The U.S. Digital Service team. (courtesy of U.S. Digital Service)

The U.S. Digital Service has taken on the task of helping the federal government adapt to new technologies. I interviewed Matt Cutts, the head of the service, about what the organization does.

HF: So where did the U.S. Digital Service come from?

MC: The origin of the U.S. Digital Service was sparked by Unfortunately, the initial website for enrollment did not live up to the task. A dedicated cadre of people came together and worked with people in the government to ensure that the website could handle the load and traffic. That experience sparked the insight that when important decisions were being made, you needed people in the room who can make sure that a technical viewpoint is represented.

We have seen the U.S. Digital Service help with all kinds of firefighting and emergencies. We have been honored and privileged to help with that. We’ve also seen the value of preventative work, when we can come in earlier on a project and give advice or consult with partners in the government about ways to organize the architecture or system and bring in industry best practices to ensure a project is likely to succeed.

HF: Where do people who work for the U.S. Digital Service come from?

MC: They come from across the country. The stereotype is that the U.S. Digital Service brings people from A-list technology companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook and Twitter. There is some truth to that — we have had people from all those companies. But we want to represent the entire American public, so we also recruit from across the country. We don’t just want to reflect the viewpoint of Silicon Valley, and we do better when we reflect a lot of viewpoints, including people who have come from contractors and government, who often have understanding of how to deal with barriers and obstacles. A brilliant designer can be paired with an engineer who understands how procurement or contracting works. Our ideal person has the technical skills but also the emotional intelligence to say, ‘Here is why the current system isn’t working, and here is how you can change or channel that to get to a better outcome.’

HF: So which agencies do you work with?

MC: When people are hired, they can land at our headquarters in the Office of Management and Budget, or they can go directly to agencies. We have groups at the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Department of Homeland Security, General Services Administration, and we also are engaged with the Small Business Administration as well as Health and Human Services. We also talk to people at other departments if they have specific questions. We have a unified hiring pipeline — anyone can go to if they want to find out more about the U.S. Digital Service. We do our own interviews and résumé scoring and work with partners on hiring.

HF: So do people do a tour of duty with you and then perhaps go back into the private sector?

MC: Yes, but we also practice something called commitment escalation. We ask people to join our team for short-term tours, but we find they get hooked on the great impact of their work on the lives of American people and decide to stay for longer. The other thing that is interesting is that people come here and go back to private industry with a better understanding of how government works and how it thinks. Often, the U.S. Digital Service is a great change for people personally — they change their life plan, sometimes move across the country and decide to go into civic technology, or stay in government service. That is truly heartening, to see someone who originally wanted to go back to industry and then decides to pursue a different goal.

HF: So what have people done in the U.S. Digital Service to change things?

MC: We had, for example, a form called the 10-10EZ form, which veterans need to fill out to request health benefits. The forms needed the right version of Internet Explorer — and it had to be Internet Explorer — and the right version of Adobe Acrobat. If you didn’t have the right versions, you would get an incorrect error message, telling you that you had to update your version of Acrobat, when in fact it had to be downgraded.  Only 8 percent of people were filling out the form online. So the Digital Service worked with partners at Veterans Affairs to deploy a Web form that would work on mobile phones and be accessible via a screen reader. The number of people who applied online for benefits spiked up remarkably. With the paper form, the average wait time was 137 days. With this new form, 50 percent of veterans find out whether they are eligible within 10 minutes. It feels immensely gratifying to know that a small change — making a form accessible — can have such a positive impact on the lives of many people.

We also bring in industry best practices such as bug bounties: paying researchers who find security holes, because you don’t want the vulnerability being sold on the black market. Most major tech companies offer bug bounties, but the federal government had never done one, and some people worried that reporting a vulnerability to government would get them into trouble. A group at the Defense Digital Service, which is the branch of the U.S. Digital Service at the Pentagon, did a bug bounty called “Hack the Pentagon.” People were nervous at first, but we took them through the process, and people found bugs cheaper and faster, finding important bugs. With its success, we then had Hack the Army, Hack the Air Force, and had a classified bug bounty. In each case it worked, and the researchers who found the bugs were trustworthy. Some of the holes that were found were very serious — but because they were immediately reported, the vulnerabilities were closed, rather than found and exploited.

HF: There are many places where government interfaces could be improved.

MC: Yes. It’s understandable that the user experience is not always the highest priority in government. What we find is that acting as a voice for the user and helping design the interfaces with users is often exactly what is needed. For the 10-10EZ form, we found a homeless veteran named Dominic and recorded him trying to use the old form and describing what it was like. We have the video where he talks about how it was as if the old form was hidden behind spikes and IEDs. That was very compelling, because everyone wants to do the right thing, but sometimes it helps to have that reminder.

HF: The federal procurement system is sometimes not hugely efficient — are there ways to mitigate this?

MC: The U.S. Digital Service sees a lot of projects at a lot of agencies, including projects involving contractors. Contractors often want to do the right thing and use the best technologies, and part of the obstacle is providing them with the right requirements by writing the contract the right way or moving away from a model where you draft all the requirements at the outset toward an agile model of iterating quickly. We have many experiences where contractors are happier because they can work in ways that are closer to the tech industry. In my experience, everyone wants to write the best thing they can. So finding and dealing with those obstacles can unlock a more effective and efficient experience for both sides.

HF: You came from Google, which works by applying machine learning to big problems. The U.S. government has a lot of data but doesn’t use those techniques to the same extent. What opportunities are there to change things?

MC: We see data scientists in places like the Office of the Inspector General at Health and Human Services. At the same time, other parts of government work in silos, making it hard to work together. Some of that is by design, thanks to the U.S. Privacy Act, and there are good reasons why you might not want information to be too readily available or combined. There is the potential for very solid wins through straightforward changes. Someone asked me at a conference panel what I thought about blockchain in government. I replied that if we could just tackle paper, I would be happy. There is room to think about machine learning and predictive analytics, but a lot of what is to be done is the “block and tackle” work of ensuring that government information starts digitally, so you avoid transcription errors and typos. There are so many gains to be had just from starting there.

This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the Network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts in the series can be found here.