Originally Broadcast on November 5, 2012
Michael Keegan: Welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Michael Keegan, your host, and Managing Editor of The Business of Government magazine. Federal agencies continue to pursue government wide initiatives such as reforming federal IT, using new technologies to improve government operations and citizen engagement, and enhancing customer experience across government. To be successful in their efforts, agencies require support and assistance.
The U.S. General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies work to provide that support. It has positioned itself as the government-wide leader in identifying and fostering adoption of innovative new technologies. It does this by providing practical tools, models and proven practices that agencies can use to improve efficiency and effectiveness of government operations while enhancing citizen engagement.
How is GSA fostering adoption of innovative new technologies across federal agencies? What is GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies doing to expand government-wide open government and citizen engagement? How is GSA working to provide information, where, when and how the public wants it? We will explore these questions and so much more with our very special guest Kathy Conrad, Principle Deputy Associated Administrator of the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies within U.S. General Services Administration.
Welcome Kathy, it’s great to have you on the show.
Kathy Conrad: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.
Michael Keegan: Also joining us from IBM is Ken Beecher.
Ken Beecher: Thanks. It’s great to be back.
Michael Keegan: Kathy, perhaps you could provide us with a brief overview and history in evolving missions of U.S. General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.
Kathy Conrad: Sure. I’d be glad to. So our role today reflects both where we’ve come from, our legacy of serving the public, and our role today as an engine of innovation to help agencies across government meet rapidly changing needs. We have a pretty interesting history spanning over 40 years which most people aren’t aware of. Our roots were planted way back in 1970 with the establishment of the Consumer Information Center which provided the public with a central source of government information.
It’s evolved over the years and in 2002 became the Federal Citizen Information Center or FCIC when GSA created the Office of Citizen Services and Communications. At that time, GSA combined the centers 30 year legacy of serving the public with the innovative approach of what was then called First Gov which used the rapidly growing power of the internet to serve as the first sort of single front door to the government.
Then, more recently in 2010, the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technology was created returning GSA’s internal communications back to its own office and adding the Office of Innovative Technology to expand our role in leveraging new technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government. So today we have a dual mission. We deliver world-class experience to the public when accessing government information and services anywhere, any time through whatever channel they choose, building on our long legacy and then developing solutions and services federal agencies can easily adopt that will enhance their ability to innovate, deliver services, engage the public and save valuable resources.
Michael Keegan: With such a critical mission, I’d like to get a sense of the operational footprint of your office. How is it organized? What is the size of its budget, the number of full time employees, and scale of operations?
Kathy Conrad: Well we have a very lean but incredibly productive office. About 100 super talented hard working people plus a team of excellent contractors and a budget of about 35 million dollars. It’s pretty small. We’re a little sparkplug igniting innovation all across government through two primary organizations; the Office of Citizen Services and the Office of Innovative Technologies.
The Office of Citizen Services provides consumer information and services to the public wherever, whenever and using whatever device or communication channel they choose. The Office of Innovative Technology identifies and fosters innovative technologies that help agencies increase efficiency, and enhance effectiveness of services to citizens and achieve cost savings.
So most of our programs are divided into those two offices. We have as I said the Federal Citizen Information Center which runs USA.gov, GOBIERNO.gov (ph), KIDS.gov, the National Contact Center, and PublicationsUSA.gov. We have the Center for Excellence in Digital Government which runs our challenges program which you are familiar with and supports the federal web manager’s council. We have a mobile PMO which has more recently been combined with our digital services innovation center.
And then in the innovative technology arena we have the federal cloud computing PMO, our Fed Ramp Program, Federal Data Center Consolidation Program, and Data.gov along with a few others.
Ken Beecher: Kathy, I’d like to focus a bit more on your specific responsibilities as principle deputy associated administrator of GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. What are your duties and areas under your purview and just as important, how do your efforts support GSA’s overall mission?
Kathy Conrad: Well that’s a good question. We have a very, very broad portfolio. Given that as principle deputy, I help oversee all of our programs, all of our projects and our staff to ensure that we’re achieving our goals and delivering great value to our customers. In terms of some of the things that I more directly lead, I work very closely with our colleagues in OMB and OSTP on key policy and program initiatives, and also I work very closely with our congressional affairs staff and with the Hill on oversight.
In terms of how we align with GSA’s mission, Dan Tangherlini our acting administrator has been referring to GSA as the government savings agency. We support that mission directly, emphasizing our role in providing real tangible value to agencies and the public. We provide shared services and platforms that offer significant savings by avoiding the need for every agency to build or acquire their own systems or deliver duplicative services to the budget. So in fact in FY12 we estimate that by offering shared services and solutions, we’d avoid government cost savings of about 76 million dollars which is more than double our budget.
Michael Keegan: So with such an expansive portfolio, what are the top management challenges you face in your role and how have you sought to address them?
Kathy Conrad: Well given budget constraints which everyone is struggling with, probably the top challenge is how to carefully prioritize, how to invest our funds to meet rapidly changing customer needs and expectations. We have a really small team but everyone is just bursting with big ideas and tons of enthusiasm. We need to find ways to really prioritize because we can’t do everything. We just don’t have the funding and I think as agencies are facing their own budget constraints, they really want to make sure that the services that they’re receiving from us or other parts of GSA are really targeted toward their highest priority needs.
How do we do that? Well we use analytics to really determine what our customers need and want. Then we focus relentlessly on customer experience to ensure that we are continually delivering high value to those customers. We also have really worked hard to create a culture of collaboration, innovation and iteration. We kind of eat our own dog food in the innovation arena and use both agile methods and iterative development to test and improve new programs or projects as we go.
That allows us to meet emerging needs without having to take big budget debts which in today’s climate just don’t make sense. So most of what we do, we released first either as a beta program or on a very limited scale; fed ramp’s initial operating capabilities is a good example. Or you could look at our web usability testing program, which is still to this day called First Friday’s even though we now do testing not just on the first Friday of the month but often throughout the week.
Ken Beecher: Along with the challenges you’ve encountered, leading an organization can also be fraught with unanticipated surprises. To that end, what has surprised you most about leading your organization?
Kathy Conrad: Probably the incredible talent pool that we have. I could have never anticipated how much talent we have among our relatively small staff. We just have an amazing group of incredibly smart, incredibly motivated people who are talented in arenas all across the board. The other part is how quickly we can deliver, so we not only have people who are really competent and knowledgeable but we really know how to deliver as a team. So whether that’s standing up a new program like Business USA in just 90 days, or ramping up our National Contact Center in a few hours to provide accurate information to the public in the face of an emergency, we’re really able to mobilize fast to take ideas and turn them into valuable solutions for our customers.
Ken Beecher: We just jumped into GSA and your office and your responsibilities. Let’s take a step back. Can you describe your career path for our listeners?
Kathy Conrad: Sure. I have kind of an interesting career path, not the typical government leader path I don’t think. So like many recent college graduates, I came to Washington right out of college really wanting to make a difference. I had lofty ideas and lofty ideals. Since then I’ve had a very well rounded kind of 360 degree view of how public policy is made, delivered and particularly focused on science and technology and the impact that it can have on innovation, economic development, and most importantly on society.
So I started on Capitol Hill and then I quickly was drafted by a professional organization, The National Society of Professional Engineers which at the time was very interested in looking at investments in engineering and technology to drive global economic competitiveness. I was there for gosh, six years. I kind of led an initiative to explicitly recognize the role that the federal government has in investing in applied research and technology by actually changing the mission of the National Science Foundation which was pretty unprecedented at the time.
From there I went to NSF as a government employee and enjoyed working very closely with the director of the foundation in the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs on trying to take that new mission and really make good on it. I thought I would stay there for a long time but then I kind of caught the bug that this policy stuff was great but if I really wanted to make an impact I needed to jump off into the real world and see how companies actually do this. So I had an opportunity to help start a company and so did that.
And then worked for gosh, over 20 years moving into the consulting world and had an opportunity along the way to just work with some amazing companies and great leaders like Steven Covey and the Covey Leadership Center, Ray Kurzweil and his just amazingly innovative companies that created the first reading machine to help people with visual disabilities read, and some other just really cool stuff.
And then I knew I always wanted to come back to government in a role and at a time where I could believe in what the government and the administration was doing and where I thought I could make a difference. So now I have what I really consider my dream job and just couldn’t imagine being in a better place with better people.
Michael Keegan: So Kathy, with that kind of background, what makes an effective leader and more particularly, who has influenced your leadership style and management approach?
Kathy Conrad: So, I think in terms of what really matters most. I think people matter most. Absolutely. People are by far the most valuable resource any organization has and so I’ve always tried to lead by honest open communication with mutual trust and respect and recognize that everyone can learn from each other at any level. So I’ve always been in fairly flat organizations where there is a lot of mutual trust and respect and a lot of collaboration. I think that’s really critical, particularly in an office like ours where we need to be continually innovating and doing new things. No one has a monopoly on all the good ideas.
The third thing is really focusing on customers. Customers always need to be considered first because after all, we’re not in the business to do this just for ourselves. We’re trying to serve the public and our agencies. So customer focus and customer experience always need to be kept front of mind.
Michael Keegan: Has anybody particularly influenced your leadership style?
Kathy Conrad: Oh, a lot. I’ve had the good fortune of working as I said with just a lot of really great people and really great leaders and I’ve also had colleagues that have taught me a lot so it’s a pretty long list.
Ken Beecher: Long. Far too numerous to enumerate.
Michael Keegan: How is GSA fostering adoption of innovative new technologies across the federal government? We will ask Kathy Conrad, Principle Deputy Associated Administrator of GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies when our conversation continues on The Business of Government Hour.
So Kathy, before we delve into specific initiatives, would you briefly outline your office’s strategic vision and highlight some of the key priorities that frame the direction in which you’re taking the office.
Kathy Conrad: Well as I mentioned earlier, we have a dual mission to deliver innovative services and solutions to the public and to our government agency customers. To deliver our mission we have three key strategic goals. Innovation, which we define as expanding and enhancing public engagement with government using innovative cost effective solutions and practices that can be adapted and adopted government-wide. Second, customer intimacy as I mentioned. There we want to deliver best in class customer experience that is driven by results and that other agencies can use. Finally, operational excellence. Develop, implement and accelerate adoption of new technology platforms and initiatives that can improve operational efficiency and effectiveness across government. We seek to foster federal leadership in implementing solutions that are faster, cheaper and more sustainable.
Ken Beecher: Kathy, you mentioned earlier that you have a very close and tight relationship with the Office of Management Budget. As you know, OMB is mandating a cloud first policy. Your office is the government-wide lead on making this effort successful. To that end, would you elaborate on the federal cloud computing initiative? Here’s a loading question for you. What is cloud computing? What are the benefits and challenges of pursing a cloud first approach?
Kathy Conrad: Okay, I’ll try to answer that.
Ken Beecher: All right. Thanks.
Kathy Conrad: So cloud first has driven a major shift in IT planning and procurement. It’s forcing agencies to consider whether there are better, more agile ways to use scarce IT resources to enable achievement of desired programs and mission outcomes. It’s important to remember cloud computing is not about the technology. It’s about mission enablement.
So what is it? Lots of different definitions, but I think the best way to think about it is as a utility where you buy the services you need to meet real-time demands. Cloud solutions offer infrastructure as a service solution like service and storage that can be used to host websites and meet other requirements, software as a service for applications such as email, or platform as a service which can be used for testing and development or other requirements.
In terms of benefits, there are really three key benefits. First, it’s cheaper. Services are automatically delivered and consumed as they are used which means you only pay for what you actually use. Agencies can shift from owning and maintaining costly physical assets to managing service delivery, reducing the need for ongoing capital expenditures. Cost savings are also achieved from aggregated demand. If you can aggregate demand across an entire enterprise, you benefit from economies of scale and save significant funds over the long-term.
Second, it’s actually better in terms of performance. On-demand services enable flexible, rapid response to dynamic business needs so you know that as your needs change, you can get the services that you actually need and it’s faster. You can provision services rapidly and automatically dramatically decrease the time to deploy or implement solutions. So it’s better, faster, and cheaper. It seems like a pretty good deal.
Ken Beecher: Absolutely. As a follow-up, what has been accomplished in this area to-date and what implementation issues have you encountered and what remains to be done?
Kathy Conrad: So we launched Fed Ramp’s initial operating capability in June. To-date we’ve accredited 15 third-party assessment organizations and received over 50 applications for Fed Ramp assessment and authorizations. As of August, 318 data centers have been closed to-date and there are 932 planned closures by the end of 2015.
Michael Keegan: So Kathy, you’ve mentioned Fed Ramp which is the Federal Risk Authorization Management Program a couple of times in our discussion. Would you tell us exactly what that is and how does it seek to accelerate the adoption of secure cloud solutions?
Kathy Conrad: Okay, so Fed Ramp initial operating capability was launched in June following two years of extensive collaboration with both government and industry to develop a do once, use many times approach that saves cost, time and staff needed to conduct cloud security assessments.
Fed Ramp has four primary components. It’s established a baseline set of mandatory security controls that are based on 853 standards for low and moderate impact systems. It establishes a consistent, rigorous, independent assessment process including accreditation of third-party assessment organizations which we call 3PAOs. We could resist the idea to come up with a new acronym, which must be used under Fed Ramp.
It introduces the use of provisional authorizations which are granted by a joint authorization board composed of the CIOs from DOD, DHS, and GSA. Provisional authorizations can be leveraged by agencies across government in granting their own authorities to operate.
Finally, Fed Ramp shifts the government towards real-time assurance through the use of continuous monitoring. So the combined use of baseline security controls, consistent security assessments, and provisional authorizations gives agencies the high trust and confidence they need to leverage existing ATOs rather than conducting their own duplicative expensive assessments each time they implement a cloud solution.
Michael Keegan: Could I just clarify. If they use Fed Ramp, they won’t need to do their own ATO?
Kathy Conrad: Under FISMA, agencies still have the statutory responsibility of granting their own ATOs but instead of starting from scratch, they can leverage the existing ATOs which will be maintained in a secure repository and then if they have requirements that are above and beyond the Fed Ramp baseline, which by the way we hope will not often be the case, they can access those requirements in addition to what is already included in the security packages that are the basis of the ATO they are reviewing from the repository.
Michael Keegan: So give them a leg up.
Kathy Conrad: Big leg up.
Michael Keegan: Yeah. Right.
Ken Beecher: Kathy, you mentioned earlier about the consolidation of federal data centers. We all know that’s one of President Obama’s primary IT priorities. With data center proliferation straining agency budgets and resources and of course the environment, what are some of the key challenges faced in realizing these goals and what remains to be done?
Kathy Conrad: So the focus is really on increasing efficiency and optimizing infrastructure utilization shifting resources towards more cost effective, energy efficient infrastructure. As agencies have gained visibility of their data center assets across their enterprise, their reported baseline inventory of data centers have grown and so to ensure comprehensiveness, the definition of data centers have been reduced. So that makes it even more important that we focus not just on raw numbers of closures but on overall optimization and utilization.
Along those lines and to achieve that objective, it was announced just yesterday I believe that data center consolidation will be integrated with the portfolio stat approach that agencies are taking to ensure that data center optimization is included in the overall enterprise approach that agencies are using to optimize their commodity IT spending and management. So rather than looking at data centers in parallel to the rest of the agencies IT portfolio, one of the lessons learned is that these two efforts should be more closely aligned.
Michael Keegan: So Kathy, my next question is around open government initiatives. It’s two pronged. First I want to understand, how does your office transform citizen engagement with government? What prompted such efforts? How did it happen?
Kathy Conrad: So the President released the open data directive back in 2009 and that really was the catalyst for the open government movement that we see today. One of the things that we’ve seen is that while at the time it was really a pretty radical idea, it’s become really baked into agency operations. People really now see that sunshine is the best medicine for data quality. I think the risk aversion that we saw in the early years of open data has really kind of evaporated. You still find it in certain areas but there’s a level of acceptance that open data is good for the government and even better for citizens.
So where we are today, there are really three areas that define open government today. One is the transformation from focusing on the data itself to the impact of the data. Two is a shift toward really what has become a global open government movement. Three is the growth of the communities. If you’d like, I can talk about each of those three areas a little bit.
So in terms of impact, initially open government really focused on transparency, accountability and citizen engagement. Those principles as I said are widely accepted and kind of part of just our government culture. So the emphasis has not expanded and the future of Data.gov is to focus on enabling data discovery use and impact making sure that through APIs and open data standards, citizens, developers and others can easily access and harness the value of data to develop new products and services that improve the quality of people’s lives.
So it’s really about impact. As is outlined in the digital strategy that was released in May, over the next nine months, Data.gov will be expanded to include a web API catalog that will serve as an interactive directory of information made available to the public by agencies via web services so that customers can more readily use that information. Again, it’s about that use that is so critical. So every agency is required to post their APIs on their developer pages that they’re establishing under the digital strategy and those will automatically be aggregated in Data.gov’s catalog. So some big changes along the way but all of that will focus on impact.
For the global movement, one of the things that I’ve done recently that was really just invigorating was that we held a conference with the World Bank this summer on international open government. It was attended by more than 400 leaders from more than 50 countries all of whom are working toward expanding the open government data movement. It was really quite remarkable.
Governments around the world really have recognized the value of open data and transparency to drive economic development and citizen engagement. While there was some focus on transparency, there was a real emphasis on how open data can help these developing nations prosper. So again lots of emphasis on what is the economic impact not just transparency and accountability.
Along those lines, as it called for in the U.S. National Action Plan and in what we really consider a triumph of 21st century digital diplomacy and development, we’ve developed in less than a year an open source platform to enable governments around the world at any level to open their data to the public.
So in March, the U.S. and the government in India proudly launched the open government platform, OGPL which is this new open source product that includes the code, tools and processes that help the government to manage and release their data and will enable developers, analysts, journalists, academics and the public to put this data to work. The full package which is an early release is available for download, comments and open source development at get HUB. We’ll be supporting a vote OGPL in several countries beginning with Rwanda this fall.
Michael Keegan: I’d like to focus in on two particular initiatives, Challenge.gov and you’ve mentioned already Data.gov. Can you tell us a little about these initiatives and what are the benefits and where are they?
Kathy Conrad: Okay so as I mentioned with Data.gov, we’re driving towards an API catalog. We’ve also been establishing communities in key sectors to engage and collaborate around new ways to analyze, visualize and use the data. As I said, Data.gov really can’t just be about the data. It has to be about its potential for use, deriving value from the data, not just analyzing it.
So currently, Data.gov hosts 15 communities which we’ve built in collaboration with agencies across the government in areas such as health, education, law, energy, oceans, safety, ethics, and sustainable supply chain. We’ve had these really cool data jams and data polusas (ph) to spur entrepreneurship, create value and create jobs while rigorously protecting personal proprietary national security information.
So just this month, the safety community had a data polusa that brought together people who use the data available on Data.gov to save lives. We saw some really amazing, really cool apps at that data polusa. Do you want me to tell you about a few of them?
Michael Keegan: Sure.
Kathy Conrad: So Pulse Point was from the San Ramon Fire Protection district and is a lifesaving mobile app that allows CPR trained volunteers to be notified if somebody nearby is in need of emergency assistance. We saw some commute and crime maps from Trulia (ph) that allow home buyers to choose their new residence based on important factors such as commuting times and crime rates which would otherwise never be available or at least not easily so.
Then we saw a really cool hurricane app from the American Red Cross that allows citizens to monitor storm conditions, prepare families for emergencies, find help and let people know that they’re safe even if there is no power. So that’s where things are with Data.gov.
If Data.gov makes data discoverable and accessible, Challenge.gov offers a new tool and platform to engage the public in harnessing the value of the data as is documented very well and very thoroughly in your recent excellent report on Challenge.gov. So Challenge.gov is a crowd sourcing platform for challenges and prizes for solutions to government problems. Many of them use open data sets.
It’s important to note that agencies are actually authorized to conduct these competitions and contests under the American Competes Act. There is still some skepticism about whether agencies can really do this. In fact, they not only can do it, they are doing it. When we launched Challenge.gov back in 2010, we had 35 challenges from 15 different agencies. As of this week, we have 211 challenges from 47 agencies and average 7 new challenges a week.
Some of the benefits of using challenges are that it’s very cost effective. You pay only for successful entries or solutions so you’re not paying for anything that you don’t in fact really want and that doesn’t meet your criteria. It allows for really, really broad engagement, innovative ideas and expertise is tapped from well beyond traditional sources. It allows the government to partner with the private sector to fund or expand prizes and has proven to be really just an amazing tool for achieving big breakthroughs where solvers invent products, write software, design systems, develop mobile apps, create videos, games and more.
It also creates a social network of people who care about an issue who can follow, vote and share information about the challenges through email, Facebook and Twitter. So that builds awareness and interest in critical agency policy national issues at much lower cost than a traditional communications campaign might do.
So some of the examples that might be of interest, USDA had a really great challenge on apps for healthy kids that were sponsored by First Lady Michelle Obama. Winners included a game called Hungry Hiker that was in the Denver Science Museum that allowed kids to guess if they fueled their body with different fuels, how quickly they could hike to the top of a mountain. It quickly became apparent that candy alone wasn’t going to make it.
Another one that I personally love is called Explode Your Food because anybody who has kids knows that kids love to play with their food and this allows you to put virtual food into a machine and it blows it up and makes a really lovely, wonderful mess and analyzes the nutritional content which is just great.
So today there are a couple of really great challenges that are going on. In fact, as we speak the Department of Treasury is holding a ceremony today to announce the lucky winners of their My Money App Up Challenge for mobile apps that can offer consumers faster, more convenient and better access to financial products, services and tools and information to empower consumers to make better positive financial choices. There are eight finalists, one of whom will win the $10,000 grand prize.
There’s also a really neat contest going on today sponsored by the White House Council on Women and Girls called the Equal Futures Application Challenge to promote development of apps that inspire girls to serve as leaders in our democracy and promote civic education. So those are just a bunch of examples. There is many, many more on Challenge.gov.
Michael Keegan: That’s a tremendous amount of work you’re doing with projects. What else is there in the open government initiative that you want to highlight? Are there any other projects you are working on?
Kathy Conrad: Well much of what we do can be pulled in under the umbrella of open government because we’re so much about citizen engagement and collaboration. Two examples of new initiatives that are of interest, one is BusinessUSA.gov which is an online, one-stop shop that makes it easier for American businesses to access the services and information they need to grow, hire and export. It combines information and services from over 10 different government agencies through one consolidated website and will soon be providing context center support for Business USA through our national contact center at 1-800-FEDINFO. So it gives open access to just tons of business information in one place instead of having to figure out where to search it and unearth it.
Another real exciting brand new initiative is the My Gov Project which is one of five innovation projects that was launched in early August by the White House. Our office selected a team of five fabulous innovators from nearly 400 applicants to serve for the next six months as presidential innovation fellows for the My Gov Project.
Their charge is to create a prototype environment where citizens can intuitively discover, interact, and engage with government anywhere, any time, on the platform of their choice. It represents a pretty dramatic shift toward intuitively accessible and personally relevant government in which the complexity of government is abstracted into simple, consistent and high quality online interactions that are completely indifferent to either knowledge of the government or whatever channel or device you are using.
Michael Keegan: How is GSA working to provide information where, when and how the public wants it? We will ask Kathy Conrad, Principle Deputy Associated Administrator of GSA’s Office of Citizen Service and Innovative Technologies when our conversation continues on The Business of Government Hour.
So Kathy, social media is ubiquitous. Would you tell us more about how your agency is helping federal agencies leverage these platforms and more specifically, to what extent has your agency expanded its use of social media channels per outreach in public engagement?
Kathy Conrad: Well you’re absolutely right. Social media has just exploded across government. In our office we’ve found that social media is reaching our customers at a rate that is orders of magnitude higher than traditional communications channel. As of August, we interacted with citizens two million times this year using new media which is a 305% increase from last year.
So there’s no doubt that you just have to pay attention to social media. That’s where people are going. It’s not at the exclusion of traditional communications channel but we are using social media extensively for USA.gov, GoBierno.gov, Data.gov in the Center of Excellence and Digital government, really in everything that we do.
As part of our mission to share best practices, share guidance and provide training, we recently launched a very innovative social media community of practice which has established a dedicated community of nearly 300 social media managers and directors from all mission areas across government including intelligence, healthcare, scientific and regulatory communities, really just about every agency. They meet regularly to identify and find solutions for some of the common challenges faced in using social media such as improving social media performance metrics and they test new tools and strategies that will shape the future of digital citizen engagement.
We also recently released a social media registry which is a central authoritative registry of authentic government media accounts which enables the public to much more easily differentiate legitimate government social media accounts from those that are fraudulent. Unlike regular websites, social media doesn’t have .gov or .nil, so this registry would allow somebody who couldn’t otherwise tell to determine oh yeah this really is an agency social media account.
It currently lists over 21 accounts across 65 agencies and is being used to verify legitimate government accounts for over 20 frequently used social media tools including Facebook, Twitter, and You Tube. The other thing that’s kind of cool about it is that it was built with open source code and has a public API so that it opens up an entire world of potential innovation.
So we’re finding that government developers in the public can use it to access and search social media content from all agencies with convenient widgets and data mash-ups, and private sector developers are already talking with us about potential uses that they see. So that’s really a great example of how we’re helping agencies stay ahead of the curve and stand at the forefront of using social media to improve citizen services and achieve cost savings.
Ken Beecher: Kathy, you mentioned earlier in the opening segment that for more than 40 years GSA has provided consumer information services to the public. In fact, you provided some really neat and dynamic examples at the World Bank and Data.gov. Would you tell us more about your work with federal agencies to ensure that government information is made easily available and fully accessible to the public?
Kathy Conrad: Yeah, the Federal Citizen Information Center works with other federal agencies to publish and distribute millions of publications each year to give the public valuable information on consumer problems and government services, thing like home mortgages, health, consumer finance, consumer protection from fraud and scams, and government benefits.
Just to give you a sense of how much demand there is for these publications, I found this just astonishing when I first got to GSA because the first year it happened right after I got there. This year over 1.6 million publications were ordered in just 24 hours following a column in Dear Abby promoting our women’s health publications, so that clearly shows a lot of demand. It also shows you that Dear Abby still has it.
Last year we distributed a total of over 25 million publications and close to 10 million copies of our catalogue. These are agency publications, not GSA so we’re providing a real service in bringing this information to the public. But we also recognize that to be more sustainable and to reduce cost, we began digitizing print publications and offering them in a variety of e-publication formats so that they can be easily downloaded onto tablets, smart phones, e-readers and other mobile devices.
We also entered into a partnership with Google Books and began electronically distributing over 100 government consumer publications for free. So we have a new website called Publications.USA.gov that has 600 government consumer publications from agencies across government that can be viewed or downloaded in a variety of formats. For those who really are still holding onto their print, they can order copies from our Pueblo Colorado distribution center.
Ken Beecher: As a follow-up, how does the USA Search toll factor into your efforts to transform the public search experience while also saving money for federal agencies?
Kathy Conrad: Well we’re enormously proud of USA Search. It has really transformed the public search experience and saved the government, we calculate over 20 million dollars each year from agencies using USA Search which is an open source search solution rather than investing in duplicative costly services. It’s a commercial grade search engine that quickly delivers very rapid totally relevant government centric information without the ads that are found in commercial search engines. It’s been absolutely optimized for use by government information and provides results generally within about 400 milliseconds.
Right now there are over a thousand websites across government using USA Search including major agencies such as DHS and DOD and of course it powers all of our websites including USA.gov, Kids.gov and GoBierno.gov.
Ken Beecher: What other ways does your office seek to enhance the public’s experience and provide it new ways to find information where, when and how the public wants it?
Kathy Conrad: So the National Contact Center is a good example of other ways in which we enhance public’s experience. It provides direct telephone, email and web chat services to the public at 1-800-FED-INFO as well as contact center and print distribution services for many other customer agencies. We answer more than a million phone, email and chat inquires each year on all federal government topics so similarly central resource for anything you’d want to know or find out about the government and also takes orders for the consumer publications I mentioned earlier.
To provide consistent and accurate information to the public, the National Contact Center maintains a comprehensive knowledge base of more than 2600 answers to frequently asked questions. Those answers which are used by our contact center agents are also available to the public on Answer.USA.gov. Another role for the contact center, that most people may be unaware of but is really vital, is that we partner with agencies during emergencies. So within minutes of earthquake, terrorist attack, hurricane, all the things we hope never will happen, the National Contact Center will ramp up and provide 24/7 service to the public so that they can seek help or provide information to our government partners.
Another good example that may be less well known is our First Friday’s program that I mentioned at the start of the info which is a free, very practical, usability testing program that identifies key user experience issues with government websites. It’s very, very practical. Its purpose is to identify problems and recommend solutions that can be implemented by the agencies own team within 30 days. So we are regularly testing websites across government and providing advice and assistance to help optimize those for best customer experience.
Michael Keegan: So Kathy with the widespread use of mobile technology and devices, it illustrates a changing landscape. To that end, what is your office doing to assist federal agencies to develop a citizen centered path to mobile government?
Kathy Conrad: Well the focus is really on making data and content available to citizens wherever they are, whenever they want it, using whatever device they choose. A good example of some of the neat stuff that we’re doing is earlier this week we held a mobile wikithon with USDA. You might say what on earth is a wikithon? Well it’s kind of like hackathon but instead of developing software, code participants contributes content to document all the great ideas and practices in a wiki that can then be shared across government.
Agencies who have been mobile innovators can share how they’ve solved particular problems and the lessons they’ve learned. It’s a pretty fast, fun way to quickly capture valuable, useful information in a format that’s easily shared and consumed. It addresses both immediate needs and we’re also anticipating emergent needs in, as you say, this really quickly changing space. People have problems they’re trying to solve and others have solutions they want to share so, in this time of rapid technology change, needs are evolving quickly and so are we.
Ken Beecher: Kathy, I know you and your office are highly enthusiastic about social media, innovation through apps and mobility but I also know you have a passion for collaboration. Would you elaborate on your efforts to facilitate the adoption of collaborative technologies to not only enhance citizen engagement but also increase operational efficiency and deliver quality services government wide?
Kathy Conrad: Yeah. Again, this is an area where I could really talk about anything in our office because just about everything we do achieves those objectives or at least we certainly strive to but let me focus on two programs, HowTo.gov and The Digital Service Innovation Center that was stood up under the digital strategy.
HowTo.gov is the authoritative source for federal requirements and best practices for managing government customer service channels which includes websites, social media, contact centers and mobile. It provides training, guidance, best practices and shared tools to thousands of federal, state and local government professionals to enhance customer experience with government. The content is organized into topical channels such as web content, social media and technology. We recently added a contact center channel with best practices to help agency set up and manage a highly effective contact center.
About 45 agencies regularly use HowTo.gov and we find that the collaboration that occurs is not only using the information in HowTo.gov but the content that we help call from around government really helps share practices in ways that are extremely efficient and very, very effective.
The Digital Services Innovation Center is, as I mentioned, stood up just this summer in response to the digital strategy that was released in May. It’s not some big building filled with thousands and thousands of people but rather it’s an agile, virtual center that helps identify opportunities for sharing existing solutions at agency and serves as a catalyst for leveraging successful models, proven practices and solutions, and is also building some new solutions for government wide use. It will alleviate the burden on individual agencies to come up with these things themselves.
The focus is on development of better digital services, again as with HowTo.gov, improvement of customer experience and strengthening of governance. So what are some of the things that we’re doing? Well we have just completed facilitating a whole series of governance sprints to help agencies develop practical, effective approaches to digital services governance. We’ve also developed a digital services performance metrics and customer satisfaction toolkit that’s available on HowTo.gov to help agencies develop appropriate, effective measures including baseline customer satisfaction metrics.
We’ve now turned our attention to three primary actions. One is we’re identifying shared and open content management systems and we’ll be supporting implementation through training and again best practices on HowTo.gov. This will offer agencies an alternative to building their own platforms and enable code sharing and modular development. That we’ll be doing through about November.
We’re also helping agencies develop web based APIs to unlock valuable data. We’re holding a series of APIs for dummies webinars to help agencies move forward and are working closely with a number of agencies to develop the open data guidance that will be issued in November under the digital strategy.
Finally, we’ll be turning our attention to launch a shared mobile app development program in conjunction with the CIO council that will help agencies develop secure device agnostic mobile apps. We’ll provide an environment to help streamline at delivery foster code sharing, and we’ll be working on that over the next nine months so lots going on now and lots coming.
Michael Keegan: So Kathy, I’d like to explore what you folks are doing using data analytics to enhance the way you make decisions. Would you elaborate on how your office is using analytics to not only improve services and quality but possibly identify new solutions and maybe new services?
Kathy Conrad: That’s a great question. Analytics are very well established in our office. They touch all of our programs and more than the 40 websites that we manage. One thing that’s interesting is that we also provide key web performance metrics and guidance to the federal agencies whose websites we support. So with Business USA, the agencies who we’re collaborating with and providing content, we’re feeding them analytics on the site so that we can work together toward really improving these sites with fact based data not just good hunches.
So to make sure that our analytical data is accurate, relevant and actionable, we operate within a framework that consists of common standardized tools, web analytic tools, customer satisfaction tools, data collection methods like page tagging and central reporting across our websites and other digital services.
We track all of our web campaigns, pages and topic popularity as well as search engine optimization and marketing efforts across multiple digital channels on a daily basis. We make decisions on content and direction based on what the data tells us so we’re very, very data driven. We’re using third-party tools to collect and report web performance data and looking at social media analytics and of course also look at industry research. So we have a monthly performance analytic dashboard that drives all of our decisions and really provides visibility on what our customer wants and how our websites are performing.
The other thing we’ve done that’s kind of neat is that we’ve put together an analytics wiki so that we have a one-stop shop for all of our office where we publish and store all of the monthly dashboards reports on touch-points or citizen interactions and other analytical and industry reports that are relevant to what we’re doing. We’re also in the process now of building a dashboard that we’ll use for all of our e-gov projects so that again we can have both an executive view and a project view of key indicators like cost schedule and performance, and we can not only share that internally but can also share it with our external partners.
Michael Keegan: What does the future hold for GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies? We will ask Kathy Conrad when our conversation continues on The Business of Government Hour.
Ken Beecher: Kathy in an era of fiscal constraint it’s critical that agency leaders act with strategic intent and keep their workforce motivated to meet their mission. Reflecting on your leadership, would you tell us how you continue to keep your employees focused and motivated in face of being under the microscope recently and painful fiscal challenges and changes?
Kathy Conrad: So the most important thing is to really focus on mission and meeting customer needs. We have a really passionate team that is absolutely committed to our mission. They see the value of their work every day helping citizens get the information they need and providing services to agencies that help them deliver their mission more effectively and more efficiently. So we never lose sight of the mission and I mean it sounds kind of corny but it makes everybody feel good about what they’re doing. People love to come to work every day because they feel like they’re doing something worthwhile.
So even before the current top-to-bottom review that Dan initiated to really help us as an agency capture the tangible value that we’re offering to our customers, we went through a process about a year ago where we really tried to harness and capture the return on investment, the value that we’re providing to our customers. As I said at the beginning, we found that we’re achieving very significant cost savings for such a small little office and again that was very motivating because not only did people recognize that the work that they’re doing helps people, but it is in fact adding efficiency to a government at a time where cost savings really matter.
We also work very closely together to define priorities and make tough decisions that provide the highest value to our customers. I think having that sense of we’re all in this together, there’s a lot of things we could be doing but let’s decide as a team where do we have the highest value. That helps people feel good about the tradeoffs that necessarily need to be made.
The other thing that we’re finding is that in these fiscally constrained times, agencies are really hungry for shared solutions that work. It’s not enough to just offer cost savings. I mean cost savings are great but if you’re offering kind of bargain basement services, agencies may not want them. So we’re finding that by really focusing on customer experience and making sure that we’re not only offering solutions that save agencies money but that actually get the job done and done well, there’s increased demand for what we’re doing.
So if you combine a fabulous mission with lots of customer demand, it helps keep people motivated even when times are a bit tough.
Michael Keegan: Kathy, you’ve done a wonderful job of explaining all the work you’re doing, how expansive your portfolio is but you can’t do it all by yourself so I want to understand how you’re leveraging partnerships to improve operations and outcomes. More particularly, can collaboration and partnerships drive innovation?
Kathy Conrad: Boy, absolutely. You are so right. Innovative ideas and programs cannot come to life in a vacuum. Not a chance, so partnership and teamwork are at the core of all of our operations. We depend on broad input from the stakeholders we support through established channels like the CIO council, the web manager’s council, the government contact center council, the communities that we’ve helped establish as well as through citizen engagement.
One of the advantages of using social media and of open government in general is that there are tools that we use to get direct feedback from our customers and so we consider ourselves working in partnership not just with the agencies but also with citizens so that we can understand what really is working, what do they really need and how do we do our jobs better.
Ken Beecher: Your office has been consistently recognized as a world leader in public engagement and innovation. Now is your chance to gloat a little bit Kathy. Would you tell us more about the various awards and recognitions?
Kathy Conrad: Well, we do have a pretty full awards case. In fact, we’ve been laughing saying “Gosh what are we going to do with all of these when we move to the new building and there’s so much less space”? So we have had a lot of honors and awards and we’re really proud of that. I think the breadth of awards that we’ve received really show that it’s not all about any one person. This is a team effort.
We have talented people all across our organization and I find it particularly gratifying that many of our awards recognize not only some of our super accomplished individuals but also teams who have been successful.
Okay, we were really proud last year that CIO Magazine honored Data.gov with their 2011 CIO award. Dave McClure who heads our office was honored this year with an Eagle Award. We also had I think over 10 Fed 100 awards so again just recognition all across the office. Our USA Search program won the information week 2011 government innovator of the year award which was really cool.
We had 10 federal computer week Fed 100 award winners, two rising star award winners and then of course Dave McClure, the head of our office was very appropriately honored with the government Eagle Award this year. That was really, really fabulous. I could go on and on but that’s a good example of the many awards that recognize the wealth of talent across our organization.
Ken Beecher: So what’s next for government specifically, what emergent technologies do you think hold the most promise for improving government operations and citizen engagement?
Kathy Conrad: So I think if you look at the digital strategy, you’ll really see where government is headed. The key to really making government data and information open, accessible, citizen centric and secure is continuing to rely on web API web services so that agencies across the government are unleashing the really wonderful content and data that they have in ways that it can be easily consumed by the public. It’s not just data. It’s content as well.
I think sometimes people think that this whole movement is just about data but there’s just as much value in the immense content that is just a treasure trove of information at federal agencies. When you think about the power of making all of that available to people anywhere, anytime, on any platform and in a secure and reliable way, it’s really just exciting to think about what can be done.
Michael Keegan: I’d like to stay on that idea of the future a little bit and talk about some of the major challenges and opportunities you think your organization will encounter in the future. More particularly, how do you envision your office evolving to meet those challenges and seize those opportunities?
Kathy Conrad: Obviously there will continue to be resource constraints. I don’t think anybody is expecting there to be some big sugar daddy dumping a load of resources into the government and so it’s important that we constantly focus on what really matters most. So I think the use of analytics will grow. When you look at the whole big data movement, much of that is about really harvesting value out of the data that we can use to help make management decisions, help make budget decisions, and help determine how to prioritize in a resource constrained environment.
As I said, it’s really not about technology. It’s about mission enablement and so as we think about how new technologies like mobile and cloud computing can drive mission enablement in new and different ways, we’re excited about things that can be done. The My Gov Project is a great example of thinking about how you can take new technologies, web services, and mobile technologies and really help citizens engage with government in a new and really meaningful way that is based on whatever services they need whenever they need them.
Michael Keegan: So Kathy, what does public service mean to you and more particularly, what advice would you give someone who is thinking about a career in public service?
Kathy Conrad: That’s a great question. First of all, I think any young person absolutely ought to be considering public service careers. There is just nothing more rewarding. Having been in public service early in my career and then out in the private sector and then come back, I can just tell you especially when I look at some of the young people in our office, they are just so inspired by what they do every day. I have two young women daughters who I always remind you should do what you love.
If you do what you love, you’ll be good at it and so I would encourage people to pursue their passion. Whether that’s a set of issues that they care deeply about like healthcare or education, or whether it’s kind of a horizontal process area like acquisition or security or citizen services, you can think about going into public service in either way, becoming kind of an expert in a domain area or gaining experience in a sort of business service area that cuts across government.
The other thing that I find really remarkable is how much opportunity there is in government to gain diverse experience. So I would encourage people to enter public service and then take full advantage of the opportunities to gain experience in different environments through rotations, details and the many other programs that the government offers that allows people to move around and benefit from learning from different organization, from different people, and from being in different environments.
So I would say never lose sight of the mission because that’s really what matters and really do what you love.
Michael Keegan: That’s wonderful advice. Kathy, I want to thank you for joining us today. This has been a great conversation, a very insightful conversation but more importantly, Ken and I would like to thank you for your dedicated service to the country.
Kathy Conrad: Well thank you. I am really honored and proud to serve the country. I’m delighted to have had this opportunity. Again I would encourage people to take a look at some of the programs we have and our websites like USA.gov, Challenge.gov, Data.gov and see how we’re helping serve both the public and our agencies. Thanks again. I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you.
Michael Keegan: Great to have you. This has been The Business of Government Hour featuring a conversation with Kathy Conrad, Principle Deputy Associate Administrator, Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies within the U.S. General Services Administration. My cohost from IBM has been Ken Beecher.
Be sure to join us next week for another informative, insightful and in-depth conversation on improving government effectiveness. For The Business of Government Hour, I’m Michael Keegan. Thanks for joining us.
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