21st Century IDEA Act: Better federal websites are around the corner
If you’ve ever struggled to find information on a federal government website, or felt confused while filling out an endless paper form and wondered, “Why doesn’t someone do something about this nonsense?” then December has been your month for progress in Washington, DC.
This week, the President signed into law the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA). IDEA requires federal agencies to make their websites easier to use and encourages agencies to digitize forms and applications that are still paper-based. It also upholds e-signatures as practice agencies should strive toward.
If you’re a U.S. citizen who wants easier access to government services, then there are some things to like about IDEA. It’s a step in the right direction, toward improving your experiences with government. If you’re an agency that has to do the work to comply with the new law, then you may find some things to like, but you’ll also find some continual roadblocks. Here are six quick things to know about IDEA.
- What’s “easy.” One of the biggest points of IDEA is that federal agency websites and intranet sites need to be easier to use. But, “easy” is a relative, subjective term. The bill gives general direction on what it means for websites to be “easy” to use, but leaves the final decisions up to each agency. In a speech last October, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), one of the sponsors of the bill, said agencies should use surveys and website user feedback to help make those determinations.
- Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) barriers remain. Collecting customer feedback is usually a great idea. But years ago, the PRA put into place a mandatory, complex, lengthy inter-agency collaborative process that agencies had to go through before they could survey customers. That process was, and still is, a big problem for agencies. IDEA, in essence, sets the expectation that agencies survey customers, but doesn’t remove PRA barriers to doing that work. Another piece of pending legislation, the Federal Agency Customer Experience (FACE) Act, would reduce PRA barriers. FACE has passed the House and Senate but hasn’t made its way to the President to be signed into law.
- For now, agencies don’t get any extra funds to modernize. IDEA turns into law practices agencies have already been asked to embrace through other channels. But, a number have not in Congress’ eyes. It stands to reason past resistance may spring from a lack of funding. IDEA doesn’t fix that part, but may open the door to requesting funds through more planning. Which leads us to…
- Agencies will need to create website and digital forms modernization plans. Within a year, agencies will need to review their most-used websites and paper forms, prioritize what needs to be modernized, estimate what it would cost to modernize the websites and move to digital forms, and then share that information with Congress. So, while agencies initially will receive no funds to comply with the new law, there will be an opportunity to show a need in due time.
- IDEA takes the customer experience conversation deeper. IDEA is about more than websites. It revives a conversation about the digitization of applications and forms. Every citizen or customer request for government services typically begins with someone filling out a form. In many instances, those forms are still paper-based. IDEA doesn’t require a shift to digitization, but it does call for agencies to identify which forms could be digitized. It’s a step in the right direction to making things easier for citizens who need digital access to government services.
- Some agencies are already collecting website feedback and may be good examples. While it may be true that there is much work to be done, some agencies are well on their way to achieving the spirit of IDEA. Healthcare.gov, the National Library of Medicine, and GSA, for example, are already collecting website user feedback with the Qualtrics tool with the aim of making their sites easier to use. Specifically in the case of Healthcare.gov, user feedback helped to reduce user time on the site by 13% and reduce the amount of time spent on enrollment by 11%. It’s always great to refer to examples of good work underway.
One key part of IDEA is that it will be up to Chief Information Officers (CIO) or their designees to drive the bulk of the work inside their agencies. CIOs will have to work with Chief Financial Officers on funding, and make sure the work done in the spirit of IDEA aligns with their agency’s overarching customer experience plans. There’s no enforcement mechanism for IDEA, but Congress’ hope is that by making expectations into a law, better websites, e-signatures, and more digital application forms will move to the top of the list of agency priorities.
Reach out to any member of the Qualtrics federal team for more insights on using customer feedback to drive improvements in digital services.
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