White House launches digital team for online upgrades

The White House launched an initiative Monday aimed at improving the federal government’s digital operations, installing the federal contractor who helped salvage HealthCare.gov to head the venture.

Mikey Dickerson, who worked on site reliability at Google for 81 / 2  years before taking leave in October to help repair the botched online health insurance marketplace, will become the U.S. Digital Service’s first administrator.

Federal Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel told reporters in a conference call that the unit, housed within the Office of Management and Budget, will bring in “the best and brightest” digital experts from the public and private sectors to “improve and simplify the experience” that businesses and ordinary citizens have when interacting with the federal government online.

Dickerson — who worked as a federal subcontractor until January and quipped, “I’ve actually never been a real-life fed until today” — said he decided to take on the challenge of modernizing the federal government’s online operations because his time working in the trenches to overhaul the faulty health-care Web site was “a life-changing experience.”

“Working on the Affordable Care Act was an experience unlike anything I had done before,” said Dickerson, who served as a volunteer on both of President Obama’s presidential campaigns. He added that while he could not calculate the size of the task before him, he was sure he could make inroads. “How far we have to go, I’m not sure, but how to make progress, I’m more confident about that part,” he said.

The new service shares some of the same attributes as 18F, the 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 described it, 18F is the team that goes into agencies and fixes things, while Dickerson’s team will serve as a consultant.

“This isn’t going to be a group that we parachute in to write code,” VanRoekel said in a call this summer. “Rather, the focus is going to be on helping agencies figure out where their weak points are and how to fix them.”

Aneesh Chopra, who served as the White House chief technology officer during Obama’s first term, said the new division “elevates the capacity of government to operate like a lean start-up” by establishing an office where technologists can provide an independent perspective. He noted that Obama brought in experts steeped in technology policy, not software coding, when he first took office.

“We were policy advisers, not operational programmers,” he said, adding that now, “We’re putting a better organizational system in place to ensure that, at least in the beginning, high-
profile projects that are under their purview really achieves the right balance.”

VanRoekel said he has been using $7 million in previously appropriated funds to run the pilot project and is “targeting about seven to 10 external hires” to expand the operation. Obama has requested $20 million for the operation in fiscal 2015, which would allow him to bring on about 25 people for short, two-to-four year rotations.

The White House also issued a pair of foundational texts to serve as guides for federal agencies to improve their digital operations. But even as the administration offered these guidelines, Chopra said that it has yet to tackle the broader problem of how the government procures IT services — an issue highlighted by the troubled HealthCare.gov rollout.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a sharp critic of the administration and its health-care marketplace, offered cautious praise for the move in a statement Monday.

“The HealthCare.gov launch was a debacle because politically empowered officials who didn’t understand the technology kept meddling instead of offering clear direction and letting experts do their job,” he said. “The president is right in looking to the private sector to improve federal IT practices, and establishing a collaboration center has been a bipartisan proposal in Congress. To work, this process has to be fully transparent and not another episode where appointees try to steer technology decisions they don’t fully understand behind closed doors.”

Civis Analytics chief executive Dan Wagner, who worked with Dickerson on both of Obama’s campaigns, said he is confident Dickerson can do any digital job after watching him develop a program to track voter turnout in real time in just a few months.

“He built a perfect Election Day reporting mechanism from nothing,” said Wagner, who served as the chief analytics officer in Obama’s reelection campaign.

nancy.scola@washpost.com

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