thing, too, is that there are still a lot of barriers to entry to government that people are working on. There is legislation and policies that are trying to break down those barriers. Things along the lines of improve Other Transactional Authority (OTAs), improved ways of getting to non-traditional companies – I know that’s a term that people haven’t really necessarily defined yet, that [definition] is even coming.
I think that one of the things that maybe we can also try to help normalize from the industry perspective is that there’s always going to be a new buzzword and there’s always going to be a new trend or a new something that comes along – so make clear as government is getting involved how technology moves and how fast it goes. I think we’re going to be much quicker at adopting and adapting to the new trend and the new ideas, than we have traditionally been. Where it was such a big difference between going from a waterfall-based concept to agile software development. Now this next move, what is the next thing, and the next thing is going to speed up so that’s going to mean people are going to start expecting faster results from what they get from their government. Because as soon as you give people that opportunity to see where it can be done in one place, they’re going to start expecting it everywhere. I think that’s really the spirit of the Executive Order. Where it came from is that there is this expectation of what technology can do for us and we have it in our personal lives, why can’t we have it in our government lives?
As people get used to that concept, and the risk is shifted from the big, huge risk to smaller, more manageable risk, we’ll see a lot more adoption. The speed is going to actually increase because now government has gotten over that hump. I think it’s going to be starting to get there. Obviously, the challenge is always making sure that you find the right way and the right speed of adoption, and not trying to overcorrect too far. Going too much on the other side, so you get into the world of cowboy acquisition or cowboy projects where it’s the wild, wild west and nobody knows what’s going on and what’s going to happen. Because that’s going to start locking everything back down again. So, it’s really trying to find that balance, which I think we always try to work for, but government does have a tendency of getting too far one way. So, maybe helping to normalize that a little bit is where we can help from both the industry and the government perspective. As we adopt all this transformation and look at how that goes, that we don’t have to make such wide shifts now and we can kind of steer that course in the middle.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Thank you. I want to ask a similar question to Jessi as well because TTS is often kind of in the leading space around transformation and we’ve heard about the things that are coming right now. I don’t know if you had time, you haven’t been there very long, but have you been thinking about what’s going to come in the next few years, and really what comes next after what you’re doing?
Jessi Bull, GSA/TTS (she/her/hers): It’s interesting, as Traci was talking, I was thinking ‘yes, this is what I think.’ I do think there is a tendency sometimes to do a little bit of that swinging and I think there is a lot of low hanging fruit in front of us. There’s like we there’s a lot of work that’s been done, as we’ve all said of kind of laying a lot of foundations and getting a really clear picture of where the issues are. I think it’s important to not only be able to take on the next inspirational thing, but also be able to keep going on the ones identified.
So, my hope – and I cannot predict where TTS as an organization will go in the next few years – but my hope is that we continue to mature and land somewhere in that middle ground. Where we have spaces where we at the forefront and driving a lot of innovation across the government, but then we’re also kind of doing the work behind that that is more of the middle path and is moving everything forward. And maybe it’s a little bit smaller or it’s more back-end infrastructure and a little bit less shiny, but still just as critical. So, I hope that we get into a place where we’re kind of driving forward on a couple of fronts, but in a balanced way.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): And it just becomes the way we do business.
So, I’m going to go ahead and wrap it up with a final question – Leanna put something into the chat here that’s a great question. For any of our speakers, how have you navigated a situation where a contract has been awarded to build something that undermines the customer experience. So, Leanna I don’t know if you had something in mind that you wanted to answer, but I want to open that up for the group to answer.
Leanna Miller, VA (she/her/hers): Sure. One of the lessons that we are learning at VA is once you take over the front door of something and it’s successful, it kind of shifts sometimes from a lot of people who are resistant to the change and now they want to attach to it. For example – and I see this across all the agencies, like with the work that’s happening at IRS, and us, and then also with the customer experience – a lot of this is about creating holistic customer centered experiences. But there are always going to be people who either have a program that they want represented, or they want a feature in the mobile app, or they want to build their own mobile app, or they want to build their own website. And that happens all the time at VA. And I’m just curious, a lot of times the contract is awarded, the money has been spent, the stakeholders may even agree with your strategy, but it’s impossible to shut it down. And so, I’m just curious if anyone has navigated that before?
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Do any of our other speakers, want to take a stab at that?
Kira Prin, IRS (she/her/hers): Leanna, I haven’t had that experience before, but for us at the content strategy team at IRS.gov, we always say that it is a fine line to walk between the business needs and the user needs. It depends on the project, how you can approach that situation and try to bring your business partners in with data, with research, with a prototype they could feel it and play with it, so they can understand what the other side would experience with your product – application or website.
So, I haven’t had that situation that you’re mentioning, but it is something that we on the online services team, we’re always keeping in mind, because sometimes that happens. If the Chief Counsel says ‘hey, we need to have this very complex language on the side because it is the law.’ Okay, that’s true. But then, we need to stop and think about our user – how are they going to read it, are they going to understand it, should we make it a little bit simpler so then they can understand the law? So those are the situations that that we encounter mostly.
Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group (she/her/hers): Thank you, Kira. I appreciate your perspective.
Well, I would just want to say a big thanks to everybody. To all of our storytellers, it was really an honor to share this with you today. I did walk away with a notepad full of lessons learned. And I also was super impressed, as a change management company, hearing so much focus not just on the end user but on all the different stakeholders involved and all the people it requires in order to do digital transformation. So, thank you all for sharing your time, your talents, and your spotlight with us. And a special shout out to all the DSC co-members! I see so many folks here, who showed up to support each other and I appreciate that.
And I want to say thank you for all the people who’ve been submitting their stories online. If you haven’t had a chance to, go ahead to our website and submit your story, let us know if you want to participate in a story jam in the future again that’s at https://wheelhousegroup.com/storiesofchange and then also keep an eye out on your email and we usually post things on LinkedIn.
We’re going to take this content and each quarter (at least, probably every month) we’re going to share different pieces of content that came from here. And, to the extent that other folks on this call want to get involved, want to guest write, or participate in a video; we will take as much or as little time as you have available, but we’d love to make you part of this movement. Because we really do want to help each other become better at change. So, thank you again everybody for participating. We will post this recording in the coming weeks, and we look forward to seeing you at the next Story Jam. Thank you.
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