If the American public wants to see meaningful progress on transparency, accountability or ethics in U.S. government, it should call on Congress to act, not the Trump White House. With little fanfare or notice, the United States of America has … Continue reading
In its search for technology talent, the White House has been recruiting heavily from Google of late, including U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith. Today, President Barack Obama showed that his administration also likes Facebook, announcing that engineer David Recordon would upgrade the White House’s technology infrastructure. The news was first reported by Yahoo.
“In our continued efforts to serve our citizens better, we’re bringing in top tech leaders to support our teams across the federal government,” said President Obama, in a statement. “Today, I’m pleased to welcome David Recordon as the Director of White House Information Technology. His considerable private sector experience and ability to deploy the latest collaborative and communication technologies will be a great asset to our work on behalf of the American people.”
On the one hand, it’s terrific to see The White House attract top tech talent. Getting David Recordon into public service should be a win for the American people. Based upon a somewhat cryptic hint he posted on Facebook last August, it appeared that he was involved in helping to fix Heathcare.gov and another unnamed important project. The blog post that went up at WhiteHouse.gov confirmed that Recordon was “one of those engineers.” Bringing the best engineers the administration can find into the U.S. Digital Service will help the nation avoid more IT catastrophes, and Recordon, a notable open standard advocate who helped develop OpenID, is clearly one of them. That’s good news.
On the other hand, while being the first “Director of White House Information Technology” is clearly great copy for the tech press, working to “ensure that the technology utilized by the White House is efficient, effective, and secure” sounds more or less what the White House chief information officer should be — and has been – doing for years.
Just look at the responsibilities for the Office of the CIO. Per Federal News Radio, the White House CIO for the past two years, Karen Britton, stepped down in January 2015, without any announced replacement since. Michael Hornsby, the director of engineering and operations within OCIO, served as acting CIO. This all leads me to hypothesize that Recordon has effectively been named the new White House CIO but doesn’t have that title.
Regardless, here’s hoping Recordon’s considerable expertise leads to improvements in an information technology infrastructure that has come a long way since 2009 (read this) but still lags the private sector.
President Obama signed an official presidential memorandum today creating the role and establishing an “Executive Committee for Presidential Information Technology” made up of the “Assistant to the president for Management and Administration, the Executive Secretary of the National Security Council, the Director of the Office of Administration, the Director of the United States Secret Service, and the Director of the White House Military Office.”
According to the memorandum, which is embedded beneath and reproduced in plaintext below (it’s not online at WhiteHouse.gov yet), this committee will “shall advise and make policy recommendations to the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and the Director with respect to operational and procurement decisions necessary to achieve secure, seamless, reliable, and integrated information resources and information systems for the President, Vice President, and EOP.”
In other words, these folks will advise the director on how to by, build and run tech for the White House.
[Photo Credit: Brian Solis]
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release March 19, 2015
March 19, 2015
MEMORANDUM FOR THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE
THE SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY
THE DIRECTOR OF THE OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND
THE NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR
THE DIRECTOR OF THE OFFICE OF ADMINISTRATION
SUBJECT: Establishing the Director of White House
Information Technology and the Executive
Committee for Presidential Information Technology
By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution
and the laws of the United States of America, and in order to
improve the information resources and information systems
provided to the President, Vice President, and Executive Office
of the President (EOP), I hereby direct the following:
Section 1. Policy. The purposes of this memorandum are to
ensure that the information resources and information systems
provided to the President, Vice President, and EOP are
efficient, secure, and resilient; establish a model for
Government information technology management efforts; reduce
operating costs through the elimination of duplication and
overlapping services; and accomplish the goal of converging
disparate information resources and information systems for the
This memorandum is intended to maintain the President’s
exclusive control of the information resources and information
systems provided to the President, Vice President, and EOP.
High-quality, efficient, interoperable, and safe information
systems and information resources are required in order for the
President to discharge the duties of his office with the support
of those who advise and assist him, and with the additional
assistance of all EOP components. The responsibilities that
this memorandum vests in the Director of White House Information
Technology, as described below, have been performed historically
within the EOP, and it is the intent of this memorandum to
continue this practice.
The Director of White House Information Technology, on
behalf of the President, shall have the primary authority to
establish and coordinate the necessary policies and procedures
for operating and maintaining the information resources and
information systems provided to the President, Vice President,
and EOP. Nothing in this memorandum may be construed to
delegate the ownership, or any rights associated with ownership, 2
of any information resources or information systems, nor of any
record, to any entity outside of the EOP.
Sec. 2. Director of White House Information Technology.
(a) There is hereby established the Director of White House
Information Technology (Director). The Director shall be the
senior officer responsible for the information resources and
information systems provided to the President, Vice President,
and EOP by the Presidential Information Technology Community
(Community). The Director shall:
(i) be designated by the President;
(ii) have the rank and status of a commissioned
officer in the White House Office; and
(iii) have sufficient seniority, education, training,
and expertise to provide the necessary advice,
coordination, and guidance to the Community.
(b) The Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations shall provide
the Director with necessary direction and supervision.
(c) The Director shall ensure the effective use of
information resources and information systems provided to the
President, Vice President, and EOP in order to improve mission
performance, and shall have the appropriate authority to
promulgate all necessary procedures and rules governing these
resources and systems. The Director shall provide policy
coordination and guidance for, and periodically review, all
activities relating to the information resources and information
systems provided to the President, Vice President, and EOP by
the Community, including expenditures for, and procurement of,
information resources and information systems by the Community.
Such activities shall be subject to the Director’s coordination,
guidance, and review in order to ensure consistency with the
Director’s strategy and to strengthen the quality of the
Community’s decisions through integrated analysis, planning,
budgeting, and evaluation processes.
(d) The Director may advise and confer with appropriate
executive departments and agencies, individuals, and other
entities as necessary to perform the Director’s duties under
Sec. 3. Executive Committee for Presidential Information
Technology. There is hereby established an Executive Committee
for Presidential Information Technology (Committee). The
Committee consists of the following officials or their
designees: the Assistant to the President for Management and
Administration; the Executive Secretary of the National Security
Council; the Director of the Office of Administration; the
Director of the United States Secret Service; and the Director
of the White House Military Office.
Sec. 4. Administration. (a) The President or the Deputy
Chief of Staff for Operations may assign the Director and the
Committee any additional functions necessary to advance the
mission set forth in this memorandum.
(b) The Committee shall advise and make policy
recommendations to the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and
the Director with respect to operational and procurement 3
decisions necessary to achieve secure, seamless, reliable, and
integrated information resources and information systems for the
President, Vice President, and EOP. The Director shall update
the Committee on both strategy and execution, as requested,
including collaboration efforts with the Federal Chief
Information Officer, with other government agencies, and by
participating in the Chief Information Officers Council.
(c) The Secretary of Defense shall designate or appoint a
White House Technology Liaison for the White House
Communications Agency and the Secretary of Homeland Security
shall designate or appoint a White House Technology Liaison for
the United States Secret Service. Any entity that becomes a
part of the Community after the issuance of this memorandum
shall designate or appoint a White House Technology Liaison for
that entity. The designation or appointment of a White House
Technology Liaison is subject to the review of, and shall be
made in consultation with, the President or his designee. The
Chief Information Officer of the Office of Administration and
the Chief Information Officer of the National Security Council,
and their successors in function, are designated as White House
Technology Liaisons for their respective components. In
coordination with the Director, the White House Technology
Liaisons shall ensure that the day-to-day operation of and
long-term strategy for information resources and information
systems provided to the President, Vice President, and EOP are
interoperable and effectively function as a single, modern, and
high-quality enterprise that reduces duplication, inefficiency,
(d) The President or his designee shall retain the
authority to specify the application of operating policies and
procedures, including security measures, which are used in the
construction, operation, and maintenance of any information
resources or information system provided to the President, Vice
President, and EOP.
(e) Presidential Information Technology Community entities
(i) assist and provide information to the Deputy
Chief of Staff for Operations and the Director,
consistent with applicable law, as may be necessary to
implement this memorandum; and
(ii) as soon as practicable after the issuance of
this memorandum, enter into any memoranda of
understanding as necessary to give effect to the
provisions of this memorandum.
(f) As soon as practicable after the issuance of this
memorandum, EOP components shall take all necessary steps,
either individually or collectively, to ensure the proper
creation, storage, and transmission of EOP information on any
information systems and information resources provided to the
President, Vice President, and EOP.
Sec. 5. Definitions. As used in this memorandum:
(a) “Information resources,” “information systems,”
and “information technology” have the meanings assigned by
section 3502 of title 44, United States Code.4
(b) “Presidential Information Technology Community” means
the entities that provide information resources and information
systems to the President, Vice President, and EOP, including:
(i) the National Security Council;
(ii) the Office of Administration;
(iii) the United States Secret Service;
(iv) the White House Military Office; and
(v) the White House Communications Agency.
(c) “Executive Office of the President” means:
(i) each component of the EOP as is or may
hereafter be established;
(ii) any successor in function to an EOP component
that has been abolished and of which the function is
retained in the EOP; and
(iii) the President’s Commission on White House
Fellowships, the President’s Intelligence Advisory
Board, the Residence of the Vice President, and such
other entities as the President from time to time may
Sec. 6. General Provisions. (a) Nothing in this
memorandum shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:
(i) the authority granted by law to an executive
department, agency, entity, office, or the head
(ii) the functions of the Director of the Office of
Management and Budget relating to budgetary,
administrative, or legislative proposals.
(b) This memorandum shall be implemented consistent with
applicable law and appropriate protections for privacy and civil
liberties, and subject to the availability of appropriations.
(c) This memorandum is not intended to, and does not,
create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural,
enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the
United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its
officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.
# # #
There are roughly 1,361 .gov domains* operated by the executive branch of the United States federal government, 700-800 of which are live and in active use. Today, for the first time, the public can see how many people are visiting 300 executive branch government domains in real-time, including every cabinet department, by visiting analytics.usa.gov.
According to a post on the White House blog, the United States Digital Service “will use the data from the Digital Analytics Program to focus our digital service teams on the services that matter most to the American people, and analyze how much progress we are making. The Dashboard will help government agencies understand how people find, access, and use government services online to better serve the public – all while protecting privacy. The program does not track individuals. It anonymizes the IP addresses of all visitors and then uses the resulting information in the aggregate.”
On Thursday morning, March 19th, tax-related services, weather, and immigration status are all popular. Notably, there’s an e-petition on the White House WeThePeople platform listed as well, adding data-driven transparency to what’s popular there right now.
Former United States deputy chief technology officer Nick Sinai is excited about seeing the Web analytics data opened up online. Writing for the Harvard Shorenstein Center, where he is currently a fellow, Sinai adds some context for the new feature:
“Making government web performance open follows the digital services playbook from the new U.S. Digital Services,” he wrote. “Using data to drive decisions and defaulting to open are important strategies for building simple and useful citizen-facing digital services. Teal-time and historical government web performance is another example of how open government data holds the promise of improving government accountability and rebuilding trust in government.”
Here’s what the U.S. digital services team says they’ve already learned from analyzing this data:
Here’s what we’ve already learned from the data:
- Our services must work well on all devices. Over the past 90 days, 33% all traffic to our sites came from people using phones and tablets. Over the same period last year, the number was 24%. Most of this growth came from an increase in mobile traffic. Every year, building digital services that work well on small screens becomes more important.
- Seasonal services and unexpected events can cause surges in traffic. As you might expect, tax season is a busy time for the IRS. This is reflected in visits to pages on IRS.gov, which have more than tripled in the past 90 days compared with the previous quarter. Other jumps in traffic are less easy to predict. For example, a recently-announced settlement between AT&T and the Federal Trade Commissiongenerated a large increase in visits to the FTC’s website. Shortly after the settlement was announced, FTC.gov had four times more visitors than the same period in the previous year. These fluctuations underscore the importance of flexibility in the way we deploy our services so that we can scale our web hosting to support surges in traffic as well as save money when our sites are less busy.
- Most people access our sites using newer web browsers. How do we improve digital services for everyone when not all web browsers work the same way? The data tells us that the percentage of people accessing our sites using outdated browsers is declining steadily. As users adopt newer web browsers, we can build services that use modern features and spend less time and money building services that work on outdated browsers. This change will also allow us to take advantage of features found in modern browsers that make it easier to build services that work well for Americans with disabilities, who access digital services using specialized devices such as screen readers.
If you have ideas, feedback or questions, the team behind the dashboard is working in the open on Github.
Over the coming months, we will encourage more sites to join the Digital Analytics Program, and we’ll include more information and insights about traffic to government sites with the same open source development process we used to create the Dashboard. If you have ideas for the project, or want to help improve it, let us know by contributing to the project on GitHub or emailing email@example.com.
There are some interesting additional details in 18F’s blog post on how the analytics dashbard was built, including the estimate that it took place “over the course of 2-3 weeks” with usability testing at a “local civic hacking meetup.”
Second, 18F made an open source tool to manage the data reporting process called “analytics-reporter” that downloads Google Analytics reports and transforms that data into JSON.
Hopefully, in the years ahead, the American people will see more than the traffic to .gov websites: they’ll see concrete performance metrics like those displayed for the digital services the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Services team publishes at gov.uk/performance, including uptime, completion rate and satisfaction rate.
In the future, if the public can see the performance of Heathcare.gov, including glitches, or other government digital services, perhaps the people building and operating them will have more accountability for uptime and quality of service.
For Sunshine Week 2015, the National Security Archive conducted an audit of how well 165 federal government agencies in the United States of America comply with the E-FOIA Act of 1996. They found that only 67 of them had online libraries that were regularly updated with a significant number of documents released under the Freedom of Information Act. The criteria for the 165 agencies were that they had to have a chief Freedom of Information Officer and components that handled more than 500 FOIA requests annually.
Almost a decade after the E-FOIA Act, that’s about a 40% compliance rate. I wonder if the next U.S. Attorney General or the next presidential administration will make improving on this poor performance priority. It’s important for The United States Department of Justice to not only lead by example but push agencies into the 21st century when it comes to the Freedom of Information Act.
It would certainly help if Congress passed FOIA reform.
On that count, the Archive highlights a relevant issue in the current House and Senate FOIA reform bills in Congress: the FOIA statute states that documents that are “likely to become the subject of subsequent requests” should be published electronic reading rooms:
“The Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy defines these records as “frequently requested records… or those which have been released three or more times to FOIA requesters.” Of course, it is time-consuming for agencies to develop a system that keeps track of how often a record has been released, which is in part why agencies rarely do so and are often in breach of the law. Troublingly, both the current House and Senate FOIA bills include language that codifies the instructions from the Department of Justice.
The National Security Archive believes the addition of this “three or more times” language actually harms the intent of the Freedom of Information Act as it will give agencies an easy excuse (“not requested three times yet!”) not to proactively post documents that agency FOIA offices have already spent time, money, and energy processing. We have formally suggested alternate language requiring that agencies generally post “all records, regardless of form or format that have been released in response to a FOIA request.”
This is a point that Members of Congress should think through carefully as they take another swing at reform. As I’ve highlighted elsewhere, FOIA requests that industry make are an important demand signal to show where data with economic value lies. (It’s also where the public interest tends to lie, with respect to FOIA requests from the media.)
While it’s true that it would take time and resources to build and maintain a system that tracks such requests by industry, there should already be a money trail from the fees paid to the agency. If FOIA reform leads to modernizing how it’s implemented, perhaps tying FOIA.gov to Data.gov might finally take place. The datasets are the subject of the most FOIA requests are the ones that should be prioritized for proactive disclosure online.
Adding a component that identifies which data sets are frequently requested, particularly periodically, should be a priority across the board for any administration that seeks to “manage information as an asset.” Adding the volume and periodicity of requests to the expanding national enterprise data inventory might naturally follow. It’s worth noting, too, that reform of the FOIA statute may not be necessary to achieve this end, if the 18F team working on modernizing FOIA software worked on it.
A .gov website that uses HTTPS encryption by default for its visitors is a superb example of “privacy by design.” On March 6th, the Federal Trade Commission enabled encryption for FTC.gov. When I visited whitehouse.gov tonight, I found that the White House digital team had flipped the site for what’s likely the most prominent government website in the world. The White House Web team confirmed the change just after midnight.
— WH.gov (@WHWeb) March 11, 2015
According to Leigh Heyman, director of new media technologies at the White House, over the next few days, the team be migrating other domains, like the bare domain name, whitehouse.gov, and m.whitehouse.gov, over to HTTPS as well, joining http://www.whitehouse.gov.
“Americans care about their privacy, and that’s what the White House’s move to HTTPS by default is about,” said Eric Mill, an open government software engineer at 18F. “The White House’s use of HTTPS protects visitors’ personal information and browsing activity when they connect to whitehouse.gov across the vast, unpredictable network of computers that is the internet.”
If you’re unfamiliar with HTTPS, it’s a way of encrypting the way you connect to a Web server online. Specifically, HTTPS refers to layering the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) on top of the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Transport Layer Security (TLS). What that means in practice is that your requests to the Web server and the pages results from it are encrypted and decrypted. Why does that matter? Consider, for instance, if someone is looking up sensitive health information online and visits a government website without HTTPS that also has data collection.
“Use of https is generally considered to be good practice, however, as opposed to unencrypted, regular http, although it adds a small amount of extra processing and delay to do the encryption,” commented Eugene Spafford, a Purdue University computer science professor and founder and executive director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security.
“HTTPS primarily provides three things: greater authentication, stream privacy, and message integrity. A quick look at the site doesn’t reveal (to me) anything that would likely require privacy or heightened message integrity. The most immediate consequence is that parties connecting to the website can have increased confidence of the site’s authenticity because a signed certificate will be employed. Of course, most people don’t actually verify certificates and their roots (cf. Superfish), so this isn’t an ironclad identification.”
Why does this matter?
“This immediately creates a strong baseline of privacy and security for anyone in the world, American or otherwise, who visits the White House website — whether to read their blog, learn more about the President, download official policies, or anything else inside whitehouse.gov,” said Mill.
“At a basic level, what a person sees and does on whitehouse.gov should be between them and the White House. When someone reads official policies published on whitehouse.gov, they should be confident that policy is real and authentic. The White House’s use of HTTPS by default means those promises just got a lot stronger.”
Ashkan Soltani, the FTC’s chief technologist, explained why that federal agency shifted at the Tech@FTC blog:
As a quick primer, HTTPS encryption secures your communications while in transit with websites so that only you and the website are able to view the content. The lock icon now appearing in your browser represents that the communication is encrypted and eavesdroppers are unable to look in. At this time, secure browsing is generally not a requirement for federal websites, but it is considered an industry best practice. Transit encryption is an important safeguard against eavesdroppers and has been the subject of previous investigations where we alleged companies failed to live up to their security promises when collecting personal information. It’s an important step when websites or apps collect personal information, and is a great best practice even if they don’t.
What broader trends does this tap into?
The White House moving to HTTPS is part of a larger move to lead by example in promoting privacy and security best practices, related Soltani, over email.
“I believe we’ll see a slow shift over the next few years of websites and services moving to HTTPS by default,” he said, “something a number of standards bodies including ISOC, IETF, and IAB have also called for.”
Along with FTC.gov, Mill highlighted the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), the independent agency charged with balancing the rights of American citizens against the security steps taken in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, to HTTPS.
They’re far from alone: “Last month, 18F worked with 19 other .gov domains to go the distance to ensure browsers would always connect to them over HTTPS,” said Mill.
“Tt’s important to understand that what’s happening now in the federal government is what the broader internet has been working on for a while: making privacy the default.
The standards bodies that guide the internet’s development are recommending that the internet be encrypted by default, instructing their working groups to prioritize encryption in new protocol development, and declaring a more secure future for the web. The fastest versions of HTTP today already require encryption in major browsers, and it’s becoming easier to imagine a future where web browsers proactively warn users about unencrypted websites.
This is also why every .gov that 18F builds with its partner agencies uses HTTPS, full stop. We work hard to demonstrate that HTTPS can be fast, inexpensive, and easy. It’s a better future, and a practical one.”
The kind of privacy and security the White House is offering its visitors is what we should come to expect from the entire web, not just websites someone thinks are “sensitive”. All Web browsing is sensitive, and the White House’s leadership here reinforces that.”
It looks like Chris Soghoian, the principal technologist at the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project in the American Civil Liberties Union, is going to have a good day tomorrow.
— Christopher Soghoian (@csoghoian) January 1, 2015
While the Obama administration has taken its lumps on digital privacy after revelations of bulk surveillance of the Internet backbone by the National Security Agency, this is undeniably an important step towards securing the traffic of millions of people who visit whitehouse.gov every month.
Now that the White House is leading by example, hopefully other federal, state and local government entities will also adopt the standard.
“Everyone should want a simple feeling of privacy as they use the web, and confidence that they’re at the real and exact website they meant to visit,” said Mill. “While not everyone is highly attuned to watching for that padlock in their browser, the more websites that add it — especially high profile ones like the White House — the more that people can depend on that promise being met.”
— 18F (@18F) March 11, 2015
The news that Google would be splitting Google+ into Streams, Photos and communication has already led to dozens of articles opining about what went wrong in the search giant’s pursuit of social media. Someday, Google Hangouts and Google Talk may become part of a wireless service from Google.
One challenge for judging its success or failure is that the majority of media accounts and analysis of Google+ always compared it to Facebook. That comparison is not entirely unreasonable, given reports about how Google executives were concerned about the rise of the world’s largest social network in 2011. If Google was trying to “play catchup” after having missed social, and Facebook is the leader, how can someone not compare the efforts?
If you looked at Google+ in terms of the ability of its social stream to attract and retain the attention and participation of a billion users for an hour every day, as Facebook does, it’s hard to argue that it succeeded. If you compared the time people spend on Plus +1’ing, sharing and commenting to Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr or Twitter, Google’s effort paled.
No doubt because of my former colleague Edd Dumbill, however, I’ve always thought of Google+ as a social backbone for all of Google’s products, not simply a destination. Google+ was a way of associating an identity for hundreds of millions of users across applications and services.
When viewed in that context, it may be that Google+ is much more successful than many people have yet realized: according to Federal News Radio, the U.S. General Services Administration has quietly added Google to the list of identity providers that the federal government has authorized to provide secure digital credentials for logging into digital services. Today, it looks like Google will be be part of the federated identity strategy that could allow U.S. citizens to renew passports online, download personal heath data and reserve campground sites in the years ahead.
Even if “Streams” does end up going away, look for Google’s identity layer to endure and mature across all of its products and services, from Documents to Maps. In 2015, being able to confirm that you’re not a dog on the Internet can sometimes be useful, too.
[Image Source: JanRain social login trends]
As an open enrollment deadline draws near, HealthCare.gov is once again having issues, according to a USA Today report.
The folks at Healthsherpa.com, however, tell me that it’s working fine. Last year, Ning Liang, one of the founders of the site, wrote me last year to tell me about updates to the site. Ling said that they can now enroll people in ACA marketplace plans, including subsidies.
According to Liang, as of June 2014 they were “the only place besides Healthcare.gov where this is possible. We have signed an agreement with CMS as a web based entity to do this. We are directly integrated with the federal data hub, so going through us is identical to going through Healthcare.gov.”
To date, they’ve helped more than 110,000 people sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
What a missed opportunity to have created a thriving ecosystem of other Web-based entities that are alternatives to the default government website.
Today, Open Knowledge released its global 2014 Open Data Index, refreshing its annual measure of the accessibility and availability of government releases of data online. When compared year over year, these indices have shown not only the relatives openness of data between countries but also the slow growth in the number of open data sets. Overall, however, the nonprofit found that the percentage of open datasets across all 97 surveyed countries (up from 63 in 2013) remained low, at only 11%.
“Opening up government data drives democracy, accountability and innovation,” said Rufus Pollock, the founder and president of Open Knowledge, in a statement. “It enables citizens to know and exercise their rights, and it brings benefits across society: from transport, to education and health. There has been a welcome increase in support for open data from governments in the last few years, but this year’s Index shows that real progress on the ground is too often lagging behind the rhetoric.”
The map below can be explored in interactive form at the Open Knowledge website.
Open Knowledge also published a refreshed ranking of countries. The United Kingdom remains atop the list, followed by Denmark and France, which moved up from number 12 in 2013. India moved into the top 10, from #27, after the relaunch of its open data platform.
Despite the rhetoric emanating from Washington, the United States is ranked at number 8, primarily due to deficiencies in open data on government spending and an open register of companies. Implementation of the DATA Act may help, as would the adoption of an open corporate identified by the U.S. Treasury.
Below, in an interview from 2012, Pollock talks more about the relationship between open data and open government.
According to a post on the White House blog, 17 million tax transcripts have been downloaded over the Internet since the feature launched in January 2014. The interesting outcome is that, according to the post, offline requests are down by 40%.
There was no clear return on the investment provided on what providing this online service saved taxpayers, but if we assume there are processing costs involved with sending transcripts through the mail and that, once online, the Internet service scales, that’s a good result, as is enabling instant electronic access to something that used to take 5-10 business days to arrive in print form.
Of note: it looks like Americans can expect more online services from the IRS in the near future, according to the the authors of the White House blog post, U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Nick Sinai and Rajive Mathur, director of Online Services at the Internal Revenue Service:
“Building on the initial success of Get Transcript, there are more exciting improvements to IRS services in the pipeline. For instance, millions of taxpayers contact the IRS every year to ask about their tax status, whether their filing was received, if their refund was processed, or if their payment posted. In the future, taxpayers will be able to answer these types of questions independently by signing in to a mobile-friendly, personalized online account to conduct transactions and see all of their tax information in one place. Users will be able to view account history and balance, make payments or see payment status, or even authorize their tax preparer to view or make changes to their tax return. This will also include the ability to download personal tax information in an easy to use and machine-readable format so that taxpayers can share with trusted recipients if desired.”
Promising. I hope that the leadership of the IRS explores how the agency could act as a platform to enable more, much-needed innovation around personal data access and digital services in the years to come, enabling a modern ecosystem of tax software based on a standardized application programming interface.
Improving online self-service could have an enormous impact upon every single American taxpayer, from saving tax dollars on the government side to saving time and gray hairs year round in offices and kitchen tables. Per Sinai and Mathur, the IRS currently receives over 80 million phone calls per year, sends out almost 200 million paper notices every year, receives over 50 million unique visitors to its website each month during filing season.
More context and FAQ on how to download your tax transcript here.
This weekend, ZDNet columnist Mike Krigsman asked me what I thought of the tenure of United States chief information officer Steven VanRoekel and, more broadly, what I thought of the role and meaning of the position in general. Here’s VanRoekel’s statement to the press via Federal News Radio:
“When taking the job of U.S. chief information officer, my goal was to help move federal IT forward into the 21st Century and to bring technology and innovation to bear to improve IT effectiveness and efficiency. I am proud of the work and the legacy we will leave behind, from launching PortfolioStat to drive a new approach to IT management, the government’s landmark open data policy to drive economic value, the work we did to shape the mobile ecosystem and cloud computing, and the culmination of our work in the launch of the new Digital Service, we have made incredible strides that will benefit Americans today and into the future,” VanRoekel said in a statement. “So it is with that same spirit of bringing innovation and technology to bear to solve our most difficult problems, that I am excited to join USAID’s leadership to help stop the Ebola outbreak. Technology is not the solution to this extremely difficult task but it will be a part of the solution and I look forward to partnering with our federal agencies, non-profit organizations and private sector tech communities to help accelerate this effort.”
Here’s the part of what I told Krigsman that ended up being published, with added hyperlinks for context:
As US CIO, Steven VanRoekel was a champion of many initiatives that improved how technology supports the mission of the United States government. He launched an ambitious digital government strategy that moved further towards making open data the default in government, the launch of the U.S. Digital Service, 18F, and the successful Presidential Innovation Fellows program, and improved management of some $80 billion dollars in annual federal technology spending through PortfolioStat.
As was true for his predecessor, he was unable to create fundamental changes in the system he inherited. Individual agencies still have accountability for how money is spent and how projects are managed. The nation continues to see too many government IT projects that are over-budget, don’t work well, and use contractors with a core competency in getting contracts rather than building what is needed.
The U.S. has been unable or unwilling to reorganize and fundamentally reform how the federal government supports its missions using technology, including its relationship to incumbent vendors who fall short of efficient delivery using cutting-edge tech. The 113th Congress has had opportunities to craft legislative vehicles to improve procurement and the power of agency CIOs but has yet to pass FITARA or RFP-IT. In addition, too many projects still look like traditional enterprise software rather than consumer-facing tools, so we have a long way to go to achieve the objectives of the digital playbook VanRoekel introduced.
There are great projects, public servants and pockets of innovation through the federal government, but culture, hiring, procurement, and human resources remain serious barriers that continue to result in IT failures. The next U.S. CIO must be a leader in all respects, leading by example, inspiring, and having political skill. It’s a difficult job and one for which it is hard to attract world-class talent.
We need a fundamental shift in the system rather than significant tweaks, in areas such as open source and using the new Digital Service as a tool to drive change. The next US CIO must have experience managing multi-billion dollar budgets and be willing to pull the plug on wasteful or mismanaged projects that serve the needs of three years ago, not the future.