White House launches ‘U.S. Digital Service,’ with HealthCare.gov fixer at the helm


President Obama participates in a live Twitter question and answer session in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Dec. 3, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The White House on Monday announced that it is formally launching a new U.S. Digital Service and that it has hired to lead it Mikey Dickerson, an engineer widely credited with playing a central role in salvaging HealthCare.gov after its disastrous launch. The idea behind the USDS, as the White House has taken to calling it, is institutionalizing the approach that saved the health care site and applying it to the work of the government even before disaster strikes.

Today is the service's high-profile launch, but the idea of it has been circulating for several months. In testimony before the Senate's Homeland Security Committee in May, federal Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel called it a "centralized, world-class capability...made up of our country’s brightest digital talent," forming a team that will be "charged with removing barriers to exceptional Government service delivery and remaking the digital experiences that citizens and businesses have with their Government."

At first glance, the U.S. Digital Service seems to share many of the attributes of 18F, the newish office of federal technologists housed at the General Services Administration. Both aim to spread smart technology and smart technologists across federal agencies that have long operated as silos. But as VanRoekel describes it, 18F is the team that goes into agencies and puts its hands to fixing things, while Digital Services -- which will be housed inside the Office of Management and Budget -- will be focused on providing consultation. "This isn't going to be a group that we parachute in to write code," as VanRoekel put it in a call earlier this summer, and with perhaps the Department of Health and Human's experience with HealthCare.gov on the brain. "This isn't descending a group of developers onto the scene." Rather, the focus is going to be on helping agencies figure out where their weak points are and how to fix them.

"Think of this as [a team of] management consultants that helps you understand your gaps," said VanRoekel, who has described a 'mixed skill set' model where teams might include a programmer, a user interface specialist, and a procurement expert.

One of those gaps, VanRoekel has said, is the one that a citizen might experience when, say, spending the morning on a well-honed, highly-designed site like Expedia or Facebook in the morning and a federal agency in the afternoon. His ambition, he said, is to "delight the customer." The challenge is figuring out how to do that in the federal context.

Key to that will be learning how a small team can make an impact much bigger than its size. VanRoekel has been running the USDS as a pilot project with funds appropriated for 2014, he says, and his budget ask for 2015 would allow him to bring on about 25 people for short, two-to-four year rotations. It's a scale that VanRoekel told Congress himself is "modest." So the goal is to amplify the team's influence by setting standards, introducing a culture of technological accountability, and figuring out "common technology patterns" that can be replicated across agencies, like single-sign-on for federal Web sites. "Build once, use often," VanRoekel calls it.

USDS is launching with a pair of foundational texts: A Digital Services Playbook with "13 key 'plays'" for implementing digital government ("1. Understand what people need," "2. Address the whole experience, from start to finish," and so on) and a TechFAR Handbook to advise agencies on how to take a more agile approach to federal contracting and procurement. Asked earlier this summer how you go about attracting skilled technologists to this sort of work -- the pilot phase, said VanRoekel, pulled in people from Facebook and Google -- the U.S. CIO pointed to a third text: "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us," which argues that what pushes high-performing people is a desire for a sense of agency and mastery that can be put towards bettering the world.

Dickerson, a former site reliability manager for Google for nearly eight years, was a core part of the team pulled in to remake HealthCare.gov last October. He'll serve as administrator of the U.S. Digital Service. ("This is literally my first day," he said on a press call Monday, "so I don't have an elaborate statement prepared or anything.") Fixing that site was, he said, "a life-changing experience," one that put into sharp focus a gap with the significance of the work he'd been doing in the private sector. When the White House said they were serious about applying the same model to the rest of the federal government, said Dickerson, "there was really not any way that I could say no to that."

Part of that model includes figure out how bring more Mikey Dickersons into service before the worst happens. "Today, the average hiring cycle for IT specialist in the Federal Government is over 100 days," VanRoekel told Congress in May. "The norm for leading private sector companies is 7 to 14 days." It's not for lack of desire, he says. "Demand for serving your country by doing this work is pretty incredible." And so standing up the service will include, says VanRoekel, cracking the nut of making it faster and less painful for technologists to take government jobs.

Housing this in the White House gives it a bit of cachet that serving in an agency might lack, but the USDS still is missing the advantage of serving a truly centralized government that its cousin office, Britain's Government Digital Service, enjoys. So how does something like USDS get traction? Success will breed success, says VanRoekel. When the Presidential Innovation Fellows launched two years ago, he said, agencies didn't seem to know quite what to do with those technologists. "Now we have agencies coming to us."

VanRoekel said earlier this summer that "I truly believe that at the end of the day, better, faster and cheaper will reign supreme," even inside the federal government. He's one step closer today towards proving whether or not he's right.

Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.
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