Thoughts on the future of the US CIO, from capabilities to goals

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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.

“Internet Slowdown Day” sends over hundreds of thousands* of new comments on net neutrality to FCC

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Today, dozens of websites “slowed down” for a cause, collectively advocating against Open Internet rules proposed by the Federal Communications Commission. None of the participants in today’s “Internet Slowdown Day” actually delayed access to their websites: instead, they used code to add a layer to visitors’ Web browsers with one of the loading icons grimly familiar to anyone who’s ever waited for a long download or crufty operating system function to finish in an overlay and linked to BattleForThenet.com/September10, which encouraged visitors to sign a letter supporting net neutrality, or to use online tools to call Congress.

While many big tech companies didn’t participate, millions of visitors to Reddit, Tumblr, Netflix, Free Press, Reddit, Netflix, Mozilla, Kickstarter, Upworthy, Automattic, Digg, Vimeo, Boing Boing, Urban Dictionary, Foursquare, Cheezburger and the Sunlight Foundation saw the spinning icon, among others.

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The effort appears to have made a difference: According to the FCC*, by 6 PM ET the agency saw 111,449 new public comments added to the already record-setting total, with some 41,173 filed into the 14-28 docket of the FCC’s website since and another 70,286 sent to the openinternet@fcc.gov inbox, setting a new high water mark of some 1,515,144 to date, with more yet to come. As reported by Mike Masnick, citing ThinkProgress, the Internet slowdown generated 1000 calls per minute to Congress. *Update: Fight for the Future claims that more than 740,000 comments were submitted through Battleforthenet.com and that the FCC hasn’t caught up. According to the nonprofit, “this happened during our last big push too when their site crashed. We are storing comments and will deliver all.”

“We sent 500K+ comments,” wrote Tiffaniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight for the Future, in an email. “They’re getting backlogged as the FCC can’t handle the amount of data. The FCC asked us to hold as they could not accept them and can’t handle all the load. So, they only just got to accepting them again.”

That means there have been at least 409,522 reply comments filed since July 18, with five days left in the reply comment period, with more than one quarter of them coming in a single day. (*If Fight for the Future’s total is correct, the number of reply comments filed passed 800,000, with the total nearing 2 million.) The FCC will host a public Open Internet roundtable discussion on September 16, the day after the period closes. According to an analysis of the first 800,000 public comments by the Sunlight Foundation, less than 1 percent of the submissions were clearly opposed to net neutrality.

These numbers are still dwarfed by the millions of calls and emails sent to Washington during the campaign to halt the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT-IP Act in Congress in 2012, when Google and Wikipedia connected visitors to their websites to switchboards on Capitol Hill. They may also have less of an effect on an independent regulatory agency that has yet to chart a sustainable legal course in the storm of online criticism and intense lobbying by affected industries.

According to a FCC spokesman, the agency expected an increased volume of traffic due to the “slowdown.” Perhaps anticipating the interest, the @FCC’s first tweet today encouraged people to submit comments via email:

The total number of comments on the Open Internet proceeding is sure to grow in the remaining week, with the number of emails sent to the FCC’s dedicated inbox likely to go past a million. (Update: On Thursday morning, the FCC confirmed that a total of 632,328 comments filed to ECFS and 1,118,107 sent to openinternet@fcc.gov, for a cumulative total of 1,750,435.) In many ways, that outcome feels appropriate.

When the FCC’s 18 year-old online commenting system has groaned under a huge volume of online traffic, people have routed around the downed comment system and used the original killer app of the Internet: email, the “tremendous, decentralized, open platform on which new, innovative things can and have been built,” based upon the same kinds of open protocols that enabled the unprecedented growth of a wealth of networks to grow around the world.

Update: At the end of the day after the Internet Slowdown, the FCC still working to enter all of the new comments created the day before into their systems — and the agency decided to offer another way to file comments: using email attachments.

In fact, FCC asked for something unexpected, simple and smart: for comments to be submitted at bulk open data, as .csv files of no more than 9 MB each. While the FCC doesn’t refer specifically to the comments that Fight for the Future has collected, this option does offer an easy way to electronically transfer the comments through an established channel. In the future, perhaps this will become the default option for
filing bulk comments collected by advocates, at least until Congress funds a new online filing system or the agency finds a way to use Dropbox. It should certainly make releasing them online as structured data for third-party analysis much easier; if the FCC wanted to, if could publish them almost as quickly as the comments came in.

The agency’s chief information officer, David Bray, explained the additional option in a blog post:

The volume of public feedback in the Open Internet proceeding has been commensurate with the importance of the effort to preserve a free and open Internet.

The Commission is working to ensure that all comments are processed and that we have a full accounting of the number received as soon as possible. Most important, all of these comments will be considered as part of the rulemaking process. While our system is catching up with the surge of public comments, we are providing a third avenue for submitting feedback on the Open Internet proceeding.

In the Commission’s embrace of Open Data and a commitment to openness and transparency throughout the Open Internet proceedings, the FCC is making available a Common Separated Values (CSV) file for bulk upload of comments given the exceptional public interest. All comments will be received and recorded through the same process we are applying for the openinternet@fcc.gov emails.

Attached is a link to the CSV file template along with instructions. Once completed, the CSV file can be emailed to openinternet@fcc.gov where if it matches the template the individual comments will be filed for the public record with the Electronic Comment Filing System. When you email this file, please use the subject “CSV”. We encourage CSV files of 9MB or less via email.

The Commission welcomes the record-setting level of public input in this proceeding, and we want to do everything we can to make sure all voices are heard and reflected in the public record.

A reply to an anonymous sexist comment about women, business and leadership

The Women of ENIAC

The “Women of ENIAC.” For their history, read “Programming the ENIAC” and “When Computers Were Women.”

My reply to an anonymous commenter on my recent column about the next US CTO deserved to be edited and posted separately: while the percentage of women in leadership roles at at Fortune 500 companies remains small, recent research from management science leaves little doubt about the effectiveness of their leadership. According to at least one analysis from the American Psychological Society, people generally do not doubt the leadership abilities of women.

The primary reason Megan Smith is the new United States chief technology officer is because she’s immensely capable, and has proved it over the decades since she graduated from MIT. The nation is fortunate that someone of her talents has chosen to enter public service.

I hope Smith inspires other young women to pursue careers in technology, shine, and then apply their talents on behalf of their fellow citizens. Including women matters for the future of technology and society.

(Thanks to Chris Brogan for reminding me of why highlighting a comment can be valuable.)

US CTO Park to step down, move west to recruit for Uncle Sam

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United States chief technology officer Todd Park will be moving to California at the end of August, just in time to take his kids to the first day of school. He’ll be shifting from his current position in the Office of Science and Technology a Policy to a new role in the White House, recruiting technologists to join public service. The move was first reported in Fortune Magazine and then Reuters, among other outlets. Update: On August 28th, the White House confirmed that Park would continue serving in the administration in a new role in blog post on WhiteHouse.gov.

“From launching the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, to opening up troves of government data to the public, to helping spearhead the successful turnaround of HealthCare.gov, Todd has been, and will continue to be, a key member of my Administration,” said President Barack Obama, in a statement. “I thank Todd for his service as my Chief Technology Officer, and look forward to his continuing to help us deploy the best people and ideas from the tech community in service of the American people.”

“I’m deeply grateful for Todd’s tireless efforts as U.S. Chief Technology Officer to improve the way government works and to generate better outcomes for the American people,” added White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director and Assistant to the President John Holdren. “We will miss him at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, but we’re fortunate Todd will continue to apply his considerable talents to the Obama Administration’s ongoing efforts to bring the country’s best technologists into the Federal Government.”

It will be interesting to see how Park approaches recruiting the nation’s technologists to serve in the new U.S. Digital Service and federal agencies in the coming months.

“It continues to be the greatest honor of my life to serve the President and the country that I love so very much,” stated Park, in the blog post. “I look forward to doing everything I can in my new role to help bring more and more of the best talent and best ideas from Silicon Valley and across the nation into government.”

For a wonderfully deep dive into what’s next for him, read Steven Levy’s masterfully reported feature (his last for Wired) on how Park is not done rebooting government just yet:

Park wants to move government IT into the open source, cloud-based, rapid-iteration environment that is second nature to the crowd considering his pitch tonight. The president has given reformers like him leave, he told them, “to blow everything the fuck up and make it radically better.” This means taking on big-pocketed federal contractors, risk-averse bureaucrats, and politicians who may rail at overruns but thrive on contributions from those benefiting from the waste. It also will require streamlined regulations from both the executive and legislative branches. But instead of picking fights, Park wants to win by showing potential foes the undeniable superiority of a modern approach. He needs these coders to make it happen, to form what he calls a Star Wars-style Rebel Alliance, a network of digital special forces teams. He can’t lure them with stock options, but he does offer a compelling opportunity: a chance to serve their country and improve the lives of millions of their fellow citizens.

“We’re looking for the best people on the planet,” he said. “We have a window of opportunity—right the fuck now—within this government, under this president, to make a huge difference.

“Drop everything,” he told them, “and help the United States of America!”

Who will be the new CTO?

The next US CTO will have big shoes to fill: Park has played key roles advising the president on policy, opening up government data and guiding the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and, when the president asked, rescuing Healthcare.gov, the federal online marketplace for health insurance. While it’s not clear who will replace Park yet, sources have confirmed to me that there will be another U.S. CTO in this administration. What isn’t clear is what role he (or she) might play, a question that Nancy Scola explored at The Switch for the Washington Post this week:

There’s a growing shift away from the idea, implicit in Obama’s pledge to create the U.S. CTO post back in 2007, that one person could alone do much of the work of fixing how the United States government thinks about IT. Call it the “great man” or “great woman” theory of civic innovation, perhaps, and it’s on the way out. The new U.S. Digital Service, the pod of technologists called 18F housed at the General Services Administration, the White House’s Presidential Innovation Fellows, even Park’s new outreach role in Silicon Valley — all are premised on the idea that the U.S. needs to recruit, identify, organize, and deploy simply more smart people who get technology.

An additional role for the third US CTO will be an example of the Obama administration’s commitment to more diverse approach to recruiting White House tech staffers in the second term. The men to hold the office were both the sons of immigrants: Aneesh Chopra is of Indian descent, and Park of Korean. As Colby Hochmuth reported for Federal Computer Week, the White House of Office and Science and Technology Policy achieved near-gender parity under Park.

If, as reported by Bloomberg News, Google X VP Megan Smith were to be chosen as the new US CTO, her inclusion as an openly gay woman, the first to hold the post, and the application of her considerable technological acumen to working on the nation’s toughest challenges would be an important part of Park’s legacy.

Update: On September 4th, the White House confirmed that Smith would be the next US CTO and former Twitter general counsel Alex Macgillvray would be a deputy US CTO.

[PHOTO CREDIT: Pete Souza]

This post has been updated with additional links, statements and analysis.

White House formally launches U.S. Digital Service, publishes open source “Playbook” on Github

digital service plays

The White House officially launched a U.S. Digital Service today, promising to deliver “customer-focused government through smarter IT. The new Digital Service will be “a small team made up of our country’s brightest digital talent that will work with agencies to remove barriers to exceptional service delivery,” according to a blog post by Beth Cobert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), U.S. chief information officer Steve VanRoekel and US chief technology officer Todd Park.

We are excited that Mikey Dickerson will serve as the Administrator of the U.S. Digital Service and Deputy Federal Chief Information Officer. Mikey was part of the team that helped fix HealthCare.gov last fall and will lead the Digital Service team on efforts to apply technology in smarter, more effective ways that improve the delivery of federal services, information, and benefits.

The Digital Service will work to find solutions to management challenges that can prevent progress in IT delivery. To do this, we will build a team of more than just a group of tech experts – Digital Service hires will have talent and expertise in a variety of disciplines, including procurement, human resources, and finance. The Digital Service team will take private and public-sector best practices and help scale them across agencies – always with a focus on the customer experience in mind. We will pilot the Digital Service with existing funds in 2014, and would scale in 2015 as outlined in the President’s FY 2015 Budget.

The USDS goes live with a Digital Services Playbook and “TechFAR,” a subsection of the guide that “highlights the flexibilities in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) that can help agencies implement ‘plays’ from the Digital Services Playbook.”

In what now appears to be de rigueur for information technology and digital government initiatives in the second term of the Obama administration, the playbook has been published on the White House account on Github, where the public is encouraged to give feedback and make suggestions upon the documents using  GitHub Issues and to propose changes to the playbook by submitting a pull request. According to the Github account, pull requests that are made and accepted before September 1, 2014 “will be incorporated into the next release of the Digital Services Playbook and the TechFAR Handbook.”

While a team of 25 folks in OMB led by former Googler Mikey Dickerson and a playbook will not prevent the next healthcare.gov debacle, there’s a lot that’s good here.

As some guy wrote in November 18, 2013: “If Obama now, finally, fully realizes how much of an issue the broken state of government IT procurement is to federal agencies fulfilling their missions in the 21st century, he’ll use the soft power of the White House to convene the smartest minds from around the country and the hard power of an executive order to create the kernel of a United States Digital Services team built around the DNA of the CFPB: digital by default, open by nature.”

This isn’t quite that – the USDS looks like more of a management consulting shop, vs the implementation and building than the Presidential Innovation Fellows and folks at 18F, but maybe, all together, they’ll add up to much more than the sum of their parts.

18F commits to developing free and open source software by default for Uncle Sam

5682524083_4c81641ce1_oAt 18F, Uncle Sam is hoping to tap the success of the U.K.’s Government Digital Services. If the new digital government team housed with the U.S. General Services Administration gets it right, they’ll succeed in building 21st century citizen services by failing fast instead of failing big, as the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services memorably did last year with Healthcare.gov through poor planning and oversight and Social Security has this summer. One of the lessons learned from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau‘s successful use of technology is to align open source policy with mission. This week, 18F has done just that, publishing an open source policy on Github that makes open source the default in development:

The default position of 18F when developing new projects is to:
1. Use Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), which is software that does not charge users a purchase or licensing fee for modifying or redistributing the source code, in our projects and contribute back to the open source community.
2. Create an environment where any project can be developed in the open.
3. Publish publicly all source code created or modified by 18F, whether developed in-house by government staff or through contracts negotiated by 18F.

Eric Mill and Raphael Majma published a post on Tumblr that explained what FOSS, the policy, 18F’s open source team, approach and teased forthcoming guidelines for reuse:

FOSS is software that does not charge users a purchase or licensing fee for modifying or redistributing the source code. There are many benefits to using FOSS, including allowing for product customization and better interoperability between products. Citizen and consumer needs can change rapidly. FOSS allows us to modify software iteratively and to quickly change or experiment as needed.

Similarly, openly publishing our code creates cost-savings for the American people by producing a more secure, reusable product. Code that is available online for the public to inspect is open to a more rigorous review process that can assist in identifying flaws in the source code. Developing in the open, when appropriate, opens the project up to that review process earlier and allows for discussions to guide the direction of a products development. This creates a distinct advantage over proprietary software that undergoes a less diverse review and provides 18F with an opportunity to engage our stakeholders in ways that strengthen our work.

The use of open source software is not new in the Federal Government. Agencies have been using open source software for many years to great effect. What fewer agencies do is publish developed source code or develop in the open. When the Food and Drug Administration built out openFDA, an API that lets you query adverse drug events, they did so in the open. Because the source code was being published online to the public, a volunteer was able to review the code and find an issue. The volunteer not only identified the issue, but provided a solution to the team that was accepted as a part of the final product. Our policy hopes to recreate these kinds of public interactions and we look forward to other offices within the Federal Government joining us in working on FOSS projects.

In the next few days, we’re excited to publish a contributor’s guide about reuse and sharing of our code and some advice on working in the open from day one.

IMAGE CREDIT: mil-oss.org

CFPB proposes new policy to allow consumers to share stories of woes with financial companies

cfpb complaints

As the nation’s first startup agency in more than a generation, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has broken new ground in how it uses technology to create better Web products, publishes complaint data, shares software code, catalyzes innovation, uses the Internet to redesign forms, and, of course, regulates providers of consumer financial services. Now, it has floated a new proposal to create a consumer complaint database that would, for the first time, make the stories that consumers tell the regulatory agency public.

“The consumer experience shared in the narrative is the heart and soul of the complaint,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray, in a statement. “By publicly voicing their complaint, consumers can stand up for themselves and others who have experienced the same problem. There is power in their stories, and that power can be put in service to strengthen the foundation for consumers, responsible providers, and our economy as a whole.”

The CFPB was given authority and responsibility for handling consumer complaints regarding financial services by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, more than three years ago. Today, the CFPB released an overview of the complaints that the agency has handled since July 21, 2011,

Today, the CFPB released an overview of complaints handled since the Bureau opened on July 21, 2011. (The graphics atop this post and below are sourced from this analysis.) According to the data inside, up until June 30, 2014, the CFPB has handled approximately 395,300 consumer complaints.

complaints by product

According to the overview, the World Wide Web has been a key channel for people to file complaints to the CFPB: 56% of all consumer complaints were submitted through the CFPB’s website. 10% were submitted via telephone calls, with the balance coming in through mail, email, and fax. The rest of the report contains tables and data that breaks down complaints by type, actions taken, company responses, and consumers’ feedback about company responses.

By releasing these narratives, not just the number of complaints, the agency holds that the following benefits will accrue: more context to the complaint, specific trends in complaints, enabling consumers to make more informed decisions, and spurring competition based on consumer satisfaction. In the release announcing the proposed policy, the CFPB emphasized that consumers must opt-in to share these stories: “The CFPB would not publish the complaint narrative unless the consumer provides informed consent. This means that when consumers submit a complaint through consumerfinance.gov, they would have to affirmatively check a consent box to give the Bureau permission to publish their narrative. At least initially, only narratives submitted online would be available for the opt-in.”

Consumers could subsequently decide to withdraw their consent, resulting in the regulator removing the complaint from their website. Companies will be given the opportunity to publish a written response to the complaints that would appear next to a given consumer’s story.

The agency’s proposal states that “no personal information will be shared, stating that “complaints would be scrubbed of information such as names, telephone numbers, account numbers, Social Security numbers, and other direct identifiers.”

Getting that right is important — watch for powerful financial companies, their lobbyists and sympathetic politicians to raise privacy concerns about the proposal in DC in the weeks to follow.

While it may not be apparent at first glance, however, the collection and publication of these complaints would have an important, tacit effect upon the market for financial services. By collecting, structuring and releasing consumer complaints as data, the CFPB could add crucial business intelligence into the marketplace for these services. This isn’t a novel model: the Consumer Product Safety Commission already discloses a public complaint database at SaferProducts.gov, enabling merchants and services like Consumer Products to give people crucial information about their purchases. The SEC and FINRA would be well-advised to release financial advisor data in a similar fashion. Someday, complaints submitted from mobile e-patients may have similarly powerful corrective effect in the market for health care goods and services.

Harvard Law study finds Supreme Court editing its decisions without notice

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This morning, Adam Liptak reported at the New York Times that the Supreme Court has been quietly editing its legal decisions without notice or indication. According to Richard J. Lazarus, a law professor at Harvard Liptak interviewed about a new study examining the issue, these revisions include “truly substantive changes in factual statements and legal reasoning.”

The court does warn readers that early versions of its decisions, available at the courthouse and on the court’s website, are works in progress. A small-print notice says that “this opinion is subject to formal revision before publication,” and it asks readers to notify the court of “any typographical or other formal errors.”

But aside from announcing the abstract proposition that revisions are possible, the court almost never notes when a change has been made, much less specifies what it was. And many changes do not seem merely typographical or formal.

Four legal publishers are granted access to “change pages” that show all revisions. Those documents are not made public, and the court refused to provide copies to The New York Times.

The Supreme Court secretly editing the legal record seems like a big deal to me. (Lawyers, professors, court reporters, tell me I’m wrong!)
To me, this story highlights the need for and, eventually the use of data and software to track the changes in a public, online record of Supreme Court decisions.

Static PDFs that are edited without notice, data or indication of changes doesn’t seem good enough for the legal branch of a constitutional republic in the 21st century.

Just as the U.S. Code, state and local codes, are being constantly being updated and consulted by lawyers, courts and the people, the Supreme Court’s decisions could be published and maintained online as a body of living legislation at SupremeCourt.gov so that they may be read and consulted by all.

Embedded and integrated into those decisions and codes would be a record of the changes to them, the “meta data” of the actions of the legislative organ of the republic.

What you’ll find now at SupremeCourt.gov is a significant improvement over past years. Future versions, however, might be even better.

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[FAQ] How do I download a tax transcript from IRS.gov?

UPDATE: This service was taken offline after IRS security was compromised.

irs-transcriptIn January 2014, the IRS quietly introduced a new feature at IRS.gov that enabled Americans to download their tax transcript over the Internet. Previously, filers could request a copy of the transcript (not the full return) but had to wait 5-10 business days to receive it in the mail. For people who needed more rapid access for applications, the delay could be critical.

What’s a tax transcript?

It’s a list of the line items that you entered onto your federal tax return (Form 1040), as it was originally filed to the IRS.

Wait, we couldn’t already download a transcript like this in 2014?

Nope. Previously, filers could request a copy of the transcript (not the full return) but they would have to wait 5-10 business days to receive it in the mail.

Why did this happen now?

The introduction of the IRS feature coincided with a major Department of Education event focused on opening up such data. A U.S. Treasury official said that the administration was doing that to make it “easier for student borrowers to access tax records he or she might need to submit loan applications or grant applications.”

Why would someone want their tax transcript?

As the IRS itself says, “IRS transcripts are often used to validate income and tax filing status for mortgage applications, student and small business loan applications, and during tax preparation.” It’s pretty useful.

OK, so what do I do to download my transcript?

Visit “get transcript” and register online. You’ll find that the process is very similar to setting up online access for a bank accounts. You’ll need to choose a pass phrase, pass image and security questions, and then answer a series of questions about your life, like where you’ve lived. If you write them down, store them somewhere safe and secure offline, perhaps with your birth certificate and other sensitive documents.

Wait, what? That sounds like a lot of of private information.

True, but remember: the IRS already has a lot of private data about you. These questions are designed to prevent someone else from setting up a fake account on your behalf and stealing it from them. If you’re uncomfortable with answering these questions, you can request a print version of your transcript. To do so, you’ll need to enter your Social Security number, data of birth and street address online. If you’re still uncomfortable doing so, you can visit or contact the IRS in person.

So is this safe?

It’s probably about as safe as doing online banking. Virtually nothing you do online is without risk. Make sure you 1) go to the right website 2) connect securely and 3) protect the transcript, just as you would paper tax records. Here’s what the IRS told me about their online security:

“The IRS has made good progress on oversight and enhanced security controls in the area of information technology. With state-of-the-art technology as the foundation for our portal (e.g. irs.gov), we continue to focus on protecting the PII of all taxpayers when communicating with the IRS.

However, security is a two-way street with both the IRS and users needing to take steps for a secure experience. On our end, our security is comparable to leaders in private industry.

Our IRS2GO app has successfully completed a security assessment and received approval to launch by our cybersecurity organization after being scanned for weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Any personally identifiable information (PII) or sensitive information transmitted to the IRS through IRS2Go for refund status or tax record requests uses secure communication channels that meet or exceed federal requirements for encryption. No PII is passed back to the taxpayer through IRS2GO and no PII is stored on the smartphone by the application.

When using our popular “Where’s My Refund?” application, taxpayers may notice just a few of our security measures. The URL for Where’s My Refund? begins with https. Just like in private industry, the “s” is a key indicator that a web user should notice indicating you are in a “secure session.” Taxpayers may also notice our message that we recommend they close their browser when finished accessing your refund status.

As we become a more mobile society and able to link to the internet while we’re on the go, we remind taxpayers to take precautions to protect themselves from being victimized, including using secure networks, firewalls, virus protection and other safeguards.

We always recommend taxpayers check with the Federal Trade Commission for the latest on reporting incidents of identity theft. You can find more information on our website, including tips if you believe you have become the victim of identity theft.”

What do I do with the transcript?

If you download tax transcripts or personal health information to a mobile device, laptop, tablet or desktop, install passcodes and full disk encryption, where available, on every machine its on. Leaving your files unprotected on computers connected to the Internet is like leaving the door to your house unlocked with your tax returns and medical records on the kitchen table.

I got an email from the IRS that asks me to email them personal information to access my transcript. Is this OK?

Nope! Don’t do it: it’s not them. The new functionality will likely inspire criminals to create mockups of the government website that look similar and then send phishing emails to consumers, urging them to “log in” to fake websites. You should know that IRS “does not send out unsolicited e-mails asking for personal information.” If you receive such an email, consider reporting the phishing to the IRS. Start at www.irs.gov/Individuals/Get-Transcript every time.

I tried to download my transcript but it didn’t work. What the heck?

You’re not alone. I had trouble using an Apple computer. Others have had technical issues as well.

Here’s what the IRS told me: “As a web application Get Transcript is supported on most modern OS/browser combinations. While there may be intermittent issues due to certain end-user configurations, IRS has not implemented any restrictions against certain browsers or operating systems. We are continuing to work open issues as they are identified and validated.”

A side note: For the best user experience, taxpayers may want to try up-to-date versions of Internet Explorer and a supported version of Microsoft Windows; however, that is certainly not a requirement.)”

What does that mean, in practice? That not all modern OS/browser combinations are supported, potentially including OS X and Android, that the IRS digital staff knows it — although they aren’t informing IRS.gov users regarding what versions of IE, Windows or other browsers/operating systems are presently supported and what is not — and are working to improve.

Unfortunately, ongoing security issues with Internet Explorer means that in 2014, we have the uncomfortable situation where the Department of Homeland Security is recommending that people avoid using Internet Explorer while the IRS recommends that its customers choose it for the “best experience.”

Given the comments from frustrated users, the IRS could and should do better on all counts.

Will I be able to file my tax return directly to the government through IRS.gov now?

You can already file your federal tax return online. According to the IRS, almost 120 million people used IRS e-file last year.

Well, OK, but shouldn’t having a user account and years of returns make it easier to file without a return at all?

It could. As you may know, other countries already have “return-free filing,” where a taxpayer can go online, login and access a pre-populated tax return, see what the government estimates her or she owes, make any necessary adjustments, and file.

Wait, that sounds pretty good. Why doesn’t the USA have return-free filing yet?

Yes, it does. As ProPublica reported last year, “the concept has been around for decades and has been endorsed by both President Ronald Reagan and a campaigning PresidentObama.”

As ProPublica reported last year, both H&R Block and Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, have lobbied against free and simple tax filing in Washington, given that it’s in their economic self-interest to do so:

In its latest annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, however, Intuit also says that free government tax preparation presents a risk to its business. Roughly 25 million Americans used TurboTax last year, and a recent GAO analysis said the software accounted for more than half of individual returns filed electronically. TurboTax products and services made up 35 percent of Intuit’s $4.2 billion in total revenues last year. Versions of TurboTax for individuals and small businesses range inprice from free to $150.

What are the chances return-free filing could be on IRS.gov soon?

Hard to say, but the IRS told me that something that sounds like a precursor to return-free filing is on the table.  According to the agency, “the IRS is considering a number of new proposals that may become a part of the online services roadmap some time in the future. This may include a taxpayer account where up to date status could be securely reviewed by the account owner.”

Creating the ability for people to establish secure access to IRS.gov to review and download tax transcripts is a big step in that direction. Whether the IRS takes any more steps  soon is more of a political and policy question than a technical one, although the details of the latter matter.  

Is the federal government offering other services like this for other agencies or personal data?

The Obama administration has been steadily modernizing government technology, although progress has been uneven across agencies. While the woes of Healthcare.gov attracted a lot of attention, many federal agencies have improved how they deliver services over the Internet. One of the themes of the administration’s digital government approach is “smart disclosure,” a form of targeted transparency in which people are offered the opportunity to download their own data, or data about them, from government or commercial services. The Blue Button is an example of this approach that has the potential to scale nationally.

From broadband maps to Data.gov, WordPress looks to power more open source government

I had a blast interviewing Matt Mullenweg, the co-creator of WordPress and CEO of Automattic, last night at the inaugural WordPress and government meetup in DC. UPDATE: Video of our interview and the Q&A that followed is embedded below:

WordPress code powers some 60 million websites, including 22% of the top 10 million sites on the planet and .gov platforms like Broadbandmap.gov. Mullenweg was, by turns, thoughtful, geeky and honest about open source and giving hundreds of millions of people free tools to express themselves, along with quietly principled,  with respect to the corporate values for an organization spread between 35 countries, government censorship and the ethics of transparency.

After Mullenweg finished taking questions from the meetup, Data.gov architect Philip Ashlock gave a presentation on how the staff working on the federal government’s open data platform are using open source software to design, build, publish and collaborate, from WordPress to CKAN to Github issue tracking.