Federal interoperability must improve to achieve critical priorities such as zero trust, emergency response, and public health, according to The Government Accountability Office and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Interoperability — the ability of products or systems to readily connect and exchange information — enables government organizations to quickly and effectively serve citizens. However, competing needs and priorities often make it difficult for agencies to identify solutions that factor in the required capabilities for every use case.

As federal agencies strive to modernize their IT systems, workflows, and policies, strategic upgrades must be made to ensure relevant data can be shared seamlessly between disparate organizations. Private sector organizations can help government improve interoperability by developing IT solutions that easily integrate into existing systems and workflows to enable frictionless experiences, increasing constituent engagement and decreasing administrative burden.

Challenges to cooperation

Too often, interoperability is perceived as an issue that impedes interactions between legacy and modern systems. However, many current technologies also encounter challenges with cooperation and data sharing. As such, both the private and public sectors must account for the ability to collaborate when developing and procuring new technology or updating outdated systems.

Additionally, the rapid shift to remote tools and work environments has prompted government agencies to provisionally digitize their systems. While this reality is understandable and was in many ways necessary, it’s time to take a more intentional and coordinated approach to modernization to accelerate citizen service and reduce administrative strain on employees.

There is plenty of work to be done within the private sector as well. As described by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), “...many of the vendor solutions used in the [enhanced identity governance] crawl phase do not integrate with each other out-of-the-box in ways that are needed to enable the [identity, credential and access management] ICAM solutions to function.”

Private sector organizations can alleviate the burden associated with IT modernization by ensuring their solutions integrate easily with others. Objectives such as zero trust, emergency response, and public health are critical matters of national security, and technology vendors must support government institutions on the path to achieving these paramount goals.

Customer Experience

Admittedly, interoperability poses a much greater obstacle in some use cases. As such, it’s best to start ensuring universally used features are interoperable before moving on to niche applications. For example, every organization can benefit from digital documents, forms and signatures.

For citizen-facing agencies, websites, digital services and chatbots are other pervasive tools that should be interoperable. It’s crucial that such ubiquitous processes function seamlessly throughout government organizations to effectively serve citizens.

As explained in the May 2021 Customer Experience (CX) Executive Order, “Customers often navigate services across multiple agencies in specific moments of need.” Examples include seeking financing for a business, identifying ways to address food insecurity, or recovering from a natural disaster. In these situations, relevant agencies must be able to coordinate service delivery “to achieve an integrated experience that meets customer needs through the exchange of data with appropriate privacy protections.”

When digital tools are incapable of directly sharing data, service delivery is likely to be delayed which negatively affects citizen experiences. CX is one of the primary drivers behind the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA), which became law in 2018.

As stated in the IDEA, “Each executive agency shall, to the extent practicable, seek to maintain as much standardization and commonality with other executive agencies as practicable in implementing the requirements of this Act to best enable future transitions to centralized shared services.” Some of the many centralized services to achieve this mandate include, API.Data.gov, the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP), and Login.gov.

The public and private sectors alike should continue to expand the number of available standardized services to improve federal interoperability and enhance citizen service. Persistent interoperability issues are not only detrimental to CX but cause significant strain on federal employees and never-ending lifecycle costs.

A holistic approach

With federal employee satisfaction declining, agency leaders must work to improve conditions for their workforce, and one way to do so is to equip employees with tools that enable them to collaborate seamlessly. As agencies digitize their operations, impediments to interoperability will only become more pronounced.

Therefore, the ability to easily share information and resources — within and across organizations — must be accounted for proactively during the planning phase for both the private and public sectors.

To advance interoperability from a federal perspective, agency leadership must encourage the use of compatible technology from the top down. Whenever possible, leaders from different agencies should ensure the IT used within their organizations will function well together. Agencies should also seek industry partners that offer digital solutions which integrate easily with their existing tools.

Interoperability should also be mandated at the policy level, funded, incentivized and measured to guarantee federal IT modernization is effective. The long-term results of proactively ensuring interoperability will be well worth the upfront investment, as time and costs will be saved with each interaction thereafter.

If incompatible tools are implemented, the time and resources spent on upgrades may end up hindering citizen service or employee satisfaction instead of improving mission delivery. By working together using easily integrated tools, agencies and the private sector can improve outcomes for stakeholders, enhance security and prevent further roadblocks in the form of digital friction.

Heather Whitlock is Director of Industry Strategy and Business Development at Adobe, a supplier of software products and services to companies and governments.

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