GSA revisits improvements to USA.gov search

By new search capabilities for the government’s portal taking advantage of new technologies and the evolution of how users find information.

“This is based on the [Microsoft] Bing index, but it’s using algorithms and indices of the federal websites,” said Dave McClure, GSA’s associate administrator in GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, at the Management of Change Conference sponsored by ACT and IAC. “It’s also a learning algorithm, so the more you search the more it determines what you it is you actually are looking for.”

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McClure said GSA also put some services around the search engine, including a spotlight of topics related to the subject, other government related topics based on previous searches and frequently asked questions related to the search topic.

“In the result of that search, we have all of that assembled for you,” he said. “We developed this so we can move the government into a search intelligence space as fast as possible and relieve some of the congestion around website design.”

For the most part, he said, people going to websites are searching as fast as they can by going directly to to search box without going down the page to find the topic.

McClure added the search engine is free for agencies to use.

GSA has tried to improve the search of USA.gov, formerly known as Firstgov.gov, at least three others times over the last decade. The Clinton administration launched Firstgov.gov in 2000 using a free search engine from Inktomi. GSA took over the management of the site and upgraded the search engine using technology from FAST Search and Transfer in 2002, and then went with Vivisimo’s search engine in 2005.

GSA also did minor upgrades in 2007 and 2008 to USA.gov to improve search results and expand what sites it indexes.

“The reason why I’m putting a lot of effort into search because I think that is the redesign of most portal sites,” McClure said. “People are hoping through a structured query, they can get in one click where they want to go. We’ve designed this search engine to function that way. If you look at the new USA.gov, it’s very lean and mean. It’s not a bunch of underlying links. It is relying on a lot of people going to the search box and we will take them where they need to go.”

Different this time

McClure said this attempt will be different this time for several reasons, including search technology has advanced and GSA has a better idea of where government websites and databases are, making the quality and performance of searches much improved over previous upgrades.

McClure said he didn’t readily know how much the new search functions cost GSA, but the agency paid for it out of its own budget and its staff did most of the work.

“The ability to find very specific information based on your request, I don’t see any comparison to the commercial engines on government topics,” he said. “They are giving you everything back and hoping somewhere in the haystack you find the needle. So that’s a problem well solved.”

The updated USA.gov search is part of GSA’s innovation agenda.

McClure said GSA is taking an active role in promoting innovation and bringing it into the agency.

“These opportunities for innovation and doing things out of the box don’t come often in government, we go through cycles,” he said. “It doesn’t necessary align with each incoming new Presidential administration. It just seems there is an atmosphere at times that is very conducive to doing innovative things.”

Over the last 18 months, the Obama administration has encouraged agencies to use different approaches to solve long-standing problems. For instance, the Office of Management and Budget launched the SAVE award asking employees for money-saving ideas.

GSA launched Challenge.gov, an online portal to make it easier for agencies to run contests.

Innovation taking hold across government

McClure said at least six agencies – the departments of Education, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, State, NASA, and the Environmental Protection Agency – are trying to solve problems with innovative approaches.

And with this experience, there are several emerging best practices. McClure said these include:

  • Create ideas
  • Review the ideas at least on a quarterly basis
  • Design the innovation to solve a specific problem
  • Test the idea on a small scale
  • Once the technology or innovation shows it works on a small scale, expand it to other parts of the agency.

“That process…looks extremely hierarchical, gate keeping, almost like a portfolio management process for IT, which we all know is designed to stop things rather than start things,” McClure said. “That is the risk that is taken in a very structured approach. It gives you a very sound methodology. It gives you confidence that trade-offs are being made and you are just willy-nilly in terms of what you are funding. The risks you take is the amount of time you take.”

He said contests and challenges, or crowdsourcing, is less structured and goes out to a broader audience to help solve a specific problem.

“These contests are set up to offer incentives based on the scope of what’s being done,” he said. “It’s a great way to spark innovation, seek new talent and get good ideas, and really move in a very informed way. It has risks. The risk is you get a lot of crazy ideas, you get a lot of invaluable input. How do you sort through all of that without violating some input process, fairness and objectivity? There are things you have to work out for how to run contests or challenge.”

He added the government gets the advantage of a solution to a problem for a relatively low price.

McClure said the key is for agencies to tie these innovative ideas to agency mission and performance.

“It’s the link between the performance management agenda that’s focused not only on defining new goals and metrics, but producing better service delivery, better outcomes, speed, time, costs, quality types of improvements,” he said. “If we do it that way, the innovation will have immediate impact.”

Collaboration site needed?

With all these efforts going on across government, McClure said innovation still is too fragmented or ad hoc across government. So he is proposing to create innovation.gov, an online portal on FedSpace to share best practices, ask for help, and collaborate on innovations.

“We create the ability to capture ideas,” he said. “We have an innovations gallery that is up and running and flashing all the time to tell the public what is going on. We have the top five or top 10 innovations getting lots of sunshine on them. We have a very active website with repositories. We have agencies plugged in showing what they are doing. We are using social media to actually spread the word about these things.” McClure said innovation.gov is just an idea as of now, but he would like to know if agencies are interested.

It could be a model where GSA asks for a little contribution from interested agencies for a centralized effort. He added that GSA is trying to gauge interest from OMB, the White House, the Office of Science and Technology Policy and other agencies.

“There have been a lot of innovation groups that already have organized themselves in specific agencies and what we need to do is figure out how to bring the synergy of those groups together into a governmentwide focus,” McClure said. “I think the open government working group often has discussions around innovation, but a lot of times it’s fragmented and a lot of stuff is going on. Our proposal is if people are interested in putting together portal, it’s a knowledge base, it’s awareness building, it’s best practices oriented then that could be a real repository for catalyzing innovation – see what’s being done, learning from others and replicate it.”

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