7 takeaways from OMB’s 21st Century IDEA guidance [OMB M-23-22]
OMB’s new guidance to Federal agencies for implementing the 21st Century IDEA emphasizes rebuilding trust in government by improving the digital experience of its websites and apps
If you can’t find the information you are looking for on a website it erodes trust. The same is true if the information you do find is outdated or conflicting. That’s a problem the U.S. government is striving to address on its digital properties.
Trust in government is at an all-time low, according to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual global survey. It found people trust business and non-governmental organizations more than they trust the government – and it’s been trending in this direction for years.
So, the digital experience (DX) – the interactions citizens have with government websites and apps – impacts trust. Fixing the issues isn’t a panacea, but it will go a long way toward rebuilding trust.
That’s our high-level takeaway from Federal CIO Clare Martorana’s announcement – Why the American People Deserve a Digital Government. It introduced a 32-page memo titled The Delivering a Digital-First Public Experience (OMB M-23-22).
To be sure, the U.S. Government has a massive digital presence. There are some 430 “Federal agencies and sub-agencies.” Many have sprawling websites that consist of thousands of pages – and according to OMB, are generally not serving the public as well as they should.
The issues with Federal websites are demonstratable too. A fact sheet that accompanied the announcement and OMB’s memo outlined a few of them including:
- 45% are not mobile-friendly;
- 60% have potential accessibility issues;
- 80% do not use the U.S. Web Design System code; and
- A mere 2% of government forms are digitized.
“This is unacceptable. We can and must do better,” wrote Martorana.
Implementing the 21st Century IDEA
The purpose of the memo is to provide detailed guidance to government agencies for implementing the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA).
The Act was a bipartisan bill signed into law in 2018. It requires all executive branch agencies to modernize their websites, digitize forms and improve customer service. It applies universally to “their websites, web applications, digital services, and mobile applications.”
Yet little progress has been made since the legislation became law. Implementation was stalled from “a lack of coordination and consensus” among controlling agencies including OMB and the General Services Administration (GSA), according to FedScoop.
The memo, which was signed by OMB Director Shalanda Young, addresses this head-on. It provides clear definitions, guidelines and checklists – along with deadlines for meeting the guidance and annual reporting requirements to track progress.
7 takeaways from OMB M-23-22
The memo, although lengthy, is a quick study. In many ways, it reads like a document that is more likely to have been penned in Madison Avenue than in Washington, DC. Here are several aspects that stood out to us.
Information must be accessible to all
The government serves all people, including those with disabilities. A classic example of accessibility is providing “alternative text” or “alt text” for images. Alt text describes images so that people with sight disabilities can still understand what the image represents.
Compliance with accessibility means adhering to standards in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – and “the most current Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to websites and web applications, where possible.”
OMB requires that agencies not only design websites that are accessible, but research accessibility needs, test their digital properties for accessibility and provide a “public feedback mechanism to contact the agency in case a user encounters problems and wishes to seek assistance or report an accessibility issue.”
For private sector companies, brand consistency is about building awareness and familiarity. For the Federal government, it’s about trust. This is especially important in this new era of fake news, images and videos – that are becoming increasingly harder to identify when made with generative artificial intelligence (AI).
The memo requires that agencies develop a brand identity and apply it consistently across all digital properties. This includes visual design elements such as logos, color choices, and typography among other factors.
OMB also describes what agencies should not do with respect to brand. One example the memo calls out explicitly is about legal, security or website error messages (such as a 404 error). The guidance says, “Do not alarm or frighten your users in ways that erode trust.”
Authoritative content – that’s easy to understand
The information agencies publish needs to be “authoritative.” Here again, this relates to trust – meaning content should be unambiguous and credible. It prescribes some fundamental tenets of good communication:
- Identify the intended audience;
- Write, speak and produce content in a conversational tone;
- Use plain language and avoid legalese; and
- Conduct tests and reviews routinely to ensure compliance.
“Agencies should write online content with an active voice; use clear and concise sentences; avoid slang, jargon, and acronyms; and use logical organization and informational headings. Agencies should write conversationally like regular people talk to each other.”
Search engine optimization and findability
OMB says Federal digital properties receive a staggering two billion visits a year. The vast majority of those visits are enabled by search engines. The new guidance compels agencies to implement on-site search and optimize their content to improve discoverability in search engines.
“Agencies’ websites must be structured well; contain rich, descriptive metadata; feature machine-readable content to the extent practicable; and follow search engine optimization (SEO) practices to ensure that members of the public can access government information and services from third-party websites and applications.”
This is also applicable to mobile devices. Google, which commands roughly 80% of the search market, said searches on mobile phones and tablets surpassed searches on desktops in 2016. The OMB guidance requires agencies to ensure their digital properties are “mobile-friendly and device-agnostic.”
Continuing the digital transformation: forms and services
A significant part of what citizens search for are forms and services. A staggering 98% of government forms are not digitized. OMB characterizes this as offering a “dynamic online form, not just a fillable online PDF.”
This in effect places what OMB calls a tax on time – Americans spend more than “10.5 billion hours each year completing government paperwork.” Many of them are difficult and hard to understand.
This particular aspect of OMB’s guidance is near and dear to our hearts at Intelliworx because that’s in essence how our business got started 20 years ago. We convert complex forms into an intelligent and interactive interview – similar to the way tax software simplifies the completion of complicated tax forms.
While our platform has since evolved from simply collecting data, to a platform that manages and analyzes data to support decision-making, the digitization of government forms is still central to our work.
Establish content process and control
OMB requires agencies to establish “internal controls and management practices for the publishing of high-quality, authoritative information the public can rely on.” This applies to both the content itself and the technological infrastructure (i.e. content management systems, or CMS) used to manage and publish it.
Agencies will need to develop a content strategy that drives both new content and review of existing content. Subject matter experts (SMEs) should be employed to review, edit and screen content for removal – like duplicate content or outdated content.
“At a minimum, any web content that is not actively maintained should be reviewed no less than once every three years from initial publication or date of the last review to determine if there are opportunities to consolidate or remove outdated content,” the memo says.
It also encourages agencies to include “markers that provide transparency and build trust with users.” Examples of this are indicating when a page was last updated, when it will be reviewed next and which person or office is the approving authority.
Analyze, measure and improve
The new guidance also reinforces the need for testing and feedback on several occasions throughout the document. Part of the feedback mechanism is to implement web analytics “to better understand user behavior for the purpose of improving public-facing websites and digital services.”
Importantly, web analytics also come with a caveat: “Agencies should establish processes to get qualitative feedback from actual users and not rely solely on web analytics data or the perspectives of frontline agency staff.
Building greater trust in government
Martorana wrapped up her announcement, in part, by emphasizing the impact on trust. The DX guidance will “ensure every interaction between our government and the public, whether it involves filing taxes, applying for a small business loan, or renewing a passport, delivers value, service, and efficiency.”
She continued, “When we do that well, we build greater trust in government.”
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Intelliworx provides purpose-built software such as workflow, application management, financial disclosure, and automated digital forms to more than 30 federal government agencies. The company is a certified veteran-owned small business and is FedRAMP-authorized.
See it for yourself! Contact us for a no-obligation demo.
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