In the fall of 2015, I got a letter in the mail. It was from the Federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) informing me that I was among the more than 20 million individuals who had their information, including my social security number, compromised during the massive security breach of the summer prior. I was given two years of identity theft monitoring. Thanks for the crumb.
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That was one of the less unfortunate consequences of a gaping hole in technical ability in our government. We live in a high tech society with high tech problems, and as more of us grow up with access to the internet through our phones and the world at our fingertips, it’s high time the government caught up.
The U.S. Digital Service (USDS) is one organization aiming to fill those gaps and bring the government into the tech-enabled 21st century. Founded by President Obama in 2014 to put out the technological fire that was healthcare.gov’s debut, USDS calls itself the White House startup. The organization attempts to draw upon the innovative and iterative strategies of the private tech community by hiring individuals with seasoned backgrounds in tech for temporary tours ranging from three months to two years.
USDS works with six different agencies, and its projects have taken many different forms during its tenure. The organization has addressed vulnerability issues at the Department of Defense (DOD), accessibility for vets, backlogs for immigration services, and disparate data in healthcare.
Cybersecurity, Veterans, Immigration, and Healthcare
First off, preventing data breaches like the OPM hack was a priority for USDS. One of the Defense Digital Service’s first flagship programs was its first bug bounty project called “Hack the Pentagon.” The DoD partnered with private bug-bounty companies HackerOne and Synack, and invited interested members of the public to find vulnerabilities on the DOD’s public websites and internal systems.
At first, government agencies were hesitant to embrace the hacker verbiage, but it soon became clear that the program, despite its name, had its benefits.
“It’s cheaper, it’s faster, [and] it’s more effective,” Matt Cutts, USDS’s administrator and the former head of spam at Google, told Crunchbase News.
USDS has initiated nine bug bounties since its launch, resulting in more than 3,600 reported vulnerabilities, according to its 2017 report to Congress.
In addition to protecting sensitive data, USDS launched Vets.gov, a single sign-on online platform through which veterans can more easily access government benefits. The VA Digital Service also implemented an automated tool that streamlines the disability claim appeal process for vets, alleviating primarily manual processes that led to 80,000 veterans having appeals older than five years.
Similarly, the Digital Service at the Department of Homeland Security partnered with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on its plan to implement a completely paperless electronic immigration system by 2020. The Digital Service helped USCIS shift from 5 percent to 50 percent electronic with the digitization of the naturalization and green card renewal (I-90) processes.
“A backlog of a quarter million cases had grown,” Stephanie Neill, the Executive Director of USDS at DHS explained. “When you’re dealing with paper cases, it’s very easy to see when a backlog is building. But they weren’t used to the paradigm shift that it was just in a [digital] queue.”
In order to help USCIS following the I-90 digitization, USDS created an automated system that approves green card renewal forms without the need to approve each individual submission. The automation project reduced the year-long waiting process that resulted from the huge online backlog to a few hours—significantly shorter than the three- to four-month wait when paper processes were in place.
Pushing agencies online and automating, while an important first step, isn’t the only modernization strategy USDS has aimed for. The Digital Service at the Department of Health And Human Services, which works with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), is aiming to leverage healthcare data from millions of Americans through an API that enables Medicare beneficiaries to grant access to their claims data to third-party apps. Shannon Sartin, the Executive Director of USDS at the Department of Health and Human Services, said that the initiative has attracted the private sector as well.
”We’ve seen a lot of interest from small companies, from venture capital and everybody asking the same thing: how do I use this data to make people’s lives better?” Sartin expressed.
USDS said Amazon, Google, Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, and Salesforce “pledged their commitment to health interoperability and Blue Button’s data standard.”
Bringing tech to government isn’t as simple as rushing in, writing some code, and saving the day. A government culture built over 241 years is not easily changed, and USDS has faced challenges in its attempt to modernize the institutions of its home.
Tech And Government: Strange Bedfellows?
The tech world moves at a rapid pace. Competitive startups have to continue to add new features and iterate on existing ones to maintain exponential growth. The situation in government is quite different: caution is, at least in theory, built into the government’s DNA (and the Constitution). That makes for an interesting dynamic in USDS’s work. Cutts told Crunchbase News that the Service and agencies have had to meet in the middle.
“One technique that works really well is that you wait until something catches on fire. Basically when there’s an emergency or a crisis, and the old way is clearly not working […] that can cut through a lot of issues,” Cutts explained lightheartedly.[bctt tweet=”Plenty of people in other agencies have the exact same ideas that we do, and they just don’t have the time or sometimes the knowledge to execute.” username=”@jcmeloni”]
Adding to that, the USDS has come a ways since its launch. It acts as insurance for officials who want to improve the government’s tech abilities, but are hesitant to absorb the risks that accompany new projects.
“There’s this change management problem, which doesn’t sound as interesting as jumping in and a putting out a fire, but that’s where you have the lasting impact. And it takes time,” Cutts explained. “But as a result, we get more trust, and more credibility, which then allows us to do more.”
Another issue they have faced and helped to mitigate is lack of communication across large bureaucracies and lack of agency among lower level stakeholders.
“Plenty of people in other agencies have the exact same ideas that we do, and they just don’t have the time or sometimes the knowledge to execute on that, and they’re just flat out not allowed to,” Julie Meloni, the Director of Product Management & Strategy at USDS, told Crunchbase News.
As a result, the USDS has become a liaison between rank-and-file employees and agency leadership.
“There can be seventeen layers between a nurse at a VA center and the secretary of Veterans Affairs, both of whom care hugely about helping veterans,” Cutts noted.
Given the nature of working in government, USDS has focused on recruiting talent that is both prepared and suited for these types of organizational challenges. And that does not include overly-confident engineers with big egos.
“If you hit your head against a brick wall for some amount of time, you’re probably going to come at it with a different tool. We recruit for that,” Sartin said. “It’s not only a great skill set to come in with, but it’s something you would leave with it being amplified. You learn about how to navigate complex situations and stakeholders.”
And while many techies have taken tours away from their jobs at large tech companies to work with the White House startup, USDS is making a concerted effort to recruit individuals from outside of Silicon Valley, including in Nashville and Ann Arbor.
“I think the Digital Service only represents America well when it’s actually representative of America,” Cutts expressed. “We’re close to half women with over sixty percent of our leadership being women.”
The new administration hasn’t reduced its budget, as some had expected. However, one of the agency’s main issues, according to Cutts, is one that tech startups in Silicon Valley face: hiring talent that is willing to take a pay cut (and also potentially move across the country). But one thing they do have on their side is the mission.[bctt tweet=”If you hit your head against a brick wall for some amount of time, you’re probably going to come at it with a different tool. We recruit for that.” username=”sartin_shannon”]
“You see a lot of people who think they are going to do six months then go back to Twitter, and their life kind of takes an unexpected turn,” Cutts said. “We’ve had people leave to set up the California Digital Service, the Massachusetts Digital Service, and there’s someone who is angling to make a Colorado Digital Service.”
The individuals it is introducing to public service may bring the brains and benefits of tech’s boom over the past decade into the future of a government supported by tech. However, while Silicon Valley startups look to make their mark with flashy keynotes, the Digital Service is aiming for a lasting cultural and technological impact without the glamour.
As Meloni put it, the goal is, “To be obsolete; to work ourselves out of a job.”
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