Briefing: USDS and 18F

The USDS may have some surgery to perform on under-performing services

Following what many considered a disastrous launch of the U.S. Government’s Healthcare.gov exchange in August 2014, the White House set up an organization known as the US Digital Service (USDS). The mission of this organization is to implement “the best of product design and engineering practices to transform the way government works for the American people.” The idea behind USDS is to institutionalize best IT practices across government agencies not only to prevent debacles like Healthcare.gov but to actually deliver better systems that meet the needs of the people that use them.

The original USDS organization consisted of a 7-10 person cross-functional team of high caliber IT professionals. (The team has since grown to some 25 people and the President has requested additional funding in its FY2016 budget request to expand the team further). USDS is headed by Mikey Dickerson, the former Google reliability engineer who played a key role in getting Healthcare.gov back on track.

One of the first actions USDS took was to release two documents: the Digital Services Playbook and the TechFAR. These are very interesting documents, particularly the Playbook.

The Playbook is a foundational roadmap for implementing digital government. It consists of thirteen “plays” – best practices drawn from the private sector – that guide the development of digital services:

  1. Understand what people need
  2. Address the whole experience, from start to finish
  3. Make it simple and intuitive
  4. Build the service using agile and iterative practices
  5. Structure budgets and contracts to support delivery
  6. Assign one leader and hold that person accountable
  7. Bring in experienced teams
  8. Choose a modern technology stack
  9. Deploy in a flexible hosting environment
  10. Automate testing and deployments
  11. Manage security and privacy through reusable processes
  12. Use data to drive decisions
  13. Default to open

The White House’s goal is to make this playbook the bible for US Government IT system development.

The other document, the TechFAR, while not garnering the same amount of attention, is just as important. For years, critics have said that government acquisition regulations, which are embodied in the 1,000+ page Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), are so restrictive that they make the acquisition of IT services based on concepts like agile development impossible. The TechFAR dispels this myth by highlighting the flexibilities built into the FAR– as is – that permit procurement of agile-development-based systems.

The USDS team is not a software or systems development organization – it’s intended to be a consulting organization. They will be working with agencies’ IT teams, first, to help them develop “get-well” strategies for major systems in or near trouble, and then to design new systems based on best practices.

USDS is patterned after UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) – but that’s where the similarity ends. Unlike GDS, USDS does not develop systems. That task is relegated to the agencies’ IT organizations and a newly formed development group under the US General Services Administration known as “18F.” This latter group builds free, open source digital services and works “hands-on” with agencies to fix broken or troubled systems. It’s not clear how one organization focusing on the design and another on the implementation is going to work. Furthermore, GDS has a large budget and spending authority – which gives it influence over government ministries. USDS does not.

The jury is still out as to how effective USDS will be and how much it will be able to accomplish given its gargantuan task. So far the team has met with 22 agencies and identified 60 projects that require its attention. How many projects a team of a couple dozen people will be able to tackle remains to be seen.

The concept does seem to be catching on across agencies, though. Some 25 agencies are seeking to establish their own digital teams and have requested $75M in funding for fiscal year 2016 to pay for them.

General Electric CEO Jack Welch has said that, to successfully implement organizational change, the change will have to be radical; otherwise the “bureaucracy will eat you up.” So will a small group of very talented, highly motivated, high energy technologists with the President’s full backing succeed in transforming how the Federal government builds IT systems? Well, David did beat Goliath…

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