The New Federal IT Dashboard Falls Short of Its Aims
Earlier this month, the General Services Administration (GSA) launched a redesigned Federal IT Dashboard, a website that aims to enable “agencies, [Office of Management and Budget] OMB, Congress, [Government Accountability Office] GAO, and the public to understand the value of their federal IT portfolios, manage the health of their IT investments, and make better IT planning decisions.” Initially launched in 2009, the original dashboard had become too costly, too outdated, and too much of a patchwork from various contributors to justify continued investment. While the new Federal IT Dashboard looks nice and delivers partly on the “premier user-centric site” self-designation through a clean and navigable user interface, the website fails to present the underlying data in a way that most users can interpret and ultimately falls short as a tool that different stakeholders can leverage to explore federal IT investments and initiatives.
Modernization of the Federal IT Dashboard began two years ago when GSA took over management of the dashboard from OMB. With funding from the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, GSA designed the new dashboard to be “more accessible and user-friendly” for exploring the cost, schedule, and overall health of thousands of federal IT investments. The updated website aims to demonstrate progress on the government-wide data center consolidation and Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS) transition—the long-running effort to address procurement around federal agency IT telecommunications and infrastructure. GSA replaced the legacy dashboard with two applications, the IT Collect Application Programming Interface (API) and the GSA Office of Government-wide Policy (OGP) Visualization Platform. The former provides access to data, and the latter visualizes the data through charts and graphs. The underlying data in question comes from multiple data sources but largely from OMB’s internal capital planning and investment control tools that federal agencies are responsible for reporting to during yearly IT Portfolio submissions.
GSA utilized some best practices regarding user interface and user experience, including those outlined by the U.S. Digital Services. The overall look and feel of the website is clean, with a set of navigation bars that provide quick access to most pages. The content is not overwhelming as the site opts for minimal language and avoids overcrowding of information. The use of data visualization, such as it is, in both the IT Portfolio Dashboard and Data Center Information domains is intuitive, particularly given the underlying quantity and complexity of the data. However, the website has plenty of issues from a user perspective. Most of the website assumes users are well-versed in Technology Business Management (TBM)—a formalized set of taxonomies, strategies, and tools that organizations, including federal agencies, can use to manage their IT systems—but average users are unlikely to understand jargon like “IT Towers” without additional explanation. In addition, an integrated help feature rather than a consolidated FAQ page. These types of changes would help translate the source data and better inform users.
Unfortunately, it does not appear that GSA designed the new dashboard for all users but rather seems to have tailored it to internal OMB or GSA staff engaged in monitoring and reporting activities. As the FAQ section on the website explains, the dashboard helps OMB “meet their statutory collection and reporting obligations,” and the new dashboard appears driven by compliance rather than a commitment to IT investment transparency or IT portfolio management. Beyond surface-level visualization for aggregated data—with limits on what’s viewable historically—much of the “drill down” data is only available via dense CSV spreadsheets that users cannot easily interpret. Data transparency isn’t just about providing the same data to the public that federal staff have access to. The latter group is well-versed in the various project codes, procurement IDs, and other contracting details that allow them to make sense of this data. Other interested parties, like software vendors and average citizens, are not. If the data is unintelligible to most stakeholders, what’s the point of the dashboard?
For the type of tool GSA wants the Federal IT Dashboard to be—allowing stakeholders to understand the value of federal IT portfolios, manage the health of IT investments, and make better IT planning decisions—the agency needs to transform, visualize, and make available the data in a way that allows private vendors, external stakeholders, and regular citizens to understand broadly what’s going on with federal IT investments while also providing GSA and OMB the necessary tools to perform oversight and portfolio management tasks. At the same time, the dashboard should translate and simplify agency-level data so users of all stripes can more clearly understand which areas an agency is investing their IT funds and the health and timeliness of these initiatives.