October 23, 2023
OMB Issues Government-Wide Digital Service Guidance
Do you download IRS.gov forms, manage healthcare on Medicare.gov, renew your passport on Travel.State.gov, or use Studentaid. gov for college loans? Or does your company support any of the technology that allows billions of such interactions to occur each month? If so, take note of major new federal standards for digital government and the digital experience (DX) that aim to transform delivery of services and access to information over the next decade.
On September 22, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released broad and comprehensive new digital service guidance (OMB Memo M-23-22 “Delivering a Digital-First Public Experience”) for federal agencies, replacing a seven-year-old policy and others that preceded it. Given that the majority of the public now access federal information online, and most of it on mobile devices, the Biden Administration decided to set new agency requirements to provide an increased level of service, consistent across government. According to OMB, the goal of the new requirements is to transform government-public digital interaction and “to ensure [the government] is providing information that is easy to use, trustworthy, and accessible.”
The Federal Government is an enormous service provider. Some 430 Federal agencies and sub-agencies provide information and services to more than 400 million individuals, families, businesses, organizations, and local governments each year. Each month, there are nearly two billion visits to Federal websites.
Building Digital Experiences for the American People, White House,
September 22, 2023
The guidance and requirements contained in the OMB Memo apply to all agency websites and digital services that are intended for use by the public, including web and mobile applications, whether maintained by the agency or a contractor. Given the deadlines in the memo, it is conceivable that agencies will need even more contractor support in the future.
M-23-22 replaces earlier government-wide digital directives, including a 2016 OMB memorandum (M-17-06) and a 2012 guidance document. Internal-facing digital services are not subject to the requirements but agencies are encouraged to make improvements to those as well. The guidance includes both overall federal requirements, directed primarily to the Government Services Agency (GSA) and the CIO Council, and specific directives for agencies. Expect agencies to bake specific compliance elements into requirements for new and ongoing procurements. That will include modifications to existing contracts, new task orders on existing multiple/single award indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contracts as well as brand new contract competitions. The OMB directive also addresses prioritization, sets deadlines, and assigns responsibilities.
M-23-22 requirements impact federal procurement of digital services, digital and mobile applications, hardware and software, security, and accessibility for all agencies. Private sector contributions will be critical.
Contractors will want to know, if they don’t already, which agencies are “just getting started,” and who the incumbent contractors are, and will have extra incentive to gain insights into incumbent past performance.
REQUIREMENTS FOR WEBSITES AND DIGITAL SERVICES
OMB defines a broad framework that covers critical performance of government websites and digital services and digitization of forms. The guidance lays out nine categories for agencies to address in order to achieve successful customer experience with government websites and digital services, and sets activities, evaluation and reporting requirements for each category. The categories are:
- Authoritative content;
- Discernible in searches;
- Mobile-first; and
- Other aspects, including privacy and software design features.
What we need to fix:
-45% of Federal websites are not mobile friendly
-60% of websites have a possible accessibility issue
-80% of websites do not use U.S. Web Design System Code
Building Digital Experiences for the American People, White House,
September 22, 2023
Each requirement is defined further within M-23-22. Highlights include:
- Design customizable experiences and mobile-friendly design that scales for all types and sizes of devices;
- Assure privacy and security with every phase of federal websites and services;
- Design and test for accessibility and conducting inclusive research;
- Use the United States Web Design System (USWDS) and compliance with federal website standards set by GSA;
- Provide content that is authoritative and easy to understand, including updating content, removing abandoned content, and avoiding duplication that could be confusing;
- Write content in plain language and consider users with limited English proficiency and translate content;
- Establish an enterprise content strategy, review controls and involve experts in content, so the public can rely on government websites to be current, accurate, and complete;
- Make searches work for and within federal websites and Information and services need to be discoverable and optimized for search, and websites must include search functions; and
- Design and test web and digital services to be more user-centered.
DIGITIZATION OF FORMS AND SERVICES
Digitization of forms and services is the second aspect that OMB addresses for agencies. According to the OMB fact sheet, only 2% of government forms are fully digitized. That means dynamic online forms, not just a fillable or partly fillable PDF. OMB requires that digital forms should be made available “to the greatest extent practicable” and expects agencies to focus on forms that have the greatest impact to the public. Digital forms should be prioritized over electronic or paper forms, particularly for new forms.
Agencies must inventory their current forms and services provided, increase self-service and determine which channels (in-person, web, mobile, text, email) best meet user needs. The “omni-channel” approach is preferred, meaning the user can access forms, complete forms, and submit forms through any method based on their preference. Agencies need to decide which signature types are necessary and when “wet,” electronic, or digital signatures (which incorporate a cryptographic mechanisms) would be required.
ASSESSMENT AND REPORTING
The administration demands that “all agencies must immediately take steps to achieve alignment” with the guidance “to the greatest extent practicable.” Within 180 days (or by March 20, 2024), agencies should incorporate the requirements when designing or redesigning websites and digital services. Further, OMB requires agencies to report on the “alignment of websites and digital services with the requirements of this memorandum” within 180 days of its publication. Priority should be based on volume and impact, i.e., highest will be public-facing websites that directly support delivery of information and services to the most people for the most impactful services.
To meet this overall goal, the immediate requirements are for each agency to name a “digital experience delivery” lead person within 30 days (by October 22); to identify affected websites in 90 days; and within 180 days assess website function, volume and services; identify common questions and content; show deduplication progress; determine candidates for self-service optimization; and inventory public-facing services.
These aggressive internal deadlines for agencies create targeted opportunities for contractors to present business cases for the solutions they bring to the table that comply with OMB guidance and generate long-term savings to agencies. Easy to use on-line solutions should reduce the number of agency staff that have to deal with paper forms, perform manual data entry, or answer phone calls from the public when they encounter forms that are difficult to understand because they’re written in gov-speak. Given the likely constraints on agency budgets, a benefit-cost analysis showing long-term savings on an investment today can help agencies internally and justify funding for new agency initiatives to OMB and Congress.
ALL OF GOVERNMENT
OMB includes a number of government-wide directives, most to be led by GSA, with the goal of supporting and providing guidance to agencies as they work to comply with the OMB guidelines. Most immediately, GSA is tasked with expanding digital.gov (the government’s central platform for guidance on building better digital services in government) in 60 days (by November 21) and to facilitate interagency coordination the CIO Council, which is directed to set up a “Digital Experience Council” within 90 days. Within 180 days the government is required to update website standards and plain language guidelines. GSA is also tasked, within 180 days, with facilitating industry collaboration, taking steps to make it easier to buy services, reviewing platforms, tools and services that agencies can use, and developing and maintaining a Federal Services Index that will provide an inventory of relevant services. Getting a hardware or software solution on that list will be key to selling across the government.
As the White House Fact Sheet states, “digital experience is central to Federal agencies’ mission delivery and our government’s ability to serve the American people.” The OMB guidance is also geared to increase efficiency, saving time and money for individuals and agencies. Creating a comprehensive, government-wide guidance document is a significant undertaking. Expect the Biden Administration to follow-up with budgets that invest in digital information and service improvements and the infrastructure that supports them.
The timing of this guidance is an early signal to agencies that OMB is likely to approve related agency FY 2025 digital service budget initiatives. Those plans are currently undergoing OMB review. Additionally, ongoing activities and fiscal year 2024 planned digital services may be tweaked, expanded, or changed to meet these new OMB standards. To plan for government procurements in the DX space, study the OMB directive and watch for GSA’s upcoming industry engagement, purchasing guidance, and inventory of services, which will clarify a set of new elements that will be incorporated into agency requirements for purchase of digital services.