White House missing opportunity to modernize federal websites, think tank says

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The White House’s directive for widespread federal tech modernization misses out on a key opportunity to improve agency websites, a D.C.-based technology think tank says in a new report.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation comes to this conclusion in its latest “Benchmarking U.S. Government Websites” report, which in its second installment has once again found more than 90 percent of federal websites to be poor performing.

ITIF applauds the Trump administration’s “general step in the right direction” regarding IT modernization, but it thinks the Office of American Innovation should take a deeper look at .gov website performance and security, recommending the White House “direct agencies to launch a series of ‘sprints’ to address known problems, especially those that fail to meet security and accessibility requirements for websites,” among other things.

Daniel Castro, an author of the report and vice president of ITIF, told FedScoop the latest report was a chance to gauge any widespread progress around federal websites made under the new administration.

“[The Trump White House] put forward this Office of American Innovation, they said they are going to make modernizing government a priority — what does that actually look like nine months into the administration?” Castro said. “We wanted to see if there was a big increase in performance, you know, is this being taken seriously? And the short answer is it’s not. Nothing’s really changed. And that’s actually quite disappointing.”

Castro said the response to the first report, issued in March based on research done the previous November, made him optimistic that they would find meaningful progress this time around.

“I was actually expecting to see more of an improvement across the board,” he said. “But there hasn’t been, which suggests kind of that at the top level this isn’t being taken seriously as a priority. And I think that’s a problem.”

The transition isn’t to blame, Castro said. Though the new administration had been in office only about nine months when ITIF conducted its research on federal websites, he said many of the most needed short-term improvements could have been made in that time frame. Modernization sprints — much like the cybersecurity sprints then-U.S. CIO Tony Scott directed after the breaches of the Office of Personnel Management’s network in 2015 — would push agencies to play catch up in a short time “where there’s a federal standard they’re supposed to meet and they’re not meeting them,” he said.

“A lot of the fixes are not always that hard,” Castro said. “It’s really just accountability in a sense.”

Much of it comes down to a lack of leadership, he said. Another of the report’s recommendation is for the White House to appoint a federal CIO. Margie Graves has been acting CIO since Donald Trump took office. The position does not require Senate confirmation.

“We need a federal CIO,” Castro said. “We need leadership.”

So far, the White House has looked at tech project-by-project rather than with a “big picture view” that spans all agencies, he added. “That’s the role of a federal CIO.”

There hasn’t been “a lot of vision and movement in that space,” Castro said. “There isn’t this ‘We’re the new administration, this is our vision for using the internet to connect with the American people, we’re going to prioritize making it better.'”

Additionally, ITIF recommends that the White House mandate that websites meet standards for page-load speeds, launch a website consolidation initiative, mandate monitoring and reporting of website analytics via the General Services Administration, and encourage non-executive agencies to meet the same standards with their websites as executive branch agencies.

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ITIF, Office of American Innovation, OMB, Security, Trump administration, websites, White House