The White House (quietly) asks for feedback on the open government section of its website

Obama at computer. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Over at Govfresh, Luke Fretwell took note of the White House asking for feedback on the open government section of WhiteHouse.gov. Yesterday, Corinna Zarek, senior advisor for open government in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), where the administration’s Open Government Initiative was originally spawned under former deputy chief technology officer Beth Noveck, published a email to the US Open Government Google Group:

We are working on a refresh of the Open Gov website, found at whitehouse.gov/open, and we’d like your help!

If you’re familiar with the history of the page, you can see we have begun updating it by shifting some of the existing content and adding new tabs and material.

What suggestions do you have for the site? What other efforts might we feature?

Please let us know – reply back to this thread, email us at opengov@ostp.gov, or tweet us at @OpenGov!

Here’s some background on the group and its purpose: The White House’s Open Government Working Group needs to solicit feedback from civil society in the United States on the various initiatives and commitments the administration has made. Such engagement is essential to the providing feedback from governance experts, advocates and the public on the development of new agency open government plans and discuss progress on the national open government action plan.

As a result of a discussion at the working group this spring, OSTP created the US Open Government discussion group to connect White House staff and agency officials who work on open government to people outside of the federal government. According to the group’s description, the goal of this group is to “provide a safe and welcoming arena for government-focused collaboration and news-sharing around Open Government efforts of the United States government.” That “safe and welcoming” language is notable: the group is moderated by OpenTheGovernment.org with an eye on constructive, on-topic feedback, as opposed to, say, the much more open-ended freewheeling posts and threads on the (long-since closed) Open Government Dialog of 2009 or Change.gov.

After almost six months, the open government group, which can be accessed through a Web browser or using an email listserv, has 177 members and 37 posts. By almost any measure, these are extremely low levels of participation and engagement, although the quality of feedback from those members remains extremely high. By way of contrast, a open government and civic tech group on Facebook now has over 1900 members and an open government community on Google+ has over 1400 members, with both enjoying almost daily contributions. Low participation rates on this US Open Government Google Group are likely due in part to lack of promotion by other White House staff to the media or using the various social media platforms has joined, which cumulatively have millions of followers, and, more broadly, the historic lows of public trust in government which have created icy headwinds for open government initiatives in recent years.

So far, Zarek’s solicitation has received two responses. One comes from Daniel Schuman, policy director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) in Washington, who made great suggestions, like adding a link to ethics.data.gov, a list of staff working on openness in the White House and their areas of responsibility, a link to 18f and the USDS.

“Finally, there are many great ideas about how to make government more open and transparent,” wrote Schuman. “Consider including a way for people to submit ideas where those submissions are also visible to the public (assuming they do not violate TOS). Consider how agencies or the government could respond to these suggestions. Perhaps a miniature version of “We the People,” but without the voting requiring a response.”

The other idea comes from open government consultant Lucas Cioffi, who suggested adding a link to a “community-powered open government phone hotline” like the experiment he recently created.

To those ideas, I’ll add eight quick suggestions in the spirit of open government:

1) Reinstate the open government dashboard that was removed and update it to the current state of affairs and compliance, with links to each. The Sunlight Foundation and CREW have already audited agency compliance with the Open Government Directive. By keeping an updated scorecard in a prominent place, the Obama administration could both increase transparency to members of the public wondering about what has been done and by whom, and put more pressure on agencies to be accountable for the commitments they have made.

2) Re-integrate individual case studies from the “Innovator’s Toolkit,” which was also removed, under participation and collaboration

3) Create a Transparency tab and link to the “IC on the Record” tumblr and other public repositories for formerly secret laws, policies or documents that have been released.

4) Blog and tweet more about what’s happening in the open government world outside of the White House. Multiple open government advocates do daily digests and there’s a steady stream of news and ideas on the #opengov and #opendata hashtags on Twitter. Link to what’s happening and show the public that you’re reading and responding to feedback.

5) Link to the White House account and open government projects on Github under both the new participation and collaboration tabs, like Project Open Data.

6) Highlight 18F’s effort to reboot the Freedom of Information Act.

7) Publish the second national action plan on open government as HTML on the site, and post and link to a version on Github where people can comment on it.

8)  Create a FAQ under “participation” that lists replies to questions sent to @OpenGov

If you have ideas for what should be wh.gov/open, well, now you know who to tell, and where.

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

AskThem.io launches to enable citizens to ask public officials anything

badgeToday, the Participatory Politics Foundation launched AskThem.io, a new online tool focused upon structured questions and answers with elected officials.

As David Moore, founder of PPF, put it, AskThem is like a version of the White House’s “We The People” petition platform, but for over 142,000 elected officials nationwide.” 

The platform is an evolution from earlier attempts to ask questions of candidates for public office, like “10 Questions” from Personal Democracy Media, or the myriad online town halls that governors and the White House have been holding for years. 

AskThem enables anyone to pose a question to any elected official or Verified Twitter account. Notably, the cleanly designed Web app uses geolocation to enable users to learn who represents them, in of itself a valuable service.

As with e-petitions, AskThem users can then sign questions they support, voting them up and sharing the questions with their social networks. When a given question hits a preset threshold, the platform delivers the questions to to the public figure and “encourages a public response.”

That last bit is key: there’s no requirement for someone to respond, for the response itself to be substantive, nor for the public figure to act. There’s only the network effect of public pressure to make any of that happen.

After a year of development, Moore was excited to see the platform go live today, noting a number of precedents set in the process.

“I believe we’re the first open-source web app to support geolocation of elected officials, down to the municipal level, from street address,” he said, via email. “And I believe we’re the first to offer access to over 142,000 elected officials through our combined data sources. And I believe we’re the first to incorporate open government data for informed questions of elected officials at every level of government.”

Moore referred to AskThem’s use of the Google Civic Information API, which provides the data for the platform.

AskThem goes online just in time for tomorrow’s day of action against mass surveillance, where over 5,000 websites will try to activate their users to contact their elected representatives in Washington. Whether it gets much use or not will depend on awareness of the new tool.

That could come through use by high-profile early adopters like Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes), of MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes,” or OK Go, the popular band.

Chris_Hayes_AskThem_TOtE_sampleQ

 

At launch,  66 elected officials nationwide have signed on to participate, though more may join if it catches on. In the meantime, you can use AskThem’s handy map to find local elected officials and see a listing of all of the questions to date across the USA — or pose your own.

 

Open by design: Why the way the new Healthcare.gov was built matters [UPDATED]

UPDATE: The refresh of Healthcare.gov in June went well. On October 1st, when the marketplace for health insurance went live at the site.gov, millions of users flocked to the website and clicked “apply now.” For days, however, virtually none of them were able to create accounts, much less complete the rest of the process and enroll for insurance. By the end of the week, however, it was clear that the problems at Healthcare.gov were not just a function of high traffic but the result of the failure of software written by private contractors, with deeper issues that may extend beyond account creation into other areas of the site. On October 9th, as prospective enrollees continued to be frustrated by error-plagued websites around the country, I joined Washington Post TV to give a preliminary post-mortem on why the HealthCare.gov relaunch went so poorly.

The article that follows, which was extended and published at The Atlantic, describes the team and process that collaborated on launch of the new site in June, not the officials or contractors that created the botched enterprise software application that went live on October 1st. In the Atlantic, I cautioned that “…the site is just one component of the insurance exchanges. Others may not be ready by the October deadline.”  The part of the site I lauded continues to work well, although the Github repository for it was taken offline. The rest has …not. I’ve taken some heat in the articles’ comments and elsewhere online for being so positive, in light of recent events, but the reporting holds up: using Jekyll is working. Both versions of the story, however, should have included a clearer caveat that the software behind the website had yet to go live — and that reports that the government was behind on testing Healthcare.gov security suggested other issues might be present at launch. If readers were misled by either article, I apologize. –Alex


Healthcare.gov already occupies an unusual place in history, as the first website to be demonstrated by a sitting President of the United States. In October, it will take on an even more important historic role, guiding millions of Americans through the process of choosing health insurance.

How a website is built or designed may seem mundane to many people in 2013, but when the site in question is focused upon such a function, it matters. Yesterday, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) relaunched Healthcare.gov with a new look, feel and cutting edge underlying architecture that is beyond rare in federal government. The new site has been built in public for months, iteratively created by a team of designers and engineers using cutting edge open source technologies. This site is the rarest of birds: a next-generation website that happens to be a .gov.

healthcare-gov-homepage

“It’s fast, built in static HTML, completely scalable and secure,” said Bryan Sivak, chief technology officer of HHS, in an interview. “It’s basically setting up a Web server. That’s the beauty of it.”

The people building the new Healthcare.gov are unusual: instead of an obscure sub-contractor in a nameless office park in northern Virginia, a by a multidisciplinary team at HHS worked with Development Seed, a scrappy startup in a garage in the District of Columbia that made its mark in the DC tech scene deploying Drupal, an open source content management system that has become popular in the federal government over the past several years.

“This is our ultimate dogfooding experience,” said Eric Gundersen, the co-founder of Development Seed. “We’re going to build it and then buy insurance through it.”

“The work that they’re doing is amazing,” said Sivak, “like how they organize their sprints and code. It’s incredible what can happen when you give a team of talented developers and managers room to work and let them go.”

What makes this ambitious experiment in social coding unusual is that the larger political and health care policy context that they’re working within is more fraught with tension and scrutiny than any other arena in the federal government. The implementation and outcomes of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — AKA “Obamacare” — will affect millions of people, from the premiums they pay to the incentives for the health care they receive.

“The goal is get people enrolled,” said Sivak. “A step to that goal is to build a health insurance marketplace. It is so much better to build it in a way that’s open, transparent and enables updates. This is better than a big block of proprietary code locked up in CMS.”

healthcare-gov-marketplace-graphic

The new Healthcare.gov will fill a yawning gap in the technology infrastructure deployed to support the mammoth law, providing a federal choice engine for the more than thirty different states that did not develop their own health insurance exchanges. The new website, however modern, is just one component of the healthcare insurance exchanges. Others may not be ready by the October deadline. According to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is behind in implementing key aspects of the law, from training workers to help people navigate the process to certifying plans that will sold on the exchanges to determining the eligibility of consumers for federal subsidies. HHS has expressed confidence to the GAO that exchanges will be open and functioning in every state on October 1.

On that day, Healthcare.gov will be the primary interface for Americans to learn about and shop for health insurance, as Dave Cole, a developer at Development Seed, wrote in a blog post this March. Cole, who served as a senior advisor to the United States chief information officer and deputy director of new media at the White House, was a key part of the team that moved WhiteHouse.gov to Drupal. As he explained, the code will be open in two important ways:

First, Bryan pledged, “everything we do will be published on GitHub,” meaning the entire code-base will be available for reuse. This is incredibly valuable because some states will set up their own state-based health insurance marketplaces. They can easily check out and build upon the work being done at the federal level. GitHub is the new standard for sharing and collaborating on all sorts of projects, from city geographic data and laws to home renovation projects and even wedding planning, as well as traditional software projects.

Moreover, all content will be available through a JSON API, for even simpler reusability. Other government or private sector websites will be able to use the API to embed content from healthcare.gov. As official content gets updated on healthcare.gov, the updates will reflect through the API on all other websites. The White House has taken the lead in defining clear best practices for web APIs.

Thinking differently about a .gov

According to Sivak, his team didn’t get directly involved in the new Healthcare.gov until November 2012. After that “we facilitated the right conversations around what to build and how to build it, emphasizing the consumer-facing aspects of it,” he said. “The other part was to figure out what the right infrastructure was going to be to build this thing.”

That decision is where this story gets interesting, if you’re interested in how government uses technology to deliver information to the people it serves. Government websites have not, historically, been sterling examples of design or usability. Unfortunately, in many cases, they’ve also been built at great expense, given the dependence of government agencies on contractors and systems integrators, and use technologies that are years behind the rest of the Web. Healthcare.gov could have gone in the same direction, but for the influence of its young chief technology officer, an “entrepreneur-in-residence” who had successfully navigated the bureaucracies of the District of Columbia and state of Maryland.

“Our first plan was to leverage Percussion, a commercial CMS that we’d been using for a long time,” said Sivak. “The problem I had with that plan was that it wasn’t going to be easy to update the code. The process was complicated. Simple changes to navigation were going to take a month.”

At that point, Sivak did what most people do in this new millennium when making a technology choice: he reached out to his social networks and went online.

“We started talking to people about a better way, including people who had just come off the Obama campaign,” he said. “I learned about the ground they had broken in the political space, from A/B testing to lightweight infrastructure, and started reading about where all that came from. We started thinking about Jekyll as a platform and using Prose.io.”

After Sivak and his team read about Development Seed’s work with Jekyll online, they contacted the startup directly. After a little convincing, Development Seed agreed to do one more big .gov project.

“A Presidential Innovation Fellow used same tech we’re using for several of their projects,” said Cole. “Bryan heard about it and talked to us. He asked where we would go. We wanted to be on Github. We knew there were performance and reliability benefits from building the stack on HTML.”

Jekyll, for those who are unfamiliar with Web development trends, is a way for developers to build a static website from dynamic components. Instead of running a traditional website with a relational database and server-side code, using Jekyll enables programmers to create content like they create code. The end result of this approach is a site that loads faster for users, a crucial performance issue, particularly on mobile devices.

“Instead of farms of application servers to handle a massive load, you’re basically slimming down to two,” said Sivak. “You’re just using HTML5, CSS, and Javascript, all being done in responsive design. The way it’s being built matters. You could, in theory, do the same with application servers and a CMS, but it would be much more complex. What we’re doing here is giving anyone with basic skills the ability to do basic changes on the fly. You don’t need expensive consultants.”

That adds up to cost savings. Sites that are heavily trafficked — as Healthcare.gov can reasonably be expected to be – normally have to use a caching layer to serve static content and add more server capacity as demand increases.

“When we worked with the World Bank, they chose a plan from Rackspace for 16 servers,” said Gundersen. “That added tens of thousands of dollars, with a huge hosting bill every month.”

HHS had similar strategic plans for the new site, at least at first.

“They were planning 32 servers, between staging, production and disaster recovery, with application servers for different environments,” said Cole. “You’re just talking about content. There just needs to be one server. We’re going to have 2, with one for backup. That’s a deduction of 30 servers.”

While Jekyll eliminates the need for a full-blown content management system on the backend of Healthcare.gov (and with it, related costs), the people managing the site still need to be able to update it. That’s where Prose.io comes in. Prose.io is an open source content editor created by Development Seed that gives non-programmers a clean user interface to update pages.

“If you create content and run Jekyll, it requires content editors to know code,” said Cole. “Prose is the next piece. You can run it on your on own servers or use a hosted version. It gives access to content in a CMS-like interface, basically adding a WYSIWYG skin, giving you a text editor in the browser.”

In addition to that standard “what you see is what you get” interface, familiar from WordPress or Microsoft Word, Prose.io offers a couple of bells and whistles, like mobile editing.

“You can basically preview live,” said Cole. “You usually don’t get a full in-browser preview. The difference is that you have that with no backend CMS. It’s just a directory and text files, with a Web interface that exposes it. There are no servers, no infrastructure, and no monthly costs. All you need is a free Web app and Github. If you don’t want to use that, use Git and Github Enterprise.” Update: Cole wrote more about launching Healthcare.gov on the DevelopmentSeed blog on Tuesday.

Putting open source to work

Performance and content management aside, there’s a deeper importance to how Healthcare.gov is being built that will remain relevant for years to come, perhaps even setting a new standard for federal government as a whole: updates to the code repository on Github can be adopted for every health insurance exchange using the infrastructure. (The only difference between different state sites is a skin with the state logo.)

“We have been working in the .gov space for a while,” said Gundersen. “Government people want to make the right decisions. What’s nice about what Bryan is doing is that he’s trying to make sure that everyone can learn from what HHS is doing, in real-time. From a process standpoint, what Bryan is doing is going to change how tech is built. FCC is watching the repository on Github. When agencies can collaborate around code, what will happen? The amount of money we have the opportunity to save agencies is huge.”

Collaboration and cascading updates aren’t an extra, in this context: they’re mission-critical. Sivak said that he expects the new site to be improved iteratively over time, in response to how people are actually using it. He’s a fan of the agile development methodology that has become core to startup development everywhere, including using analytics tools to track usage and design accordingly.

“We’re going to be collecting all kinds of data,” said Sivak. “We will be using tools like Optimizely to do A/B and multivariate testing, seeing what works on the fly and adapting from there. We’re trying to treat this like a consumer website. The goal of this is to get people enrolled in health care coverage and get insurance. It’s not simple. It’s a relatively complex process. We need to provide a lot of information to help people make decisions. The more this site can act in a consumer-friendly fashion, surfacing information, helping people in simple ways, tracking how people are using it and where they’re getting stuck, the more we can improve.”

Using Jekyll and Prose.io to build the new Healthcare.gov is only the latest chapter in government IT’s quiet open source evolution. Across the federal government, judicious adoption of open source is slowly but surely leading to leaner, more interoperable systems.

“The thing that Git is all about is social coding,” said Sivak, “leveraging the community to help build projects in a better way. It’s the embodiment of the open source movement, in many ways: it allows for truly democratic coding, sharing, modifications and updates in a nice interface that a lot of people use.”

Open by design

Sivak has high aspirations, hoping that publishing the code for Healthcare.gov will lead to a different kind of citizen engagement.

“I have this idea that when we release this code, there may be people out there who will help us to make improvements, maybe fork the repository, and suggest changes we can choose to add,” he said. “Instead of just internal consultants who help build this, we will suddenly have legions of developers.”

Not everything is innovative in the new Healthcare.gov, as Nick Judd reported at TechPresident in March: the procurement process behind the new site is complicated and the policy and administrative processes that undergird it aren’t finished yet, by any account.

The end result, however, is a small startup in a garage rebuilding one of the most important federal websites of the 21st century in a decidedly 21st century way: cheaper, faster and scalable, using open source tools and open standards.

“Open by design, open by default,” said Sivak. “That’s what we’re doing. It just makes a lot of sense. If you think about what should happen after this year, all of the states that didn’t implement their systems, would it make sense for them to have code to use as their own? Or add to it? Think about the amount of money and effort that would save.”

That’s a huge win for the American people. While the vast majority of visitors to Healthcare.gov this fall will never know or perhaps care about how the site was built or served, the delivery of better service at lowered cost to taxpayers is an outcome that matters to all.