To address problems quickly, IT is frequently encouraged to set up “skunkworks.” The White House has announced it is now ready to taking that advice to heart.
To better serve we the people, the White House is deploying the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), “a small team of our country's brightest digital talent that will work with government agencies to find more effective ways to use technology to improve the service, information, and benefits they provide.” It will work to find solutions to management challenges that can prevent progress in IT delivery by taking private- and public-sector best practices and scaling them across agencies, with a focus on customer experience, the White House continued.
The group is headed by Mikey Dickerson, formerly a site reliability manager with Google, who first became involved with the Obama reelection team, then joined the crew that fixed healthcare.gov. His title is Administrator of the U.S. Digital Service and Deputy Federal Chief Information Officer.
Exactly who’s on the team hasn’t been revealed, but Federal Computer Week believes that, according to the group’s $20 million budget request for next year, it should be able to support about 25 employees, a figure that Dickerson confirmed to the New York Times. This year, the group is being funded to the tune of about $7 million.
The group, based in the Office of Management and Budget, is also supposed to work with 18F, a similar skunkworks team in the General Services Administration that features 36 fresh-faced employees. (And, since there’s been so much emphasis on diversity in IT lately, we can tell you that 11 of them are female.) However, notes the Washington Post, while 18F is the team that goes into agencies and fixes things, Digital Services will be more focused on providing consultation—in other words, telling the existing staff how to fix things rather than fixing things itself. The administration suggested in its budget hearing that employees would serve from the private sector in two- to four-year rotations.
What’s particularly interesting is the USDS’ Digital Services Playbook—which the White House has released to GitHub—that is intended to provide best practices for building effective digital services such as web and mobile applications.
While most of the 13 “plays” are pretty standard (“Understand what people need,” “Address the whole experience”), they also serve as good guidelines for any IT organization, not just the federal government. They are:
- Understand what people need
- Address the whole experience, from start to finish
- Make it simple and intuitive
- Build the service using agile and iterative practices
- Structure budgets and contracts to support delivery
- Assign one leader and hold that person accountable
- Bring in experienced teams
- Choose a modern technology stack
- Deploy in a flexible hosting environment
- Automate testing and deployments
- Manage security and privacy through reusable processes
- Use data to drive decisions
- Default to open
In addition, the “plays” include more detailed information such as steps to follow and questions to ask along the way. And of course, we can’t argue with Play 3: “Make it simple.”
Play 6, in particular, is an issue that the federal government has had a problem with: “Assign one leader and hold that person accountable.” In a number of situations, most recently the Social Security Administration (SSA), the federal government has been criticized for not having anyone really in charge. In addition, the group will discourage multi-year, multi-billion-dollar contracts, and will instead focus on using off-the-shelf software rather than custom work, Dickerson told the Times.
As part of this announcement, the White House also released the TechFAR Handbook, which describes how agencies can mesh state-of-the-art IT technologies such as Agile with the Byzantine procurement processes in the federal government (Federal Acquisition Regulation).
This couldn’t come at a better time for the White House. Agencies such as the Veterans Administration, the civil service retirement system, and the SSA—as well as healthcare.gov itself—have come under fire for IT projects that have been, shall we say, less than optimal. Granted, we’re talking about extremely complex systems and updates of programs that are decades old, but it doesn’t look good.
Exactly how the USDS is going to do its job remains to be seen. To begin with, the team is supposed to establish standards to bring the government’s digital services in line with the private sector (in other words, they may be saying goodbye to COBOL); identify technology patterns to enable the government to scale services effectively; and work with agencies to identify and address gaps in their capacity to design, develop, deploy, and operate citizen-facing services. The playbook also calls for using technologies such as open source and cloud, and as the administration has been saying from the first day, its projects should “default to open”—that is, open data.
So far, the main news from the organization is that they won’t have to wear suits—which Dickerson notes is actually shorthand for, “Is this the same old business as usual, or are they actually going to listen?” We’re looking forward to hearing more substantive news in the future.
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