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Citizen Digital Series: An Inside Look Into US Digital Transformation Efforts, With Matt Schrader

Citizen Digital Series: An Inside Look Into US Digital Transformation Efforts, With Matt Schrader

President Joe Biden issued an executive order in 2021 for U.S. federal agencies to focus on improving customer experience in public services. And 2018’s 21st Century IDEA, a piece of legislation aimed to improve government customers’ digital experience when accessing federal websites, reflects the United States’ continued awareness that digital services are key to improving customer experience. So how well has the U.S. federal government fared in digital transformation? Eric spoke with Matt Schrader, director of government relations at Adobe, to find out more about America’s efforts to improve customer and digital experiences.


Eric Egan: Hi everyone. Welcome to Citizen Digital, an ITIF web series where I speak with experts in the United States and around the world to explore how digital technology can improve citizen and customer experience. My name's Eric Egan. I'm the policy fellow for digital government at ITIF. And with me today is Matt Schrader, director for government relations and public policy at Adobe. Matt, thanks for chatting with me today.

Matt Schrader: Yeah, thanks Eric. Thanks for having me. Really appreciate you doing this series.

Eric Egan: Yeah. So before we jump into the broader conversation, maybe you can share a little bit about yourself, your background, how you find yourself working in this space?

Matt Schrader: Yeah, thanks Eric. So actually I got my start working on Capitol Hill. I worked for Congressman Tom Davis, who was a congressman from Virginia. He actually did the first electronic government bill or the eGov Act, and also FISMA, which was one of the first pieces of cybersecurity legislation for federal agencies. So I feel fortunate that I was there and watched Congressman Davis shepherd through some of these landmark digital government pieces of legislation, and been doing digital government and tech policy ever since. I've been at Adobe for nine years, and feel really fortunate to work at a company like Adobe.

Eric Egan: Yeah. Some of the, as you said, landmark kind of OG digital government stuff there, back when it was called eGov, and now I think we've shifted away from that a little bit. So that kind of leads me to my, given that background, my first question is kind of an opener that we do here. It says really how you maybe personally think about what digital service delivery is, customer experience with government, and then also why that's something that you're interested in from Adobe's point of view?

Matt Schrader: Yeah. Thanks Eric. It's a great kickoff question. I think we've long talked about the digital revolution. It's here. We're not going back. I think the move to digital is certainly accelerating for every brand around the world. Customer expectations have never been higher when it comes to digital. I think the shift to remote work has made digital workflows even more mission critical, empowering those modern consumers. And even in this digital first world, I think it's still creativity and personalized connections that we crave most as people and as societies, and Adobe's been pretty fortunate to, recently we helped out the US census with powering some of these modern digital government experiences. So we had the pleasure, really the honor to power that 2020, which was kind of the first online census experience, and helped to create more modern personalized experiences, as many people went to take that census online. We're also doing work up in Canada to consolidate hundreds of websites onto a modern, digital website experience platform up there.

Eric Egan: That's really cool. Obviously I think when people think of Adobe, they tend to think of forms and PDFs and things like that, which there are many in all levels of government, but I know when we've spoken before, y'all do a lot more than that, so it's always interesting to hear. And I guess going back to, you mentioned you'd been involved with a lot of this early digital government legislation. One I know you were also involved with was 21st Century IDEA. So this was a piece of legislation that was passed four years ago or so, and really focused on transforming digital experience in government, especially at the federal level, and also had kind of an implementation plan to do so, but where's that at right now? Has implementation stalled? Are agencies still working on it, or what's your insight there?

Matt Schrader: Yeah. I think 21st Century IDEA, or the Integrated Digital Experience Act for those viewers that don't know the bill, really represented years of a bipartisan effort to improve the public's experiences online. As people move to more online experiences, they became increasingly frustrated with access to those services online, particularly in the government. I give the Obama administration a lot of credit. They recognize this with their digital government plan back in 2012. And then in the last few weeks of that administration, OMB and the White House, they actually issued a federal agency website policy. And so the 21st Century IDEA I think codifies that digital government plan and some of those OMB website policies into law, and kind of sets the bar high when it comes to federal agency websites and forms experiences. I think now we need to focus on delivery and execution of those services.

I think agencies when it comes to the website modernization aspect of 21st Century IDEA, are actually doing a pretty good job. So if you look at probably the CFO Act agencies, I think they're doing a pretty good job, but maybe if you go down to some of those sub-component agencies, I think maybe there's still some work, and they probably need to identify funding to modernize their websites. When it comes to the forms modernization aspect of that law, forms is not very sexy, but if you think about it, you take a step back, forms is sometimes the first interaction that the public has with the government, and so we owe it to the public, we owe it to citizens to provide a better forms experience. And unfortunately a lot of the government forms are still static PDFs that don't render on mobile devices.

And so I think the government will admit there's still a lot of work to be done when it comes to the forms modernization aspect of that law, which was pretty clear. The law says that all publicly facing forms have to be fully usable on a mobile device. It has to be a mobile responsive, intuitive, adaptive forms experience. So I continue to be very passionate about that particular law, because I think it has real impact as the public and citizens continue to engage more and more with the government via a website or via a forum.

Eric Egan: Yeah, that's a good point. And as you were talking about some of the issues that maybe smaller agencies have, and web modernization, I did a report late last year that was looking at that high impact service providers... So these are, for folks listening, the designated set of providers that have been designated as such by the Biden administration because they deliver outsized or important services to federal customers. And it was interesting, because obviously there's a lot of overlap with the CFO Act agencies there who maybe have the resources to make those modernizations. Part of that's kind of the issue of what we see when you're interacting with the federal government, so some high impact service providers are quite small, but they have an impactful service, so they're designated as such, but if you go onto their website, it really does look like you're getting into a time machine and accessing the internet in the late '90s.

They're doing what they can for the most part, but... So I'm curious, I have a question here at some point. In thinking about what... So the Biden administration also has focused on really customer experience, and they have an executive order where they've identified these high impact service providers, it's a part of the presidential management agenda, have we seen any progress in thinking about, now that you have those mandates, you have that momentum, people are talking about customer experience a lot in the federal government? Does that help something like 21st IDEA actualize? Have you seen any particular examples or any initiatives because of this guidance, these mandates, something that we can actually point to and be like, hey look, it is happening?

Matt Schrader: Yeah. No, the president's executive order I think accelerated and moved the 21st Century IDEA back to the top of the priority list. The 21st Century IDEA was passed four years ago, and I've been really impressed with the Biden administration's focus on customer experience, on improving digital service delivery. And they actually call out 21st Century IDEA in the CXEEO. I think it's section seven actually has a specific reference to modernizing those digital service delivery, the websites, the forms, the applications that citizens in the public are hitting on a daily basis. So I do give them a lot of credit for highlighting that. And I think even Clare Martorana, the federal CIO has come out and said that improving customer experience and modernizing digital service delivery, I think is the top three priority for her.

So that's great to see. I think there is a lot of momentum. We have OMB policy, we have Congress that have codified some of these policies into statute, now we have a White House executive order. I can't think of another time where there's been more momentum around improving customer experience and digital service delivery. And I think the one piece that it always comes back to funding, I think Congress has the duty now to fully fund some of these initiatives. And I think the Biden administration put $500 million dedicated in the FY24 budget towards these type of activities. So I hope to see... This has been a bipartisan issue. It's been bipartisan, it's been bicameral up on Capitol Hill. This is kind of one of the last remaining issues where people can actually come together and work in a bipartisan fashion to really fund the EO and the law.

Eric Egan: Yeah, that's a good point. I'm glad you're talking about funding as well, because I know obviously the TMF board, so the Technology Modernization Fund, which is also kind of a broad purpose working capital fund within the federal government, I know the board reserve that's chaired by the federal CIO, they also reserved around $100 million specifically for customer experience type of work, and I think within the last few months or so, I think they approved a couple projects, including for USAID. How meaningful is that? Thinking about what you just talked about with half a billion dollars for this upcoming fiscal year, they have the Technology Modernization Fund, is it enough? I know funding is always hard to come by in the federal level, and agencies will always be like, we never have enough, but how impactful are these opportunities for agencies, especially maybe smaller ones who don't have, not the CFO ACT agencies who need anything they can get?

Matt Schrader: Yeah, I think the president's management agenda... So that was the other aspect that I left out. So you have OMB policy, you have the law, you have an EO, but you also have the president's management agenda, which is the number two priority, is a focus on customer experience. And I think they have it right. I think the goal behind that PMA priority is focused on, how can we increase experience quality to be on par with top consumer experiences? And they're trying to target moving from last place, the government's in last place, into the top 10 on the Forrester CX industry ranking. And so that's the right focus, and I think also the focus on the high impact service providers, the HISS, is the right focus as well, and then those life experiences too. If we start to see citizens in the public reacting to the modernization of those life experiences, and you start to see that in things like the Forrester CX index, I think we're going to then know if we've moved the needle on these issues.

One other aspect that I think we forget about is the Department of Defense. Service families need better experiences as they engage, as they go on base to receive services. Another thing I've been focused on is making sure that the Department of Defense takes this serious, and we don't forget about our military service members, our active duty service members and the experiences that they're getting on DOD public websites and via forms and applications. I will say the VA is another agency, I think, that has really taken this serious. They've done a great job of modernizing the front end of I know there's been a lot of work that's gone into that service. And USDA too, they were one of the priority agencies, even under the Trump administration now into the Biden administration, that's really focused on improving customer experience.

Eric Egan: Yeah, that's a good point. I was going to ask you to expand a little bit, explain what life experiences were, and you started to do that, because I believe one of them is that experience, that transition from active duty to civilian life. And maybe you can hit on a little bit of why something like life experiences is a right approach when you think about digital experiences? Because as we'll say, that experience requires not just going to the VA, often it includes interacting with multiple services. So what are life experiences, and why is that an interesting way to think about digital experience?

Matt Schrader: Yeah. I like to think that one of the top examples would be a natural disaster. I know that there's been some challenges over at FEMA with respect to accessing applications online and via mobile devices. So it would great to see all the FEMA forms be mobile responsive. So if you just were in a natural disaster, and you don't have a home and you don't have a printer, but you have your mobile device, it would be great if you could... And I know FEMA's been working on this, if you could access all of those disaster recovery funds and services that FEMA provides just on a mobile device. You can do everything via that mobile device. I think that's where we need to get to from a life experience perspective. And then the other thing that we forget about sometimes is, we do need to make sure that the call centers are up and running well as well. This isn't all about technology, and there still are folks that want to submit paper, so we need to make sure that that service is also available.

Eric Egan: Yeah, that's a good point. Obviously this web series is talking about digital experiences in government all the time, but it's not the only experience, though it may be the increasingly more vital experience. But one thing I liked that you hit on was that concept of meeting people where they are, and that's what life experiences are thinking through, what are the critical situations in which people need to interact with government, and how can we do that? And to your point, some of that is investing in digital experiences, so they have that access, because they may have a phone, but they may not have other things, but sometimes that's also thinking creatively of where an office may be located, or how that experience is organized. And just thinking back to when you were talking about the presidential management agenda, and one of the things that they're really trying to do, and you can go to, you can see how they're trying to measure this, and I think in some of the research I've done, that's also kind of a challenge.

It could be two questions here. One is, how do you measure customer satisfaction with existing traditional delivery models? So that could be maybe like I was saying, how you interact in a location, walking in or interacting at a traditional or a call center, and then how do you start to measure interactions with, or what tools are available to measure satisfaction with websites and really get a sense of how detailed can you go with how this application or this form is just really not working for people, or for whatever reason they're accessing the website at different times? What's available out there so agencies can better understand how to measure customer satisfaction across the board?

Matt Schrader: Yeah, I think that's a good question. I think there certainly can be more tools out there to help measure these type of things. I think you guys have been doing some great work looking at the accessibility of websites. And I know that GSA has some good tools that agencies can leverage to see how they're doing with respect to accessibility of websites and accessibility of forms. So I would point out some of the work that GSA is doing, and I think it's great to see that Congress is taking a look at this. There was a hearing last year that Senator Peters and Senator Portman did on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee specifically focused on how is the government doing with respect to improving customer experience, and they touched on implementing the 21st Century IDEA and digitizing a lot of these paper-based services. So I think it's great that Congress has taken notice and is starting to do some oversight hearings of this, and also backing that up too with funding.

As you've seen under COVID, there was $1 billion put into the Technology Modernization Fund, and big focus of that funding is on customer experience. That's a big shift. And I think one of the other things that people lose sight of is, a lot of this funding for CX and for IT modernization, I think 70% of it is in O&M or operations and maintenance budgets. We need to somehow shift that to more what's called development modernization enhancements or DME funding streams, because that's the type of funding I think that's going to help to implement everything we've been talking about here today.

Eric Egan: Yeah, that's a great point and something people maybe don't realize as much, unless you're deep into the federal government, is how much... They say that you can point to billions of dollars in federal IT, but so much of that goes to the problem of behind the scenes the legacy systems that you still have to keep running, and they're expensive, but they're also expensive to replace, and all of that is just not even customer facing. And people ring the bell of, well, we need this kind of funding to shift away from... So we can get more towards the customer facing development. We're improving things, we're investing in customer facing technology, as opposed to just all this stuff behind the scenes.

We're already running low on time, so a couple more questions here, but one was just, from a practical point of view, we talked about funding, we talked about what little things that or low hanging food or maybe bigger things too that agencies can do if they were thinking about how they can really move the needle as quickly as they can, as anything can be done in federal government, what kind of things should a federal agency be prioritizing right now?

Matt Schrader: Yeah, it's a great question. I think one of the things that we've been looking at is... The 21st Century IDEA mandated that the CIOs be responsible for implementing that law. And while that's fine, I also think you've seen a lot of these chief customer experience officers start to pop up in federal government agencies. As I look at the private sector and all the work that Adobe is doing to help power Fortune 500 websites and e-commerce experiences, a lot of them have either a chief marketing officer that's focused on this, or they've actually created a chief experience officer or a chief digital experience officer. And that's something that I think I'd love to see more momentum around, whether it's agencies just creating these, what we call CXOs on their own, or whether it's OMB getting involved to encourage this, or even Congress giving the statutory authority to create these federal agency CXOs.

My mind is made up that... CIOs have a lot on their plate. They have to do data center consolidation, they have to do cybersecurity, they have to do CX, they have to modernize these legacy IT systems. I think they need a partner, CXO partner to work in parallel and partner with to really drive forward full implementation of the CX EO of the 21st Century IDEA. So that's something we're certainly encouraging.

Eric Egan: Yeah, I totally agree. And we've had the pleasure to speak to some CXOs, and it's a cool role. And as you said, it's good. You have all this momentum behind customer experience now, so now would be the time to be able to create those types of positions. It's bipartisan support. But I'll see if I can squeeze in one more question, and that's just what you're excited about in terms of... So if you're thinking about things that are out there in digital experiences, government service, it could be the classic chat bot, it could be maybe you think ChatGPT can play roll in that, but what's out there that you think is... Or it could just be like, you know what? Websites are still where it's at.

Matt Schrader: One of the areas that we've been doing a lot of work around, and I'll close with this, is content authenticity or digital provenance. So as we push out more pictures and videos and online content, and with the increase of deep fakes and media manipulation and generative AI, how can we ensure the authenticity of all those pictures and videos that even the federal government and private sector companies are posting online, and how can we provide more authenticity and provenance of those pictures and of those photos so that ultimately the public can have that information, and they can make the determination on whether something's real or not, if a picture is real on a website or up on Facebook, or if a video is real or not? And I think you're going to see a lot more momentum around content authenticity and digital provenance.

So I'll kind of close with that. And I think with gen AI and responsible use of generative AI technologies, I think folks are going to want to see that content authenticity and digital provenance information in the future, because I think we can all agree that governments and big companies shouldn't be the sole [inaudible 00:27:43] truth, but as we put more information in the public's hands, they can decide what's true online or not.

Eric Egan: Interesting. Yeah. Yeah. Thanks for that. No, I think you're totally right. That's an interesting insight and something to look out for. All right. Well, that is all the time we have for. Matt, thanks again for joining. I appreciate it. It was a good conversation.

Matt Schrader: Yeah. Thanks Eric. Thanks for having me.

Eric Egan: Yeah. And for those watching, don't forget to subscribe to ITIF on YouTube for other great content in tech policy, and stay tuned for more episodes of Citizen Digital. Bye now.

About This Series

People increasingly prefer interacting with government agencies digitally, whether it’s to access public services or file their taxes. Beyond offering the convenience and efficiency customers have come to expect in day-to-day life, digital technologies also present new possibilities for civic engagement. ITIF’s Citizen Digital video series explores the opportunities and challenges involved in digitizing government services through conversations with leading experts in the field. Guests share lessons learned and best practices for implementing digital solutions to transform citizens’ customer experience with their governments.

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