Q&A with Gwynne Kostin on implementing the digital government strategy


The recently-unveiled digital government strategy lays out an ambitious path for federal mobility and website reform efforts. Many of the initiatives outlined in the plan will require agencies to work with a new office within the General Services Administration, called the Digital Services Innovation Center.

FierceMobileGovernment spoke with Gwynne Kostin, the center's newly-appointed director and former director of mobile in the office of citizen services and innovative technologies, to discuss the advantages of an API-centric plan, the importance of public feedback on mobile services and why government doesn't need to stand up its own app store.

FierceMobileGovernment: Congratulations on taking the helm of the new Digital Services Innovation Center. What do you feel is the mission of the center?

Gwynne Kostin: The mission of the center is pretty well defined in the strategy that came out of the White House, OMB, two weeks back. And as stated there, the Digital Services Innovation Center is focused on being an incubator and an accelerator for innovation in digital services for the federal government.

FMG: And so 'digital' means it's not just mobile. I'm curious how you feel the innovation center, which will be focused on reforming web content management and helping agencies develop web APIs, links into mobile services?

GK: That's a really great question and it really talks about the evolution we've been working on in mobile.

Eighteen months ago, over here in the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, we stood up the mobile program management office, and at that time we were really focused on apps and devices--'cause that's really where the space was. That's really what was hot.

And in working with mobile innovators over the past 18 months we really have seen a shift in how agencies are looking at mobile and also how the public is seeing mobile. And what we have found is mobile is not really about a device. It's not really about an app. What's mobile is the end users of our app, or the information. And so, what's mobile is the content, which is information, and data, and services.

And our job is to try to make that available anytime, anywhere, on any device in a secure fashion. As we're taking a look at that model of mobile, then it makes sense that other digital assets are an extension of that mobility. It's not just the delivery of the services, which can be done in a lot of ways, but its making the services available in a mobile fashion.

FMG: The deadlines are pretty tight on the digital strategy. The first deadline comes in just 3 months. The first one the center is tasked with is developing tools and guidance for measuring performance and customer satisfaction. So, do you think this feedback loop is something that's been missing in agency mobility efforts up to this point?

GK: You're right that we have a lot of very specific deliverables on the roadmap for this strategy. The work, though, isn't starting today. There have been a lot of efforts, made across government over time to look at measurement.

What we're looking to do as part of this strategy is really looking at how do we--in government in these tough budgetary times--do more with less. So, how do we actually use the experiences that other agencies have had in doing this work and extract them in a way that other agencies can learn from.

So, the idea of measuring satisfaction and the effectiveness of tools isn't anything new--and you know that--people have been measuring all along. People are measuring in different ways, so what we're looking to do is coalesce around some common ways to address these problems, and again, that is done in an information-centric way--focusing on the needs of the public and the citizenry--as well as figuring out how to share the best we can.

FMG: And once that information is collected and the analytics are present, how do you think agencies can be using that information to improve mobile services?

GK: You can't really make changes to things you don't know the answer to. So, you have to have some measurement on it. Agencies have been making decisions based upon data for a long time and there are great examples of it all throughout government.

The CDC has had a really interesting metrics dashboard that they made public but agencies are always making decisions based on where the traffic is, what people are searching for, how people get to their properties--whether it be via mobile or web properties--and also what people are asking for. Our call centers, for example are a great resource of information to understand the voice of the end user. The outputs really are to make better decisions and to really help focus on that customer experience.

FMG: Another one of the milestones that really caught my eye was the goal of a shared mobile app development program. Do you happen to know the structure of that yet? Will that tap citizen coders, like the hackathons and datapaloozas that have been happening at the agency level for citizen-facing apps? Or will the development program focus on those kind of 'inherently-governmental apps' or apps to help civil servants do their jobs?

GK: I almost want to say, 'yes.' We don't have everything road-mapped out at this point, but I think that you're identifying some of the functions that we're looking for in this shared platform. So, for example, we do know that agencies are making their websites available in mobile fashion. So, to some degree they're looking at different types of tool sets.

This mobile development program is a way to support agencies' work, and again in terms of doing more with less, identifying innovations that are working at one agency and trying to figure out how to share that across other agencies.

And in terms of doing that, we have to make sure that what we're trying to do makes sense. That milestone is in conjunction with the CIO Council, so working closely with the folks in IT we can figure out what are the infrastructures, what are the needs, and how to deliver it.

But the critical piece of it is always taking a look at how are we going to deliver better services for the public.

FMG: You said that some agencies have these 'tool sets,' I was wondering if you could clarify what you mean by tool sets for app development.

GK: Well, some agencies have built infrastructures to support the development of mobile and so that is a way for them to take the data in and distribute it across multiple types of devices. And so, some of them are looking at it in terms of how to use HTML5 and a style sheet to deliver a good mobile experience across all different devices. Some agencies are looking at a hybrid approach where they're using the mobile web as well as apps, because sometimes the apps may meet the needs of their end users better. And then looking at it across those different types of outputs and building an infrastructure around that.

FMG: So, almost like templates and best practices for converting the information an agency has into a more mobile-accessible form?

GK: That's one thing that some folks are doing--templates and best practices--and also in terms of development tools as well, so code sets. There's a pretty wide gradient of activity. And looking at: What are the needs to most efficiently deliver these types of services across government?

What's great about mobile is that it is a newer area and people are starting to make investments now in that mobile space. Because we don't have sunk investments this is an opportunity where we can try sharing.

FMG: When there are some apps generated from this development program, do you think that this is something that could populate a centralized government app repository--sort of like a government app store? Is that part of the vision at all?

GK: For a public-facing mobile space, a government app store doesn't really make a lot of sense. People actually get apps from the devices that they're using, so if I'm using an iPhone or an iPad, I'm going to the iTunes store to get my app. If I'm using Android I'm going to the Google Play store to get my app. If I'm on a Blackberry I'm going to the Blackberry app store to get my app.

So, I think that we don't want to create an external destination to make a government app store for applications that are public facing. That just really doesn't make too much sense.

Now, we do have a gallery that showcases the apps that are available, and that's at apps.usa.gov and that tool is important in that it does kind of show people the breadth of information that is available on different apps. And it does provide links to those app stores so somebody can actually use the process that they normally use. There's no reason to make a government process for something that's already working well in the private sector.

FMG: So, overall we're really talking about the citizen-facing apps? We're not really talking about enterprise apps that will help an agency's workforce accomplish some business process, or something like that?

GK: That's not the focus of what we're doing here, but there are huge parts of the digital strategy that was released that does talk about that. So, the strategy itself is comprehensive and we're scoped to public facing.

FMG: I see.

So often we hear that culture can be a bigger barrier than technology when it comes to change. What do you think the biggest cultural challenge will be as agencies move forward on the mobile aspects of the digital strategy?

GK: The challenges that I see, I don't know if I'd call them cultural or if I'd call it an experiential challenge. And by that, what I'm trying to say is that the big challenge we have is that when we look at the digital strategy, we're looking at the data and information external to how it's delivered.

People can actually think about a webpage or a website, because it almost seems solid. And so we're really looking at the information in a very abstract way. Sometimes people are challenged by that and thinking, 'Where does this go? What happens with this API thing?'

We really are going to have to do a lot of work to help people to see that even the webpage as it is now is bits and bytes. But people feel like that's a destination, they can understand it, so it's hard to reorient people's thinking around the information separated from the way it's being displayed.

Does that make sense?

FMG: Yeah, I think so. So, agencies are going to have people focused on projects that enable further deliverables, but not necessarily a single project with a single deliverable.

GK: Right; or, just looking at our information in different ways. For example, people look at a webpage and they think about it almost like a printed page, and that's kind of very helpful to talk about it. But really that webpage is made up of different data elements. So, each webpage has a title, a body, it might have an author listed there. It could have different assets whether that be a report, or a video, or a photograph, that photograph may have a caption. But there's also information behind it, like what day was it published and what topic area it is a part of. So, there's some structured data even behind that webpage.

And when you start taking those pieces and making them available, then you can build different things using those basic elements.

FMG: You mentioned at the very beginning of our conversation that the center is going to focus on incubation. And when I think of incubation I think of startups and things like that. Are we going to see something like pilots coming out of the Digital Services Innovation Center?

GK: The pilots are actually existing in agencies already. And so, we really are a catalyst. As we're incubating them, part of it is they're being worked on at other agencies. How do we connect them with other agencies that are doing the same type of work or a similar type of work? How do we extract that information so other agencies can jump start their processes and is there a way to do these link ups in the earlier part of development so we can actually build for sharing from the beginning?

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