21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act - 2020 Report to OMB and the Public on Modernizing Agency Websites


Section 3(d) of the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (21st Century IDEA)1 requires the head of each federal executive branch agency to report annually (through 2023) to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the public on the agency’s progress to implement the requirements of the Act, and modernize their websites and digital services.  The information below details the efforts of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to modernize the Department’s websites and digital services in 2020.

HHS Efforts to Date

Before IDEA became law in December 2018, HHS agencies and offices were working to develop a Department-wide Digital Communications Strategy with the mission of instant and impactful digital communications.  Building on our work in 2019, HHS focused in 2020 on examining our impact, continuing to modernize to serve the public, and assessing agency and office budgets to support communications staff in improving the digital experience for customers.  During the COVID-19 pandemic, HHS agencies and offices were called upon to be more responsive and engaged with the American public than ever before.  We delivered instant and impactful digital communications for our customers.

1. Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19 monumentally changed not only how HHS works, but also the Department’s relationship with the public.  Americans looked to HHS for real-time updates and guidance in a time of uncertainty and fear, and HHS delivered.  Since the pandemic began, HHS websites represented between 30 and 50 percent of all government traffic.  In March 2020, CDC.gov handled over 1 billion pageview requests, 22 percent of all federal web traffic.  By optimizing CDC.gov’s infrastructure and content delivery network for massive spikes in traffic and employing digital first and user-centered design principles to the website, CDC was able to get critical, life-saving information out to the public in a time of national emergency.  HHS’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA) managed over 1,025 coronavirus-related updates to HHS.gov and created a COVID-19 website hub for HHS.  ASPA used user feedback to continually update and improve COVID-19 communications on the web and in social media, co-led federal-wide COVID-19 web coordination, and coordinated digital communications teams across HHS related to COVID-19 messaging to meet the public’s needs.

2. Website Modernization and Measurement Efforts

In 2020, HHS took several important steps toward website modernization.  Some key HHS websites began to adopt U.S. Web Design System design principles, creating more accessible and impactful websites.  HHS continued efforts to publish content aligned with the Plain Writing Act of 2010.  In October 2020, the Center for Plain Language graded HHS as the only federal agency to receive an “A” for writing quality in its Federal Plain Language Report Card.2

HHS also conducted its first extensive combination budget and IDEA compliance data call to transparently quantify current costs for meeting user needs, website modernization tenets of IDEA, and instant and impactful communications.  HHS will use this information to show the relationship of budgets to impact and to guide future budget requests to comply with IDEA and meet strategic goals.  HHS embarked on extensive outreach to track all its unique and active websites in 2020, getting the Digital Analytics Program code onto Department websites, with a plan of using this information to automatically assess future compliance with IDEA.  HHS has 955 unique and active websites, with several key websites actively using customer feedback to regularly assess and improve content and functionality.  These websites and other digital communications platforms are maintained by about 900 FTEs.  In the FY20 agency and office data call, HHS received 845 responses (almost 90 percent of all sites).  HHS sites made substantial progress since 2019, with particularly large improvements in 508 compliance, searchability, user-centered data, and mobile-friendly (see Appendix Figure 1 for details).  HHS’s Digital Communications Governance Council is using this information to roadmap and assess continued strategic modernization funding, staffing, resourcing, training, impact assessments and prioritization. Not including FTE salary costs (about $80M), digital communications efforts cost HHS about $410M to maintain annually. These costs include operations and maintenance of websites, social media, email newsletters, phone apps, chatbots, etc.

3. Agency Success Stories

HHS agencies and offices continue to make progress on implementing the Digital Communications Strategy and modernizing to meet IDEA. Three efforts from FDA, CDC, and NCI showcase recent modernization successes and impacts. Data-driven approaches have trimmed 100,000 pages and files from FDA.gov, have led to a website consolidation and training effort at the National Cancer Institute and have driven user-centric impactful communications successes at CDC. (See Appendix Figure 2). HHS continues to lift up these successes and provide support to agencies and offices to report their progress on improving the customer experience and identifying ongoing needs for achieving goals and objectives related to the Digital Communications Strategy and IDEA.

4. Digitization of Forms

As required in IDEA Section 4, the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) is developing an inventory of forms and their digitization status.


Figure 1: IDEA Data Call Findings

IDEA Requirement Question Answer Format FY19* FY20~
Is your website 508 compliant? % “Yes” 63% 92%
Does your website contain any overlapping content? % “No” 83% 93%
Does your website contain a search function? % “Yes” 48% 77%
Is your website provided through a secure connection (HTTPS)? % “Yes” 90% 99%
Does your site make use of data-driven usability? % “Yes” 58% 78%
Is your website mobile-friendly? % “Yes” 68% 86%
Is your website transactional? % “Yes” 37% 33%
Which classifications apply to your website's branding and design? % Both “Has a consistent appearance” and “Compliance with USWDS and/or adheres to general website user interface/user experience best practices” 45.6% 72.9%

*Based on 1,081 data call responses.
~Based on 845 data call responses.

Figure 2: Select Agency Success Stories

Agency IDEA Requirement and Modernization(s) Impact
U.S. Food and Drug Administration logo

In April 2019, FDA.gov implemented Drupal as its content management system.  In preparation for launching the new site, the FDA digital team completed several modernization initiatives to improve the digital experience for visitors:

  1. User-Centered/Mobile-Friendly: For FDA’s Drupal launch, website templates were redesigned to be mobile first, which has improved the mobile user experience for visitors. 
  2. Consistent: By developing content types and consistent metadata for each content type, FDA is able to easily deliver critical guidance and document content to HHS via an Application Programming Interface (API) to meet the requirements of Executive Order 13891. 
  3. Authoritative: Prior to the launch of the improved FDA.gov, a project to review 100% of all content pages and files across FDA.gov was completed to reduce redundant, outdated, and trivial content.
  1. This has resulted in a significant increase in mobile traffic to FDA.gov from 53% of all traffic prior to the launch to the current level of 61%. 
  2. In the future, through additional APIs, FDA will be able to deliver content to other platforms including Smart Speakers.
  3. This data-driven approach led to the removal of approximately 100,000 pages and files from the site and a more streamlined version of FDA.gov so critical information is easier to find for visitors.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) logo
  1. User-Centered/Mobile-Friendly/Customizable: On March 12, 2020 CDC.gov handled over 65 million pageviews representing one third of digital traffic to all federal websites.  For the entire month of March, CDC.gov handled over 1 billion pageview requests, 22% of all federal web traffic. Of this massive spike in traffic, 65% of the visitors came via mobile devices.  CDC.gov’s responsive web template allows visitors to optimally view content on six different screen sizes, from small phones to large desktop displays. 
  1. By optimizing CDC.gov’s infrastructure and content delivery network for massive spikes in traffic and employing digital first and user-centered design principles to the web site, CDC was able to get critical, life-saving information out to the public in the way they expect to receive information without interruption during a time of national emergency.
National Cancer Institute (NCI) logo
  1. Consistent/Customizable: As part of its digital modernization efforts, leadership of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has endorsed integrating NCI’s more than 130 informational websites onto a single digital platform managed by the Office of Communications and Public Liaison (OCPL). OCPL is working on developing an implementation plan and has partnered with a major Division to consolidate its web presence on to the platform.
  2. Authoritative: NCI has implemented a website/web application concept clearance process to ensure that any new website or web application is reviewed to reduce potential for duplication and redundancy and to ensure website owners follow all OMB, HHS, NIH, and NCI policies and standards.
  3. Searchable/User-Centered/Accessible: NCI developed and implemented Digital Communications University, a series of training programs designed to enhance digital competency of NCI staff who maintain and manage websites.  The curriculum covers all aspects of digital communications, including search engine optimization, personas and journey maps, digital analytics, writing for the web, accessibility, and plain language.
  1. This effort enables NCI websites to effectively serve their audiences and meet IDEA requirements.
  2. The newly released Website and Web Application Owners Manuals provide website owners with support they need to manage their websites effectively.
  3. Over the past three years, NCI has conducted 31 trainings sessions with an average of 35 attendees per session.  Some of these trainings have been open to other NIH Institutes and Centers.  The impact of these trainings can be seen in the greater focus of digital teams on audience research, accessibility, and search engine optimization.


Content created by Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA)
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