Federal agencies use cloud tools to consolidate websites and ease the citizen journey.

Mar 03 2022

Federal Website Consolidation Eases the Online Journey for Citizens

Federal agencies use website consolidation to ease the journey for those who need assistance.

The Department of Veterans Affairs offers the 19 million living Americans who served in the military a host of benefits — disability payments, healthcare, money for college and more. The trick is to get those benefits to its customers efficiently.

“Our problem was something that’s pretty common in government,” recalls Charles Worthington, CTO at the VA. “The digital services that an agency delivers map to the way that agency is organized.”

The VA is made up of dozens of subagencies, most of which do not overlap. Disability payments and healthcare, for instance, are administered through two separate divisions. When looking for ­information online, veterans had to navigate a different website for every need.

“To manage your benefits, you had to go to one site. To manage your healthcare, there was another site. To manage your payments or reimbursements, you’d have to go to a different place for that as well,” Worthington says.

Making matters worse, each site required a separate login and “had its own look and feel,” says Worthington, who has led the agency’s Office of Information and Technology since 2017.

Veterans found navigating the system to be a ­nightmare, and they complained vociferously. “In our surveys,” Worthington says, “they told us they were frustrated, that they just wanted everything to be easier.”

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The VA’s solution was a complete redesign and consolidation of its ­homepage, VA.gov, launched in 2018.

The VA isn’t the only federal agency to ­recognize the value of website consolidation. Knowing that ­citizens detest being bounced from site to site to access services, IT leaders are ­bringing together their online offerings to make them more convenient for their customers.

USDA, Treasury Streamline Websites for Citizens 

In 2019, for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture used a cloud platform to ­consolidate ­digital services for everything from ­immigrant work visas to conservation into a single site, farmers.gov. In late 2020, the Bureau of the Fiscal Service followed suit with an Oracle-powered site called Treasury Financial Experience.

Meant to serve as a one-stop shop for financial ­management practitioners across the federal government, the TFX site was built as a user-centric resource that integrates information from the entire agency.

“When you consider what users care about when they interact with ­government,” says Mina Hsiang, U.S. Digital Service administrator, “they’re not interested in how agencies are structured or the silos they have to deal with to get a loan or key benefits.”

36%

The increase in satisfaction with VA.gov healthcare services since January 2021

Source: va.gov, Performance Dashboard, Feb. 2, 2022

They want an efficient experience, she says, “so it’s really up to agencies to give them that, and for some the solution has been to unify their websites.” A technology-focused team working out of the White House, USDS helps government organizations modernize their digital tools and systems. The unit supported the VA with its site ­consolidation. More recently, it helped the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services develop Vaccines.gov, which helps people find COVID-19 and flu vaccines.

“You can harmonize different ­systems and build a great website in a lot of different ways,” Hsiang says. “It’s like that saying, ‘It’s not about the bike’; it’s the tactics and approaches you take that are critical.”

For most agencies, she explains, this involves using application programming interfaces “and ensuring that you have appropriate programmatic access to ­systems,” both new and old. It also ­typically requires consolidated ­monitoring and analytics, “not only for security but to understand what your customers are doing.”

Finally, a growing number of ­agencies pursuing consolidation embrace iterative development and continuous improvement, Hsiang says. “Instead of living in that world of t­wice-annual releases, now they’re doing ­automated daily deployments,” updating to meet users’ ever-evolving needs.

RELATED: How can technology improve the citizen experience with government? 

The VA Aims to Simplify Veterans’ Online Journey

This was the blueprint the VA followed. Built on the VA Enterprise Cloud, which includes Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, VA.gov uses an API layer dubbed Vets API to funnel ­previously disparate VA services into a one-stop source.

“Because we’re leveraging the cloud,” Worthington says, “the infrastructure itself is pretty flexible, and because we decided to use APIs, that’s opened up all kinds of opportunities.”

The API layer, he explains, ­“basically knows how to interact with every back-end system” across the VA. 

Charles Worthington, CTO,  Department of Veterans Affairs
Because we’re leveraging the cloud, the infrastructure itself is pretty flexible, and because we decided to use APIs, that’s opened up all kinds of opportunities.”

Charles Worthington CTO, Department of Veterans Affairs

“Our identity service, our claims service, our prescription management service and healthcare provider messaging ­service — all the various products are accessed through Vets API.”

From the veterans’ point of view, Worthington notes, this means that when they fill out a healthcare ­application on the site, links to the resources they need to complete the form successfully are ready and waiting for them right on the homepage.

“They don’t need to understand how it works. They only know the process has become a lot simpler,” he says. “It’s one click, and thanks to those APIs, we have three or four different services working in the background, but to the user it just looks like a single interaction because we’re combining those products into the end experience.”

EXPLORE: What are the key challenges to federal digital transformation?

National Park Service Optimizes Website for Mobile

The need to keep pace with customer demands was the driving force behind a recent National Park Service initiative to consolidate website information into a single app.

The agency had received feedback from citizens who wanted relevant parks information available to them “on the ground,” explains Tim Cash, NPS digital strategy chief. 

NPS already had a mobile-responsive site in NPS.gov, so his team decided to go a step further.

“It took some rearchitecting and a couple of years, but now we have a really exciting product,” he says. The NPS App provides interactive maps, guided tours and current ­information on site status at more than 400 national parks. It does so, Cash explains, through a model best described as “create once, publish everywhere.”

“The digital strategy vision was, how can we make sure that when someone is creating content, we can capture that data and make it usable in a multitude of formats?” he says.

The answer, again, was APIs. Today, Cash says, when any park website is updated — with details about a ­campground, for instance, or an urgent announcement or alert — that data is piped through an API and appears on the agency’s app within minutes.

“People want the world at their ­fingertips,” he says. “Now we have a way to give that to them.”

DIVE DEEPER: What are the key federal IT trends to watch in 2022?

Illustration by Viktor Koen

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