You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

New US Digital Service Looks to Avoid IT Catastrophes

BY Alex Howard | Wednesday, August 13 2014

USDS' Mikey Dickerson at the 2009 MySQL Conference (Photo by Jorge Bernal)

At a time when the public's trust in institutions is at historic lows, the federal government's use of technology has an unusual place in the national discourse. After the first Internet president's administration was responsible for the high-profile failure of Healthcare.gov, the issue seemed ripe to drive significant reform on Capitol Hill. Even if some 10 million adults gained health insurance through the Affordable Care Act after "Obama's trauma team" made successful fixes to Healthcare.gov, negative public perception has lingered, and for good reason. Under the radar, other projects have continued to sputter, like a $300 million dollar Social Security government IT boondoggle that still has not delivered a working system for submitting disability claims. The crash of the FCC's dated website under the weight of 1.1 million comments this summer didn't help, either. At the same time, the confidence of the technology community has been damaged by revelations of dragnet surveillance and surreptitious backdoors planted in software.

In the face of those challenges, both the legislative branch and executive branch of the U.S. government have taken steps to address the endemic failures of large IT projects and systemic issues with the way Uncle Sam plans, creates and maintains technology. In July, a bipartisan group of lawmakers formally introduced the Reforming Federal Procurement of Information Technology Act (RFP-IT), which would codify the successful Presidential Innovation Fellows program, establish a Digital Government Office and expand competition for federal IT contracting. Earlier in the year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1232, the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), which could give federal chief information officer more authority, but it hasn't gone anywhere in the Senate, like so many other bills in the least productive Congress in the modern era. Both RFP-IT and FITARA might be earn consideration in the lame duck session of the 113th Congress, however, after the November mid-term elections.

On the executive side, the White House and federal agencies have made several significant moves over the winter and spring, even as the furor over the Healthcare.gov mess grew and subsided. The first big public initiative was the establishment of 18F, a new unit of the U.S. General Services Agency that looks to "fail fast" instead of failing big on government IT projects. Working with agencies, fellows and contractors, 18F is actually building, free and open source government digital services, working in public on Github , for the public. Significantly, 18F has committed to developing free and open source software for Uncle Sam, releasing code developed on behalf of the public to the public. As I wrote here in April, if 18F can prove that bringing technologists into government to buy, build and deploy technology, it will be a huge shift from the traditional RFP and contracting model, offering a new model for "insourcing" technology and creating new pressure in the market for services.

The second initiative went live on Monday, when the White House formally launched a United States Digital Service (USDS) and published an open source Digital Services Playbook and a “TechFAR,” a part of the guide that “highlights the flexibilities in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) that can help agencies implement ‘plays’ from the Digital Services Playbook.”

While the playbook has earned a lot of attention, the TechFAR component of it may have more impact inside of government. If you read between the lines the way Red Hat chief public sector strategist Gunnar Hellekson does, " The existence of TechFAR implicitly endorses what industry has been saying for quite some time: the rules are fine as they are," he wrote on his blog. "This is a surprise, since you can’t spend five minutes with someone in government IT without a sarcastic remark about procurement. With TechFAR, OMB has spoken: We can make do with the acquisition tools we have. Reinterpretation and new guidance will get us where we need to go."

That's not to say that no regulatory reform is needed nor that legislative action would make no difference. It does mean that the White House felt that clarity around the flexibility that federal procurement officers already enjoy needed to re-emphasized.

"The staggering failure rate of government technology projects can attributed to a number of factors, but none are as pervasive as outdated development practices that put all the planning up front and fail to understand the system's actual users," said Jen Pahlka, the founder of Code for America, in an interview. Pahlka worked on this problem while she was at the White House for the last year, serving as a deputy U.S. chief technology officer. "The TechFAR handbook finally makes it clear to the contracting community and the federal IT community that agile development is not only perfectly legal, but in fact the default methodology. This is huge: it gives those responsible for creating government digital services access to the same development methods that have produced the world-changing consumer services so many use today."

The digital playbook itself is something of a marvel for an official government policy: it's elegantly designed, has clear navigation and is responsive to any device you choose to view it upon. It's certainly strongly evocative of the award-winning design principles promulgated by the United Kingdom's Government Digital Service (DGS) last year, a parallel that can and should lead to comparisons to the British approach to delivering digital services.

If those GDS principles have inspired those of the USDS, "I feel vindicated," said Mike Bracken, the executive director of digital for the United Kingdom, in an interview. "The principles by which we work are nothing more than applied common sense in the Internet age. If they make sense, use them: they're for everybody."

Whether the USDS and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) can create carrots and sticks for agencies to adopt those principles is another matter. Unlike the United Kingdom's Digital Government Service, the United States has not created a singular new entity with a large budget and spending authority. Nor has it hired dozens and dozens of top technologists at high pay grades who then set about building core digital services for the country, although 18F merits comparison. Instead, the USDS will work with federal agencies as they create or upgrade services and products.

"At the end of the day, the agencies own the delivery of their services," said U.S. chief information officer Steven VanRoekel, who will oversee the USDS in OMB, in an interview. "They crave new approaches. They crave having people help them really be state of the art and come in at a low cost and high value, high output, and high level of effectiveness. The engagement in the ramp-up stage, to get our minimally viable product team out there and work with these limited number of agencies, will really be on a one-on-one. They're asking for us more than we're asking to go into them and deploy this team on board. We have, right now, more demand for the service than we have supply. We have to be targeted for our ability to go out and work directly with them."

Much in the same way that the "trauma team" drove improvements to Healthcare.gov, the USDS will act like a consultancy, in terms of analyzing and helping to manage government IT projects and products better.

"I think the Digital Service will go in and work with agencies on identifying what level of capability does this agency have to deliver a great service," said VanRoekel. "What are the approaches they're using? What are different approaches should they be using? What sort of technologies and direction are they taking, from open data to open interfaces to utilizing open source where they can? Drive that into the solutions set. We're not staffing to the bandwidth where they would go in and then take over an effort and write the code, where they'd build this. The [USDS] is really about being a team of context-shifters."

In other words, 18F, Presidential Innovation Fellows and agency fellows, and contractors working with those agencies will build, deploy and maintain technology, while the USDS will strategically engage on certain projects to get ahead of potential failures. How that works remains to be seen.

"I salute the effort and admire the strategic direction," said Bracken. "The separation of those skillsets seems to me perverse, but I say that with a huge asterisk of what I don't know. Why you wouldn't put them together is beyond me."

One component that should help is proven leadership and operational efficacy. The White House tapped former Google reliability engineer Michael "Mikey" Dickerson to be the first administrator of the USDS, reporting to VanRoekel as a deputy US CIO. He'll be working with 7 to 10 new hires onto this team, according to VanRoekel.

"We will also be surrounding this team with some detailees from government and my other deputy US CIO, Lisa Schlosser, who runs the statutory functions in our office," said VanRoekel. "We're also going to have great opportunities for her team to rotate in, and they come with a deep expertise in procurement, cybersecurity, and other things. We'll surround the team with some infrastructure that helps them kinda navigate but yet disrupt the status quo." If RFP-IT becomes law, it would codify the USDS within OMB, with the United States chief information officer at its head as a Senate-confirmed presidential appointee.

By hiring key members of the team that rescued Healthcare.gov, the Obama administration proved it could attract top tech talent, following its success in attracting other technologists to the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, Department of Health and Human Services, and 18F, among others.

"There's a right way to do digital services that work for the people they're supposed to serve, and Mikey Dickerson showed how to do that with his heroic effort on healthcare.gov," said Pahlka. "Now he's going to help us avoid crises like that in the future by leading the U.S. Digital Service. Government needs him and those like him. If we can't implement the policies we create, we can't govern."

If the USDS is an effort to make the lessons learned from Healthcare.gov endure elsewhere in government, Dickerson will have plenty of opportunities to "run that playbook" again.

"We think that a lot of the same tactics that worked on Healthcare.gov will work again at other agencies again and again," said Dickerson, in an interview. "We have high confidence that the results will be repeatable. If you put one person in charge of a project, that usually helps a lot. If you monitor in real time what you're doing, that also helps a lot. All the stuff in the Digital Services playbook that we released today, that's almost a point-by-point recipe for what worked for us on Healthcare.gov."

A worthwhile hypothetical to apply to the question of impact is whether the USDS could have identified the ineffective contract planning and oversight practices at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the entity responsible for building Healthcare.gov, and then made an impact upon the choices and project management there. One of the top consulting firms in the world, McKinsey and Associates, warned the administration last spring about critical issues with Healthcare.gov in a "red team" report, without apparent significant impact. The CTO and CIO at the Department of Health and Human Services warned then Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about concerns, and yet the flawed marketplace still went live. For the USDS to make a difference, the White House tech team will need to be much more closely involved with monitoring projects, from the very beginning, follow through if and when the President says to make sure a project works.

In our interview, Dickerson emphasized a strategy that will focus upon working with agencies to ensure that IT projects are well planned and managed, not just diving in as a "digital SWAT team," as some media accounts have suggested.

"Plan A is always to approach the agencies collaboratively," he said. "They want the same things that we want. Most of the time, that's what I expect to have happen. Most of the time, that should be sufficient for what we want to do. I also think that the Digital Service, ideally, is a kind of rallying point and a coordination point for all of the different parts, because there are a lot of people interested in helping government do better at technology delivery. There's agency staff, there's a lot of new blood in the agencies, there's new agency CIOs, there's agency CTOs, there's contractors that are new in the game, there's the PIFs, there's 18F. There's a lot of energy around this right now. Ideally, the Digital Service will a place to coordinate and make sure all of those groups are getting what they need."

On transparency and delivery

Whether the White House and agencies can find a way to make these new components grafted into existing institutions function well is an open question, and one that will only be answered if the failure rate for government IT projects goes down and the speed and quality of delivery increases. So far, the news of the USDS launch has been greeted with excitement amongst supporters of the Obama administration and cautious, calibrated enthusiasm outside of it.

"We have to applaud any effort that works to ensure effective delivery of IT solutions, particularly efforts that enable industry and government to partner together" said David Wennergren, senior vice president for tech policy at the Professional Services Council, the national trade association of the government professional and technical services industry. "If you go through the playbook, a lot of those plays really reflect and align with recommendations that PSC has been making for some time, including customer involvement, workforce training, modular contracting, strong program management, and performance metrics."

Wennergren said that the USDS is a good foundational start but will be limited in scope by the number of people there. (OMB estimates 7-10 staff this year, expanding to 25 if Congress provides funding.) "The key to success is recognizing that given a limited number of people, how do you select the right projects that deliver the most value," said Wennergren. "Picking the right things to work on is very important." He also emphasized that the new USDS is just a first step in a process that needs a lot of other steps as well.

"This can't take the place of more substantive IT and acquisition reform," said Wennergren. "Other things like FITARA are just the first step in a more broad agenda. We want to find ways to institutionalize reform. It's hard to not be supportive of something that's going to make IT delivery better, though -- this idea of finding experts -- like Healthcare.gov example that led to Mikey being appointed - if you can get smart people involved, this will get better."

Wennergren urged the administration and Congress to take more steps that allow industry to participate in improving services. "What we see is a dramatic shift in the way the technology market is operating," he said. "People are looking for broader things than infrastructure as a service. We need to tap into broader industry expertise to partner with government from the start.

One of the issues that we face is that there is more flexibility in the acquisition process than is used. We are missing out on the opportunities afforded by changing to technologies to change how work gets done. Buying a weapon system is different than buying a technology system in the 21st century."

“The Healthcare.gov launch was a debacle because politically empowered officials who didn’t understand the technology kept meddling instead of offering clear direction and letting experts do their job,” said Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), in a statement. As the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Issa has been a leading critic of the administration's use of technology, particularly the botched rollout of the Healthcare.gov marketplace.

“The president is right in looking to the private sector to improve federal IT practices, and establishing a collaboration center has been a bipartisan proposal in Congress," he said. "To work, this process has to be fully transparent and not another episode where appointees try to steer technology decisions they don’t fully understand behind closed doors.”

That last bit -- "transparency -- has proven to be far easier said that done in government IT, at all levels of government. The Government Accountability Office found that one prominent instrument of transparency, the highly touted online IT Dashboard launched by former U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra to facilitate public monitoring of government IT projects, had not been updated publicly for 15 of the past 24 months, with inconsistent ratings of risk and progress. In May, VanRoekel told the Senate that "Since 2012, our PortfolioStat data-driven accountability sessions have resulted in over $2.5 billion in identified cost savings and $1.9 billion in realized savings."

David Powner, the Government Accountability Office's director of information technology issues, told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government this spring that these goals aren't ambitious enough, given the GAO's estimates of some $3 billion more in annual savings that are possible. Powner also told the Senate that agencies have major IT investments that are not accurately described as "reds," or high-risk, on the dashboard. When I asked about data quality issues or whether the dashboard ratings were an accurate representation of where projects or initiatives stand, the US CIO explained how he was monitoring the health of IT projects.

"The IT Dashboard is really intended as a tool for agencies to use to manage their IT internally, less about how are we checking up on things, from the central standpoint, where we are going in and flagging stuff based on certain criteria," said VanRoekel, in answer to my question about the tool's potential utility for tracking USDS work. "There are things we watch pretty closely, like people are not hitting budget, if they're changing their due dates or changing their budget projections throughout the lifestyle of a project, or things like that. Then, I get to see those changes and we can react to those things."

He expanded a bit more about his thinking on the value of a public dashboard in a follow up answer. "The theory is that, sometimes in government, if you change from a yellow to a red or something, it creates a different dynamic than if you have a thoughtful conversation about the approach someone's taking on getting something done," he said. "We believe in our heart of hearts that transparency plays a positive role in that stuff, as a great mechanism. I just want to make sure that we're super smart about how we're doing that and how we're manifesting that in insuring that we see great success."

If OMB is already communicating with agencies directly and plans to expand direct audits and engagement through the USDS, it could help to prevent some failures or rescue ailing IT investments. The management methodology that VanRoekel is applying, PortfolioStat, will be familiar to viewers of "The Wire," who may remember the Comstat meetings held by the Baltimore Police Department, or the TechStat reviews that Kundra held.

If OMB and the Office of E-Government find that keeping issues with projects out of the public eye by not updating dashboards is an effective management strategy, the results should show it. At this point, it's fair to say that the White House was not closely enough engaged in what was happening with the health insurance marketplace at CMS until after its launch, nor particularly transparent about the status of fixing it over the winter as the media and political storm that surrounded the implementation of the Affordable Care Act raged online and in cable news.

Not publishing the actual status of progress towards milestones online as open data or updating, however, may not recover public trust. For example, look at the digital government spotlight data on the IT Dashboard, which tracks some agency progress towards relatively uncontroversial national strategy milestones: it has not been updated in 2014, despite legitimate agency progress. Even if it's not uncommon for a new public official or the second term of a presidential administration to let initiatives introduced by a predecessor moulder, the shift does highlight how whatever is not institutionalized by Congress can shift in priority. (Whether a President Clinton, Bush, Paul, Christie, Perry, Ryan, Rubio or Biden would keep the USDS might be up for debate in a year or two. Maryland governor Martin O'Malley's data-driven style of management makes him, at least, likely to retain a governance system that works.)

If making things "open" makes them better, though, as the GDS's design principles explicitly assert that making things "open makes them better" and the USDS' 13th play is to "default to open," the public should expect to see not only improvements to the IT Dashboard but also a clear explanation of what digital services are being transformed and where the work stands. Just take a look at the United Kingdom's gov.uk's page for electoral registration to see how this can be done well, and then compare it to Perfomance.gov to see how much room remains for improvement. At least one agency has been demonstrating how this works in practice for months: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's "Open Tech" site shows their work and recruits developers to code for Uncle Sam in the process.

While the playbook's "default to open" is a visible nudge to change other federal agency's culture and processes, it's only the latest nudge from OMB, going back to the 2009 Open Government Directive or more recent Open Data Executive Order. Whether agencies view this as more than a compliance exercise is another matter, particularly when projects aren't going so well and products don't work as designed.

"It's difficult," said Bracken. "It's easier to set the dial to open when things are fundamentally broken than when they're not publicly broken. The question for any group around a central government that has a digital remit is whether they're there to make a fundamental change, not just a bolt-on, and if they going to put openness at the heart of changing the system and culture. Ideally, you do both."

Dickerson expressed optimism that he'll be able to communicate how the work is going throughout the process. "I hope to be pretty open and transparent about how things are going as we go along," he said. "I don't know what those channels will be, exactly, as we're just setting everything up, but hopefully you'll be able to see. You won't have to wait two years to ask the question: week to week, you'll be able to follow the developments as you want to." Whether the White House communications shop lets him engage freely and speak frankly in online forums remains to be seen.

"As far as a clear tactic, and we started it on day 1, is putting the TechFAR and the playbook up on Github right away," said VanRoekel. "We're already getting comments, we're already closing some comments. We're going to check in later today on what that's been looking like throughout the day. Making the work we do open and collaborative as much as we can, where it has great effect, is something that's definitely the spirt of this team."

Within 48 hours, the administration received 22 pull requests to the playbook, closing 13 of them, and 15 issues, closing 5 of them. One open pull request to watch comes from new chief data officer for the U.S. Department of Transportation, Dan Morgan, noting that "open source is commercial."

Proactivity, reactivity and high expectations

Fixing projects gone awry has immense value, but stopping them from becoming that way might be even more so, given the $80 billion dollars spent on information technology every year by the U.S. federal government. One answer that became clear in my joint interview with VanRoekel and Dickerson is that they both believe that the USDS won't just be a reactive entity. If so, that will address of the threads of concern I heard from other parties I asked about the initiative.

"Really, the goal here is less of really taking what has been traditionally more of a reactive stance to this stuff and getting more proactive on the most important engagements on citizen-facing services," said VanRoekel. "How we manifest the oversight that [deputy US CIO] Lisa's team will be doing on those projects and projecting that outward is to be determined. We're taking a very agile approach. We're going to start small and work our way through this. Hopefully, Lisa and Mikey are going to work very closely together on how that stuff will manifest."

Red Hat's Hellekson, for one, currently has more questions than answers:

The really interesting questions come when you put the USDS is the context of the Federal IT strategy and a longer-term vision for what government IT should be. Here, I’m hard-pressed, because I’m not really sure how the USDS is meant to succeed. Is it designed to accrete web and mobile projects over time, as the UK’s GDS has done? Is it meant to be a kind of consultancy to other groups, making them more successful? Since it’s led by one of the saviors of healthcare.gov, will it become a team of firefighters, rescuing faltering websites? Once we understand that, how will USDS serve the tactical goals of cloud first, shared first, and the FDCCI? How will we know that it’s doing a better job than a private contractor? How will we know it’s better than publishing the Playbook and TechFAR alone? There’s a lot to be learned from the UK’s experience with this, and Mark Thompson has leveled some very important questions at GDS which apply just as easily to the USDS. I encourage you to read it.

Another, still-unanswered question is the extent to which the USDS can shift how IT projects are scoped out, proposed, bid upon, managed and scrapped, if they don't work.

"The question is to what degree will a small number of very capable people paint rusty trains or build new ones," said Bracken. "Now, building trains in digital is so cheap; the challenge is shutting down the old ones. That's where you need teeth." (If the U.S. CIO proves willing and able to power down more IT failures as well save money by consolidating IT services, we'll know if the USDS has some bite.)

"The problem with these groups, especially the consultancy level, is the risk that you're the first to the scene of the next accident," Bracken elaborated. "You're a sort of technical ambulance chaser that getting ready to fix the next screwup. If people of that caliber do nothing else than fix really shambolically broken systems, then that's just great. Nonetheless, one has to ask the question if those are the best uses of their skills? Or should someone not have decided to spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on proprietary technology built by a company that has no experience with digital services?"

The best way to prevent a visit to the emergency room is to get regular checkups, focus on preventative health care and identify and mitigate high risk behaviors. In the UK, the GDS has made progress on all of those fronts.

"We've made the relationship between technology and government better," said Bracken. "We're part of a shop that saved the country £13.4 billion pounds last year, and £10 billion the year before." To judge the success of the USDS in 3 years, he suggested, "I'd lead with other questions: What have you fixed? What have you stopped happening?"

On that count, the White House told me to stay tuned and judge the USDS by its results. "We're brand new," said Dickerson. "I can only speak for myself and what I'm hoping for and believing as we get into this, and that's if we make -- again, using Healthcare.gov as the reference point -- Healthcare.gov-sized impacts on even a handful of government projects, then I will like my time has been well spent. Obviously, we have ambitions of doing even more than that, scaling up from those few projects that we're going to focus on in the first few months into things that are generalizable and will really improve the process all across the agencies."

Given the anger, doubt and frustration prevalent in the public discourse around government IT, the only way public trust in the federal government's ability to use technology well for something other than surveillance and warfare will be through the deployment of beautiful, modern Web services that work. Jen Pahlka has explicitly connected government's technical competency to trust in this young century.

"If government is to regain the trust and faith of the public, we have to make services that work for users the norm, not the exception," she told to Government Technology, after leaving the White House. Mayors, governors and presidents are experiencing the truth of her statement around the country, from small towns to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

"The first thing you have to do is show what's possible," said Pahlka, in our interview. "Mikey and others have already done that with Healthcare.gov. Then you have to show that those outcomes are replicable. That's what the USDS team will do next, working on a few key areas that really matter. Then you make that approach the new normal, which is going to take a long time. But the important thing is to have started, and that enough people believe we can do better."

The hardest task before the newly launched USDS, along with 18F, the Presidential Innovation Fellows, and millions of other federal employees, is not only to deliver basic services, but to go beyond, remembering that the American government has accomplished the seemingly impossible before, and can do so again.

"What I've said to other engineers, if you could only remember one thing from what we've talked about for two hours, it would be that a huge amount of what people think is immovable, unfixable, intractable -- 'there's nothing we can do here, government will never change its behavior, this is just hopeless' there's a lot of people with that attitude, both inside and outside -- and a really shocking amount of the time, maybe 60% of the time, the thing that you think can't be done really can, if you would work on it," said Dickerson. "A lot of the stuff people think agencies can't do, because it's prohibited by the FAR [Federal Acquisitions Regulation] or this or that, well, it's really not. You just had to try. If there was just one thing from Healthcare.gov that we learned, I would say it's that: a lot of these problems that we've assumed are unsolvable really aren't."