When people need information or services from their government, they typically start their journey online. If you’re a government organization with a sprawling digital presence, how can you help those you serve to easily navigate your websites and find what they need?
Many federal agencies have broad missions and often organize their websites around internal business lines—instead of customer tasks. A single agency may have dozens or even hundreds of websites, making it challenging for customers to understand all of the services offered, or easily complete tasks online.
A lack of clarity around internal roles, responsibilities, and authority over content often results in websites that confuse customers, rather than helping them along their journey. Without digital governance, federal agencies will have a hard time resolving these issues. Because many interactions with the government now happen online, agencies need to apply better governance to our websites, or we’ll continue to struggle to meet customers’ needs.
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A model for digital governance
A strong governance structure is foundational to digital service delivery. Governance establishes clear lines of authority, and helps teams understand who’s responsible for what. It also helps managers make better business decisions about their websites, and gives web teams structure and tools to deliver effective digital services that improve customer outcomes.
At the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), we’ve implemented a governance structure to define how we manage and deliver digital services. It begins with GSA’s Digital Experience Executive Board and Digital Council.
Management and oversight
GSA’s Executive Board provides high-level direction and oversight, and our Digital Council coordinates across business lines to improve digital services. Responsibilities include:
- Developing agency strategy, standards, and policies for GSA digital properties,
- Overseeing the digital experience to help teams achieve defined business goals, and comply with policy and legal requirements for public-facing websites,
- Facilitating implementation of Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and agency decisions concerning digital functionality, technology use, interactions, and products,
- Coordinating with offices to remediate or close noncompliant sites or apps, and continuously improve and update digital services.
- Keeping non-sitting members of GSA leadership apprised of decisions and thinking regarding day-to-day operations of, and short- and long-term planning for, GSA’s digital presence, and
- Coordinating with stakeholders to implement changes.
Our Digital Council was established in early 2019 to oversee implementation of the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (21st Century IDEA), which requires federal agencies to modernize their websites and improve customer experience.
“GSA’s Digital Council is empowered to make recommendations and decisions to improve GSA’s digital presence, and advocate on behalf of GSA customers.”—GSA Digital Council Charter
The Council is co-chaired by the Offices of Customer Experience, Strategic Communications, and Information Technology. These offices are the “three-legged stool” of GSA’s digital governance, collaborating across business lines to improve our customer’s experiences with GSA websites and digital services.
Enterprise Digital Experience team
The public expects the same level of service from their government as they’d get from any private sector organization at scale. To help GSA meet these expectations, we established an Enterprise Digital Experience (EDX) team in our Office of Customer Experience in 2021. The team has expertise in service design, web development, software engineering, digital strategy, federal web policy, communications, analytics, and human resources change management. They work closely with the Digital Council, Executive Board, and web teams to improve our websites and implement GSA’s digital strategy.
Some projects the EDX team has tackled during its first 18 months include:
Website Evaluations: EDX meets one-on-one with website teams to learn about each GSA website, and analyzes site data around factors such as customer centricity, accessibility, and performance. They then develop customized recommendations to help each team address deficiencies and improve the website’s performance and user experience.
Digital Lifecycle Program: EDX developed and published comprehensive guidance for teams on how to manage a GSA website, from ideation through sunset, and how to comply with the 100+ laws and policy requirements related to federal website management.
Website Manager Training: In collaboration with GSA’s Office of Human Resources Management (OHRM), EDX developed training to help GSA web managers understand:
- GSA’s digital governance structure, and how they fit in
- Their responsibilities for managing a GSA website in accordance with federal web policy
- How to use the Digital Lifecycle Program.
Digital Community of Practice
The Digital Council and EDX team host an internal Community of Practice for GSA web teams, sharing guidance and direction on agency digital priorities and initiatives. To provide teams with the tools they need to improve their websites, they also host training for community members on topics such as accessibility and design, and encourage web team members to join Digital.gov’s governmentwide communities of practice.
Classifying the work
The lack of standardized position descriptions (PDs) for website managers and technologists has been a long-standing issue in the federal government. Our challenge was to ensure that web managers had proper language in their PDs and performance plans, so they get credit for this important work.
OHRM reviewed the PDs of all our web managers, making “pen and ink” changes where needed to add language describing web management responsibilities. Once PDs were updated, the work could then be documented in employee performance plans, so employees now get proper credit for the work.
Support from senior leaders
None of this work would be possible without open communication and support from senior leadership. In her confirmation hearing in June 2021, GSA Administrator Carnahan stressed how critical it is for the federal government to “make the damn websites work” (that portion begins at 01:20:48 in the embedded closed-captioned video below).
GSA’s Deputy Administrator chairs our Executive Board, and our Digital Council meets with the Board several times a year to update them on progress and gain buy-in for new digital initiatives.
We also included new language in the performance plans of all senior leaders who oversee a GSA website. Documenting performance criteria for website management, top-to-bottom throughout the organization, has brought increased attention to the importance of digital governance.
Language in the senior executives’ performance plans
”GSA must ensure that its workforce has the skills to deliver and maintain accessible, secure, compliant public-facing websites and digital services that promote a good customer experience, and increase public trust. Website managers and their associated teams must implement the business and technical requirements of website management, collaborate to serve GSA’s customers, and achieve and maintain compliance with the 21st Century IDEA and the GSA Digital Lifecycle Program (DLP).”
Federal agencies have grappled with digital governance for more than two decades. The passage of 21st Century IDEA provided the impetus for GSA to put a formalized governance structure in place, and we’re seeing many positive impacts.
GSA’s internal management structure has greater awareness of the work we need to do, and we’ve built a community of people dedicated to improving digital services. We’ve made significant inroads to modernize our websites, streamline our digital footprint, improve management of our digital portfolio, and ensure our employees get credit for their hard work and expertise.
Without governance, none of this would have been possible.
Are you interested in learning more about digital governance at GSA? You might also be interested in reading the EDX team’s other blog posts:
- Taking a design-led approach to digital modernization
- Sunrise to sunset: building a customer-centric digital ecosystem
- Bringing design in-house
If you work at a U.S. federal government agency, and would like to learn more about our digital governance structure, reach out to GSA’s EDX team at email@example.com. We’d love to chat!