Keeping up with world events has never been easier than it is today. As traditional media gives way to new media, people consume these new mediums through a variety of mobile devices. These constant companions are always on, always connected, and always keeping users informed and engaged in a wide variety of activities — from the mundane to the entertained.

If President Obama gets his way, the American citizenry will also be able to use these increasingly ubiquitous devices to access all of the services available from our government. With hundreds of agencies that fall under the executive branch of the federal government, there are a myriad a different methods by which citizens engage with them. While variety can sometimes be the spice of life, in this instance, it can create confusion, as there’s no consistency from agency to agency with regard to processes and communication. Constituents are left to figure it out for each individual agency.

Further, many critical services aren’t even available online in many agencies, let alone being optimized to work with mobile devices. That’s why the Obama administration charged the federal CIO with “developing a comprehensive Government-wide strategy to build a 21st century digital Government that delivers better digital services to the American people.” To this end, a report entitled “Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People” was recently released, and it outlines in detail the steps that agencies must take in order to realize the desired outcomes.

There are clear goals in the plan with regard to mobility. In fact, the first objective reads, “Enable the American people and an increasingly mobile workforce to access high-quality digital government information and services anywhere, anytime, on any device.” I don’t think it can get much clearer that one of the primary goals around Digital Government is to enable mobile-based services so that users can engage government from their trusty digital sidekicks.

The document goes on to explain the principles by which Digital Government should operate. For example, one of the principles indicates that government information should be information-centric. So, rather than constantly managing and reimagining the context of a specific document, focus on the discrete content. This content can then be tagged and presented in a way that makes sense based on a variety of contexts. This step requires agencies to take a much more metadata-driven approach to their information, but in the long run, it will enable much more flexible use of that data in ways that aren’t dependent on the access method — web or mobile.

Currently, there are agencies that offer mobile-enhanced capabilities, but this is often accomplished through the deployment of a separate presence that needs to be built and maintained. With a metadata-driven, information-centric approach, it’s possible to decouple information from presentation in a way that streamlines the deployment of new services. The Digital Government document refers to this as a “create once, publish everywhere” approach.

By “freeing” certain government data, it makes it possible for citizens to develop applications that can be used by the rest of the populace. An example used in the Digital Government documentation really brings this to light and shows how this overall initiative dovetails perfectly with the need to provide enhanced support for mobile devices.

“The City of San Francisco releases its raw public transportation data on train routes, schedules, and to-the-minute location updates directly to the public through web services. This has enabled citizen developers to write over 10 different mobile applications to help the public navigate San Francisco’s public transit systems — more services than the city could provide if it focused on presentation development rather than opening the data publicly through web services.”

This is just one data set. Now, imagine the possibilities if this was taken to the federal level.

Obviously, there are additional operational tenets under which Digital Government is to operate, including the use of a shared platform in order to decrease costs, accelerate deployment, and improve consistency. Further, Digital Government calls for a customer-centric experience, which makes sense given the mission of the overall initiative. Finally, there needs to be a focus on security and privacy. One can imagine the chaos that would ensue should a shared government platform be comprised in any significant way.


Digital Government isn’t necessarily a new idea, but with the need to do more with less, the government faces having to provide services to constituents without increasing staff but with shrinking budgets. At the same time, more citizens are carrying around powerful computers that are always on and always available. There’s certainly an opportunity to reduce the cost of government access while making such access more routine and friendlier.