Years after it was signed into law in 2018, the White House is still working on guidance to implement the 21st Century IDEA Act, a law designed to bring government into the digital age.
Though no guidelines have yet been issued (much to the chagrin of some lawmakers), they will come this summer, Clare Martorana, the federal chief information officer, said Tuesday at the Code for America summit in Washington, DC
The law aims to improve the way Americans experience government online by making requirements for government agencies such as common standards for accessibility and searchability, e-signatures, digital forms, and mobile-friendly, accessible websites.
“The instructions are really simple,” Martorana said. “It’s about digital-first, mobile-first, fully accessible e-signatures and forms modernization. It’s the government we want so the public can interact with us in a completely digital way that’s easy and seamless (and, obviously, secure.”
Although currently 53% of visits to government websites come from mobile devices, only 60% of federal websites are mobile-friendly, Martorana said. Only 2% of federal forms are digitized, she said, and only half of federal websites are accessible, while only 30% of websites are built using the General Services Administration’s US statutory web design system.
Martorana, who wore a T-shirt that read “One Answer” under her blazer, told the audience that giving people who are looking for government information that one answer is a top priority – “they need an answer that’s trustworthy , credible, accurate, timely and verified.”
“It’s a start,” she said. “No duplicate content.”
Martorana told FCW that her office has been working on the guidelines for over a year. She said her staff “recognized by working closely with our agency partners that they needed guidance that was more specific than the generality contained in an executive order or statute.”
That design process involved technology teams like GSA’s 18F and the White House’s United States Digital Service, Martorana said, noting, “We don’t write policies in a vacuum.”
Another area of focus is developing branding to visually connect government websites and identify individuals when they are on a government website, Martorana said.
When asked how she would help agencies implement the forthcoming guidance, she said they would “start with the standards.”
“What does it actually mean to have consistent branding? That should be something that we can define (and) articulate clearly so that it’s actionable for agencies,” she said, also citing a content strategy and updates to the US web design system to comply with the law.”
“When it comes to complexity – from forms, digital signatures and all those other components – we have playbooks for it. We’ve implemented them in tightly constrained places throughout government,” she continued. “And now it’s our job to actually make this run more smoothly across the federal enterprise.”
The “wonderful thing” about the law is that “it was passed by a bipartisan group in Congress,” Martorana said, continuing to stress that Congress must fund implementation of the law over time and hold the executive branch accountable.
“It’s a 10-year plan,” she continued. “We’re starting now and will work urgently to achieve that over the next few years, and then we know it’s going to be a long journey to sustain that.”
The White House is also examining how to react to developments in the field of artificial intelligence. Last week, it was announced that federal agencies can expect guidance on AI this summer.
Martorana said onstage that a fiscal 2022 inventory of government use of AI revealed over 1,100 current use cases of AI in the federal government.
“It’s really up to us to make sure it’s fair, equitable and non-biased, and that we use it with awareness of the threat environment in which we operate,” she said.
Asked if the government is doing enough to address any risks related to the government’s use of AI itself, Martorana told FCW, “I think we’re moving fast enough.”
“Everybody run,” she said. “The government rules too. But we are very aware of our responsibility and our opportunity to steer the market.”
Martorana said AI also has the potential to help government agencies achieve the government’s ease-of-use goals and government customer experience goals outlined in the 21st Century IDEA Act.
“Generative AI is potentially a really helpful way to get to an answer,” she said.
Generative AI could also potentially help the government cut through the jargon “to maybe achieve a different tone or style,” Martorana said. “Sometimes in government we speak legal language that isn’t always understandable to the public and so I think I actually expect a really significant improvement in the way we communicate with the public.”