Mobile technology has changed citizen expectations
Annibell begins by noting that smartphones and other mobile technologies have put information at the fingertips of citizens, and increased their desire to interact in real time.
“There are still lots of forms to fill out – to get your taxes squared away, to get citizenship, to participate in certain research in the health field,” he says. But mobile technology and the ability to be always connected has “significantly” raised citizens’ expectations, he says, and “that’s what’s driving the government to interact more and to be digital, and try to meet the needs of their citizens.”
Understanding the citizen’s story
The government collects “a plethora of data” says Annibell, “and they’ll be collecting more as we engage with them. But how does the government leverage that data to provide service in a proactive way?”
He gives the example of getting married. To get a marriage license, a person needs to engage on the local level – usually with a county. “That happens in a silo,” Annibell says. “That information isn’t used broadly to say, ‘What’s the next step in that journey?’ There are tax implications [of getting married] at the state and federal level. There are potential housing needs down the road. How can the government help bring that information right to the front so that engagement starts a relationship?”
The challenge, Annibell says, is that the government at all levels “is so mission-focused, so siloed in their approach, that it makes it very hard to bring it all together in one place so they can engage in a proactive way – and develop relationships. Because ultimately, digital experience is about relationship-building.”
The different levels of government themselves face different challenges, he notes.
“Federal government has to serve a much broader audience and take that into account when designing the finer details of what platforms they want to use to meet those needs,” he says.
Cities and localities, on the other hand, “have a smaller constituency, and can be far more focused in those services and their ability to change the way they go about things, from Smart City initiatives to just more interaction with their citizens,” he says.
“The good news is that everyone’s talking about it at all three levels. The challenge will be how do we tell that comprehensive story that brings all three of those entities together that allows the citizen to engage with the government?”
One way the federal government is working to be more efficient is by using FedRAMP, a program that provides a standardized approach to security and authorization for cloud products and services.
There’s been a “huge amount of emphasis put into cloud-first, mobile-first technologies,” says Annibell. With FedRAMP, “one agency has a requirement, they put the cloud service provider through that FedRAMP process. Once that’s done, all government agencies can take advantage of it. There’s a cost savings there. But there’s also the ability to quickly leverage that existing certification to build services,” much more quickly than having agencies go through the process individually.
Annibell says FedRAMP is a “kick-start. I don’t think it’s the be-all end-all; I also think it depends on the mission of the organization. Certain missions – be it in the intelligence space or the Department of Defense – they’re going to build their own clouds that will have to follow similar standards, but for security reasons, they want to have a little more control over their own environments.”
With citizen-centric engagements, Annibell says, “you’re starting to see the use of private cloud, hybrid cloud, and public cloud. Amazon has them, and Microsoft has them, and plenty of other vendors are now certified via FedRAMP. That was the first great step.” The program offers “great efficiency and great opportunity for those building citizen-centric services on top of them.”
A key approach that makes Sapient more effective – its “special sauce,” Annibell calls it – is the idea that the experience of the user is paramount even as the technology is executed well.
“Earlier in my technology career, it was ‘technology is the answer,’ and the user experience was an afterthought,” he says. “Now, user experience is in the forefront, and technology is there to support it…[Sapient] figured it out fairly early in process, and were able to translate it from the commercial space and bring it to government so that we’re not just building applications for the sake of building applications, but we’re building for the individual who needs to access those services.”
When clients come to Sapient with a request for a mobile app or a website, “the first thing we ask is, ‘What are you trying to accomplish?’” says Annibell. “The technology is the easy part in the grand scheme of things. But it’s ‘What services are you truly trying to provide, what story are you trying to tell, what kind of engagement are you trying to build with the citizens?’ That way we can understand it from an end user perspective and build a system based on requirements that come from the end users.”
Sapient does this in a variety of ways: “We do primary research, ethnographic research, talk to end users, we’ll watch their day,” Annibell says. “We spend time to understand how people interact with the data and the information they require, and how they interact with the agency at a very granular, user-centric level.”
With that information, Sapient we can determine “real requirements,” he says. “Sometimes the assumptions that have been made for years by the government agencies are wrong, and we’re able to document them, and then build a system based on the requirements of the citizen. Ultimately, the citizen’s happier, the client’s happier, and ultimately we’re successful.”
What about the future? Federal agencies, Annibell says, have a great opportunity in this area “because there is more engagement with the federal agencies and the services they provide than there’s ever been before. There’s a lot of momentum to take advantage of right now, because government as a platform is really starting to take off.”
He notes with a smile that “we’re in the early stages.” But, he says, “we’re getting to a point where the 18F technologists of the world are coming in from all over to provide expertise.” The 18F program is part of the General Services Administration that helps other federal agencies adopt modern approaches to managing and delivering digital services.
“The DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Program, which created the Internet) model and the NASA model of private-public partnership – 18F is trying to accomplish that now, doing very similar things for more citizen-centric services, as opposed to sending people to the moon or developing the Internet,” Annibell says.
It is “a fantastic time to be in government,” he says. “It’s a little slower than I think people would prefer, but at least we’re heading in the right direction.”
Annibell was asked whether he thought citizen activism throughout the world, turbocharged by the power of social media, would have the effect of creating a “different breed” of government service.
“I would hope so,” he says. “I’ve seen some of it. The federal government was quick to adopt social platforms and to start the interactions – the conversations, as I like to call them. There are plenty of folks from Generation Y who have gone into government work because they feel that passionate about making citizen services that much better and stronger and user-centric, when it’s all said and done.”
The challenges, he reiterates, include that “the pace at which government moves, as compared to commercial space, is significantly slower still. That’s something we have to overcome. We’ve made huge strides in doing so, but there’s still work to do.”
Still, there is change in the air: “I’m looking at 18F and the RFP process. And they’re doing “hackathons” as a quick way to select vendors to do very specific work. That is a complete fundamental shift in the way things are done.”
“Because ultimately you just want to get a seat at the table, so you can have the right conversations ahead of time, before anything gets built, so we can actually gather the requirements of the end users like we talked about earlier, understand their needs and build a system that will actually meet them not only today, but tomorrow, and into the future.”