As the U.S. federal government improves the way it produces digital services, one of the best practices it is embracing is building services using “agile and iterative practices.” The federal government wants to quicken the pace of software development so it can provide a greater number of high-quality services to citizens. And it wants to create digital services that are easy to operate, cost-efficient, and reusable.
Indeed, one of the key principles of DevOps is the application of lean and agile practices across the entire lifecycle of a service or application. And one way to achieve this goal is through automation. By automating their builds, tests, documentation, and deployments to test servers, DevOps staff minimize the chance of error. What’s more, they make the deployment process repeatable across different environments.
A great example of this approach is the recent Federalist platform created by 18F, a group of designers, developers, and product specialists inside the U.S. General Services Administration. Federalist is a unified interface for publishing static websites that are secure and scalable, easy to maintain, and fully customizable.
Currently in beta release, the Federalist platform uses open-source code to offer a suite of well-designed templates that agencies can use and modify to suit their own needs—even without technical knowledge. Unlike expensive and complex traditional content management system (CMS) websites, content editing is a separate application rather than a capability that’s built into the web server, reducing the need for servers while allowing the same editing interface to be used across projects.
Once the text has been written, images uploaded, and the pages published, the outward-facing site acts like a simple website that’s fast, reliable, and scalable. As Gail Swanson, the lead researcher and designer on the project put it: “This is a platform that’s as easy to use as posting to a social media site, but has the flexibility and scalability that the federal government requires to manage humongous traffic.”
The new platform, which also integrates with Microsoft Azure, is designed to make it faster and cheaper for government agencies to build websites. The platform takes a layered approach in which security and configuration management is turned into automated scripts built into the platform itself. This makes it possible for agencies to avoid the time-consuming process of getting their websites reviewed for security and configuration reasons. It also frees up development teams to focus on website content.
By making it extremely easy to launch new websites, the Federalist platform wants to encourage federal agencies to create more citizen-facing services—and indeed, the plan appears to be working. Already, the White House has used the platform to build a website for its new Social and Behavioral Science Team charged with making government services easy to access, understand, and use. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education has used Federalist to launch its popular College Scorecard website that provides information about U.S. colleges such as average annual costs, graduation rates, and salaries after graduating.
In the coming months, I expect to see many more government websites take advantage of this new approach. As the Federalist platform demonstrates, the path to lean and agile DevOps is quickly becoming a reality, one that will result in a greater number of high-quality digital services.