Portman Highlights Need to Prioritize American Public’s Interactions with Federal Government Online

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, emphasized the need to make the American public’s interactions online with the federal government go smoothly whether they are applying for federal grants or veterans’ benefits, dealing with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or Social Security Administration, or asking for small business support at a hearing on building trust in government through customer experience.

Portman discussed how his bipartisan 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience (IDEA) Act, signed into law in 2018, is designed to improve citizens’ interaction with the federal government online. The 21st Century IDEA Act was intended to modernize the way the federal government delivers services online while increasing efficiency and reducing the cost for assistance from federal agencies for taxpayers, however it has not yet been fully implemented.

A transcript of his opening remarks can be found below and a video can be found here. 

“Great. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thanks everyone for being here. Look forward to the discussion. We’ve got some real experts with us today with whom I’ve worked in the past, and I think this will be a helpful hearing to talk about how to improve customer experience with government. I like the idea of looking at it from the customer point of view, the taxpayer point of view, the citizen point of view. 

“In this Committee, we hear the phrase good government a lot, and it’s usually in the context of accountability and transparency, both of which are important. But good government is also about efficiency and making things work well for people. I think government has an important but limited role in people’s lives, and people need to be able to interact with it efficiently and then focus on what they really want to focus on, which is their lives, their families, their jobs, their community. But in order to do that, we have to have these interactions work and people deserve it. 

“This involves everything from applying for federal grants, to support for small businesses, to applying for veterans’ benefits, making sure your Social Security or Medicare benefits are properly handled, dealing with the IRS. Back in the nineties I was the co-chair of the effort to reform the IRS and have been involved in that a lot in the Finance Committee, and we still obviously have huge challenges in terms of customer experience there, although we were able to make some improvements by focusing on it. Waiting in line at the airport, something all of us will be doing in the next week or so I’m sure. I will be this evening or tomorrow, along with Senator Peters. And I hear plenty of concerns about our new TSA scanning devices as an example, and the customer service needs to be improved. 

“The Ohio Department of Transportation has found that the federal Department of Transportation’s Common Application feature works as an example of something positive in terms of customer experience. It’s convenient because it allows applicants to apply for multiple infrastructure funding opportunities through one application. 

“Permitting reform is something we’ve worked on a lot, and that is something that adds to customers being able to, again, interact quickly with the government, get what they need, and move on. 

“On the other hand, I am concerned about other Ohio interactions with government that have not been so positive. Recently, we’ve had problems with the General Services Administration, for instance, the GSA website for government contracts. It was developed in-house, apparently. Ohio businesses have had real trouble getting paid for work they did for the government or had agencies stop working with them because the website system for registration renewal was not working correctly. So because the website wasn’t working correctly, Ohio small businesses were the ones who were impacted. 

“In 2018, as some of you know, Congress passed my legislation called the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act. We call it 21st Century IDEA Act. I’m glad to see Ms. Dorris and Mr. Lira here today because I know them from working on that bill, and I appreciate their expertise. One of the things this 21st Century IDEA Act requires is for an agency that maintains a website or digital service to ensure that it has the ability to interact well with customers, a consistent appearance, is accessible to individuals with disabilities, has a search function, has an industry-standard secure connection, and is generally designed around user needs. All common sense elements, and too often lacking with regard to federal government websites and other ways to interact digitally. 

“It also requires that each agency make available an online, mobile-friendly digital service option for any in-person government transaction or paper-based process in a manner that decreases costs and improves customer service. So it’s kind of pushing the federal government to take it to the next level. Unfortunately, we know that many of the requirements of this law remain unimplemented. I look forward to discussion with the witnesses today about why that is and how Congress can increase oversight to ensure full implementation. 

“White House efforts in both the Trump administration and now the Biden administration have begun to move agencies in the right direction, I believe. In December, President Biden signed an Executive Order on Customer Experience with government. I don’t agree with everything in that EO, but I do think it’s important to prioritize customer service, and I’m glad that we’re moving in that direction. 

“I’m always open to learning about new legislative ideas, but I think we should focus on using the tools we already have, particularly through increased oversight of the recent mandates from Congress and these initiatives within the executive branch. There’s also a lot we can learn from our private sector, which is always developing new innovations we can tap into. 

“We’ve got to ensure that we are good stewards of taxpayer money and respect the balance of state and federal jurisdictions on which our system is designed. I look forward to hearing the witnesses’ ideas and how we can prioritize making our federal government work better for our citizens. Thank you. I look forward to the testimony.”