Improving the delivery of services to citizens has been one of the driving goals of government IT reform, in particular as consumers seek out more services through agency websites or applications.
At the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, CIO Mark Schwartz is helping lead an overhaul of the way the agency approaches software and application development
With those efforts, Schwartz's agency views the provision of services to citizens -- or, in his case, citizen-aspirants -- in much the same way that a private enterprise views its customers. That is, the IT department under Schwartz's leadership at CIS is trying to adopt a consumer-centric approach and deliver a clean, user-friendly experience on its digital properties.
"We're looking more and more to engage with the public that we serve through online applications, online information," Schwartz said during a recent panel discussion hosted by Federal News Radio. "When you think about it, put it into context, we often have a long-term relationship with the people who apply for benefits from our agencies."
In Schwartz's case, the services his agency provides run along the lines of adjudication of applications for green cards, naturalization and work authorizations. But irrespective of the end product, the agency is moving toward an agile development model that might be broadly replicable across the federal government.
CIS is looking to the cloud to improve agency value to the user
"We're trying to shrink our lead times in getting things done. That's really important -- I can't stress that enough," Schwartz said. "The quicker we can get a product and features -- capabilities -- in front of users and have them start using them, the quicker we get value out of them but also the quicker we get feedback and we can adjust course and make sure we're doing what the agency really needs."
Like other agencies, CIS has been moving toward a cloud-based infrastructure to support its incremental development efforts.
Schwartz tends to focus more on the improvement of service delivery than on cost savings as a rationale for any IT initiative, though there's no doubt that operating efficiencies are there to be had.
Still, the most significant benefit of a scalable cloud infrastructure, particularly for a public-facing agency such as CIS, might be the ability to set automated usage instructions to flex up and down with surges in user activity, while at the same time hastening the deployment of new applications.
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"We can set things up so that servers get created automatically when load increases on them. We can use a continuous delivery pipeline -- a method of deploying software automatically -- that just takes minutes for changes to make their way into the production environment for people to use," Schwartz said. "So I view the cloud primarily as a way of speeding up delivery and letting us do quick experiments to see what works, get feedback from users and incorporate the feedback into what we're doing."