Portman Presses Experts on Need to Fully Implement His Bipartisan Law to Modernize Online Interactions with Federal Agencies

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, pressed experts at a hearing on building trust in government through customer experience on the need to fully implement his bipartisan 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience (IDEA) Act. The legislation was signed into law in 2018 and 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 of assistance from federal agencies for taxpayers, however it has not yet been fully implemented.

A transcript of Portman’s questioning can be found below and a video can be found here. 

Portman: Thank you all for your expertise you’re bringing to this. It’s frustrating because it seems like we make progress and then one step forward, sometimes one or two steps back. And one of the realities is that we live in, as some of you have acknowledged, an increasingly complicated world with more and more digital experiences. And with that digitization comes a great opportunity to make things more efficient, but also a great opportunity to make things more complicated. I mentioned the GSA website as an example, and the problem that Ohio small businesses are having with it. It was done in-house. One of my general approaches to this is that don’t do it in-house. If you can buy it off the shelf, it’s more efficient, it’s better for the taxpayer, and those commercially available products tend to work better. Doesn’t mean that there aren’t some specialized functions. Any thoughts about that from the three of you? Ms. Dorris?” 

Martha Dorris, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Dorris Consulting International: “Thank you, Ranking Member Portman. I have a lot of thoughts about it. I think first, websites…we’ll tackle the one question about buying versus building. I agree, I spent many years at GSA building things internally to provide to federal agencies, and we could never really sustain it over time with the resources and the expertise that we needed. So I know that we’re leading towards building a lot in today that could be purchased off the shelf. So I agree with you 100 percent. I think that there is room for building things that are pilots that can be used and tested internally to know what you really need and then buying more commercial products. In terms of the website piece, I think that websites are a critical component to delivering digital services, but taking a website strategy only does reduce equity and access. And so that’s why I like the customer experience piece of…” 

Portman: Yeah, we should talk about call centers and so on.” 

Ms. Dorris: “Exactly, that’s part of it too.” 

Portman: So quickly on that question on in-house, out-of-house, any very quick responses from the two of you? Because I got so much I want to talk to you about.” 

William Eggers, Executive Director for the Center for Government Insights at Deloitte, LLP: “Yeah, I would just say really quickly, I completely agree with you. Let’s look at call centers, contact centers. There’s a lot of best-in-class technologies right now, about 15 of them, when you look at AI, when you look at robotic process automation and so on and so forth, and actually bringing those together and integrating those into a whole, that’s the key to really having a great call center experience. And call centers should not be a back office function anymore. They should be really at the center, at the heart of a lot of citizen experience with government. And we have a lot of great technologies now, off-the-shelf technologies, that can be integrated to provide that experience.” 

Portman:Yeah, so combined with the higher technology we now have so it’s not telephone trees anymore. It’s AI. Matt?” 

Mathew Lira, Partner at Hangar Capital: “Senator, I completely agree. I believe very strongly that we need to leverage the technology that’s in the marketplace rather than try to invent it in the government for two reasons. One, the one that was already mentioned, is about the core competency and the sustainability of that change. Even if you can build an exceptional team to build a product in a moment, can that sustain over the decades? The second is about scale. We are dealing with major programs that touch, in some cases, hundreds of millions of Americans, and it’s very unlikely that a small team in an agency could ever scale to the size of the problem.” 

Portman: “Well, I think that’s an interesting observation from all of you, and we need to keep that in mind. You talked about quantitative measurements of results, Mr. Lira, and I couldn’t agree with you more. One of the challenges we have with regard to the 21st Century IDEA Act as an example is measuring it. I told you earlier, I’m disappointed in the implementation. Our team has had some issues on that. There’s this FITARA measurement that is not related as much to the customer service generally, but to IT improvements. And they have a measurement, a metric that they’ve put together. Do you think that on things like you mentioned, wait times as an example, and other ways to measure government service, including, by the way, answering the telephone or getting the right answer in terms of the IRS to measure that? But should we incorporate customer service metrics into something like the FITARA scorecard? Would that make sense? Ms. Dorris?” 

Ms. Dorris: “I think for the FITARA scorecard, that’s targeted to CIOs having a digital services component that measures that because it’s a critical piece to service delivery. I think customer experience on its own should have a scorecard that has a whole group of measures around building internal capacities, and do they have strategies and governance, and do they actually measure things and how do they set targets. So I do think FITARA should include that, but I also think CX needs its own report card.” 

Portman: “Mr. Eggers?” 

Mr. Eggers: “I would just speak to overall CX and just look again at the VA. They launched V Signals to measure customer experience across the VA. They collected more than 4 million survey responses, 1.8 million comments from veterans, and then they started measuring what matters. They measured the attributes that drove trust, and they’ve been able to improve their ability to create a world class experience, and it was not a one-time thing, they continue to look at this. And one interesting thing that data showed was that the veterans’ most common complaint was not about health care. It was about scheduling, visiting hospitals, lack of facilities in the waiting room. And by measuring it this way, they were able to evolve into a more empathetic and trusted organization.” 

Portman: “So they took the time to do the survey to find out what the customer experience really was and what the needs were. So, Mr. Lira, I’m going to just suppose that you’re going to answer the previous question saying, yes, we should have more quantitative measurements. And I’m going to ask you something else. The IDEA Act, why has it not been implemented more effectively? One of my concerns, as you know, perhaps, is that OMB has not issued the guidance that they are required to do under this law. And until that guidance is issued, it’s very difficult to get the agencies to implement this integrated digital experience legislation. What’s your view on it? You helped me a lot in writing the bill and advocating for it. What’s the problem and what’s the solution?” 

Mr. Lira: “Great question, Senator. I think the first problem is a question of prioritization. So clearly the bill became law in the 2018, 2019 timeframe then we headed into the crisis, and so there was a lot on various agencies’ plates. So OMB needs to issue the implementation guidance. You know, firsthand, the importance of OMB’s leadership on an issue like this. I believe that the 21st Century IDEA Act is greatly aligned with their strategy in the PMA [President’s Management Agenda] and in the executive order. So I view it as a tool that will enhance their strategy rather than distract. And the second is the role of this Committee in oversight. I, to answer very briefly, think something like a CX scorecard, perhaps even as a standalone product, could help reinforce the implementation of that act and other legislative accomplishments of this Committee in the way that the FITARA scorecard has done with that report card. It’s tangible, it’s binary, it’s quantitative. And I will say first hand, being on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, it was an incredibly useful tool, the FITARA scorecard in driving agency deliverables. So I think that would be…” 

Portman: “Well to all three of you and to my colleagues on the Committee, let’s work on that. I think that’s something that can be very meaningful. Both to move the IDEA Act implementation, but also more generally with regard to customer service metrics, understanding what the needs are, understanding what the success or failure is in implementing the strategies. Thank you.”