US Digital Service enters third year - achievements made, but challenges ahead

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez August 14, 2016
Summary:
The White House has released an ‘impact report’ highlighting some of the US Digital Service’s key achievements. However, there are already some warning signs.

white house
The US Digital Service has just marked its two year anniversary - where it has spent its first 24 months working with federal agencies to create better, citizen-focused, digital services; has set a new agenda for designing digital common platforms; and has launched a recruitment drive to bring new digital talent into government.

However, we know from experience here in the UK with our own Government Digital Service, on which the US Digital service is modelled, that the two year mark notes the end of the honeymoon period.

From here on out, the White House can expect the US Digital Service to face a far more critical eye, and to experience greater challenges as the organisation matures and attempts to position itself as an influential leader within federal government.

Nothing is straight forward in politics. And there are already warning signs that despite the US Digital Service’s good work, that other forces within government are willing to hold it back.

But first let’s take a look at what the White House perceives to be its greatest achievements from the organisation.

Service redesign

As was the case with the Government Digital Service here in the UK, the US Digital Service has worked with a broad range of agencies, identifying what it perceives to be as ‘critical services’ that are ripe for digital redesign. Here are some examples.

vets.gov - Working with the Department of Veterans Affairs, the US Digital Service helped change the way that veterans get access to healthcare, as well as consolidated all the thousands of services available into one digital platform. The previous healthcare application was a fillable PDF that required Adobe 8 or 9 and be downloaded via Internet Explorer. Given more than 70% of US government traffic comes from Chrome, Safari, or Firefox, this was obviously not citizen-focused design. In the first month launching vets.gov, the new digital application had more than 11,600 veterans apply for health care, with many receiving coverage in less than 10 minutes.
Immigration - The team is also working with the US Citizenships and Immigration Services agency to help redesign the external application and internal review process for the seven million annual applications and requests. This has led to the launch of my.USCIS.gov and the US Digital Service expects millions of dollars per year, thanks to improvements in software development practices, system architecture, and design.
Tax records - The Internal Revenue Service and the US Digital Service have introduced Secure Access, allowing users convenient, real-time access to their transcripts and tax affairs.
Student loans - In a bid to reduce the complexity of student load repayments, the US Digital Service has worked with the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid and launched StudentLoans.gov/Repay, a mobile-first site that uses human-centred design to help borrowers find the best repayment options for them, in five steps or less.
Improving security at the Department of Defense - Hack the Pentagon programme was announced, in which more than 1,400 outside ‘researchers’ (white hack hackers, with more than 250 submitting at least one vulnerability report. Of all the submissions received, 138 were determined to be legitimate, unique, and eligible for bounty.

Other areas of change

Barack_Obama_on_phone
Again, as in the UK, the US Digital Service’s work with agencies has been underpinned by a broader technology agenda that is intended to ensure that government doesn’t got back to the ‘old’ ways of working again.

For example, much like the G-Cloud this side of the Atlantic, the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the US Digital Service partnered to establish an agile procurement model to allow small business owners to get certified quickly and as a result get access to more government contracts.

Equally, resources such as TechFAR and the TechFAR hub have been developed to help Federal agencies implement the best procurement practices available, mapping paths between industry best practice and government regulation.

Whilst, much like the Government Digital Service, the US Digital Service is also dipping its toes in the water to implement a Government-as-a-Platform strategy. It calls this ‘initiating the development of common platforms and standards’ - but it can be viewed as the same thing.

For example, the US Digital Service has introduced a new user interface system, which is intended to unify the citizen experience across government. It is developing a common identity management platform to provide a secure login process for the government’s digital services (much like Verify in the UK). In addition it is “creating a window” into the way people access the government online with the Digital Analytics Dashboard, which allows it to collect data from across government and means it can focus on what services are important to citizens.

Further to these endeavours, department is also going on a recruitment drive, and thus far has hired over 170 engineers, designers, product managers and data scientists.

In a statement released last week, the White House said:

Over the last two years, these actions have significantly improved the Federal Government’s ability to provide better citizen-centered services and helped Americans engage with their government in new and meaningful ways.

From modernizing our country’s immigration system to helping students and families make more informed decisions about college selection to developing a unified digital experience for our Veterans, this work has reimagined how government services should be provided to the public.

In addition to building these important services, the Administration has created a pipeline for top technology talent from the private sector to participate in tours of duty with the Federal Government and partner with top civil servants to ensure a lasting culture of innovation that will serve the American people for years to come.

Rough road ahead?

It’s worth remembering that early on in GDS’s life, it too was able to quickly talk about the changes it had

change-vs-same
introduced that had improved the workings of government and services for citizens. Things had been so bad previously in terms of how technology was bought, introduced and used in government, that the change was incredibly refreshing.

However, as time has gone on, things have changed somewhat. GDS has faced some big challenges in the five years of its operations, including a number of its directors stepping down from their jobs, a political backlash, problems with some of the services it has worked on and having to fight for future funding.

When the most recent uproar happened, regarding the sudden change in executive director, I wrote that the likes of the US should be wary about future challenges - the status quo is a comfortable place to be.
And it seems that the US Digital Service is already beginning to experience this. For example, according to Nextgov, the organisation has faced a backlash from lawmakers after a watchdog report suggested that its staff don’t always communicate with agency CIOs, and that they don’t regularly document how they select projects.

For GDS these have been pressing issues too, where a culture of US vs Them developed and technology teams in departments began to feel isolated by the ‘cool kids’. People also criticise GDS for a lack of transparency around how the way it works.

Not only this, according to Government Technology, just a few months ago a Senate appropriations committee approved a spending bill that cut roughly three-fourths of President Obama’s $20.2 million funding request for technology initiatives - most of which was tied to the US Digital Service’s operating budget.

This was shortly after the House of Representatives pushed back on Obama’s request for $105 million to establish US Digital Service branches within the 25 major agencies.

My take

Plenty of stuff to be proud of, especially after two short years. However, resistance is beginning to grow. And I expect that this is just the start of the challenges.

Image credit - White House, Free stock image; Changes signpost © pablographix - Fotolia.com.

Read more on: