US Digital Service team set up to prevent another debacle

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan August 11, 2014
Following the lead of the UK, the US government now has its own digital SWAT team to consign disasters to history.

No more

The USA now has its own version of the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS), charged with making sure that debacles like the introduction of the Obamacare website are consigned to history.

With that objective in mind, the Obama administration has called in the guy who’s widely credited as salvaging as much as possible from the initial wreckage of the health care site, Mikey Dickerson, to head up the new US Digital Service (USDS). He’s a former site reliability manager for Google and was part of the team called in to rescue

In the official announcement yesterday, Federal CIO Steve VanRoekel  confirmed:

Last year, a group of digital and technology experts from the private sector helped us fix – a turnaround that enabled millions of Americans to sign up for quality health insurance.

Mikey was part of the team that helped fix last fall and will lead the Digital Service team on efforts to apply technology in smarter, more effective ways that improve the delivery of federal services, information, and benefits.

Dickerson’s official title will be Administrator of the U.S. Digital Service and Deputy Federal Chief Information Officer and he’ll head what’s being called a “small” team of up to ten experts, including specialists in the areas of procurement, finance, and human resources.

It’s starting with $7 million funding from existing 2014 budgets with the intention of scaling up in 2015 to around 25 people when new money becomes available. President Obama has requested $20 million for USDS in fiscal 2015.

Housed within the Office of Management and Budget, USDS has a mission of:

removing barriers to exceptional Government service delivery and remaking the digital experiences that citizens and businesses have with their Government.

Now that might sound perilously close to overlapping with the work of 18f, the group of technologists based at the General Services Administration (GSA), but it seems that USDS will be essentially a consulting, strategic unit, while its GSA counterpart will be the on-the-ground fixers. So for big picture vision and roadmap thinking, you call in USDS; for getting the lights to work, you call in 18f.

First up from USDS are a couple of guidebook publications to help government organizations clarify their thinking:

Van Roekel explained that the Playbook is:

designed to encourage the government to adopt the best of these advances into our own work. To further strengthen this important tool, we encourage folks across the public and private sectors to provide feedback on the Playbook, so we can strengthen this important tool.

Source: USDS Digital Services Playbook

Meanwhile the TechFAR book explains how agencies can execute key plays in the Playbook in ways consistent with the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), which governs how the government must buy services from the private sector:

Too often, the lack of guidance encouraging agency use of innovative contracting practices results in narrow and overly rigid interpretations of federal acquisition rules that complicate the government’s ability to adopt smarter ways of acquiring high-quality digital services. This document will guide agencies in how to procure development services in new ways that more closely match the modern software development techniques used in the private sector.

The USDS  bears a marked similarity to the UK’s Government Digital Service, which is run by the Cabinet Office. Mike Bracken, GDS head, welcomed the creation of a US cousin to his unit:

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The two do appear to have some initial differences of philosophy, as digital government expert Dominic Campbell of FutureGov noted:

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My take

As a Brit, it’s good to see an example of the US catching up with the UK! We’re so used to be being told by analysts that we’re lagging our American cousins in tech adoption, that being seen to have a lead in digital government best practice is pleasing.

Clearly it’s early days and it remains to be seen how the USDS works in what is a very different form of government. In the UK, GDS can be said to benefit enormously from sitting at the heart of a centralist government structure.

But the near religious rejection of the idea of a GDS-for-local-government by local authorities hints at the limitations of such an approach in overcoming the ‘not invented here’ mentality outside of central government.

For example, the main local government technology body SOCITM insisted recently:

For many commentators, the only way to force the required pace of change is to create the kind of top-down, centrally mandated change that has followed the creation of the GDS and the single GOV.UK website.

Quite apart from the huge practical difficulties of imposing such change in local government, there is no guarantee that it would deliver the desired result.

Furthermore, any move to get rid of local government websites would run completely counter to the Localism Act and its aim of devolving more decision-making into the hands of individuals, communities and councils.

It’s an argument that has failed to convince many commentators in the UK and it will be interesting to see how/if the same resistance to change occurs outside of the federal government in the US, as it did with the Cloud First mandate in the first Obama administration.


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