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August 12 2014

Geek Squad Sets Up Government Shop

Patrice J. Lee

The White House announced the launch of a new tech task force dubbed the U.S. Digital Service (USDS). This geek squad hopes to fix problems with government websites and help upgrade the federal infrastructure.

This move is in response to the failed rollout of healthcare.gov, the federal ObamaCare website, last year. How can we forget about the beleaguered website that launched on October 1st and crashed immediately remaining down for the count for weeks before hobbling back to life thanks to the help of Silicon Valley coders who paratrooped in to fix the problem?. This same team of Google experts is sticking in Washington and one of their own, Mickey Dickerson, will spearhead the new team.

USDS is being billed as a team of consultants that will help agencies figure out their weak points and a strategy to address them. This small group of engineers and programmers won’t necessarily be the ones to go in and fix or write website code, but to identify what needs to change.

The White House also sees this as a recruitment tool to attract other Mickey Dickersons to the federal government.

The question is: Will this team work? They may be smart, capable, and nimble but they face tremendous headwinds as procurement and government contracting processes don’t always hire the best contractors to deliver the best products. That ineptitude plays a driving role in the development of shoddy government websites like healthcare.gov. The White House remains hopeful though that the in-house talent will head off further disasters and salvage their image as a digital leader.

The Washington Post reports:

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.

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.

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...

Establishing USDS is a nice measure, but I question how effective it will be given the behemoth that is government procurement. There is no question that healthcare.gov exposed the extreme shortcomings of government technology. However, the issue is as much about politics, decision-making authority, and bureaucracy as it is about who writes the website code, user interface, and servers.

Federal contracting is in need of reform to ensure that the best contractors are designing and developing government websites and not just the ones who have always landed federal contracts. CGI Federal is case in point. It managed the majority of healthcare.gov but as we reported they also managed several also states with failed ObamaCare websites. Failure begets failure in government contracting apparently. The other problem is that government is so big and unmanageable that unaccountable that a private sector digital team may not be able to rescue it.

USDS has its work cut out for it.  We all want smarter government with the nimbleness and discipline of the private sector. However, if its name – which reads like another big agency a la USDA and USPS – is an indicator of success, my hopes aren’t too high for what it will achieve.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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