Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The White House forms USDS and 18F to improve e-government.

The government has formed two new IT organizations in response to the HealthCare.Gov fiasco -- was HealthCare.Gov a blessing in disguise?

The White House just launched the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), headed by Mickey Dickerson, who led the team that bailed out the troubled HealthCare.Gov Web site and earlier worked on President Obama's campaign.

USDS is a management consulting firm for federal agencies, but they do not sound like typical management consultants. They are young technologists and entrepreneurs from startups, Internet companies and and e-government projects. I'm not sure, but I bet none are Harvard MBAs. (Maybe a few from Stanford).

USDS favors lean startup methods, open source and agile development by small teams. They seem more like folks who wear t-shirts to work than wear suits -- reminiscent of an earlier group of young people the government found to develop the ARPAnet.

This list of "plays" from their "playbook" gives you an idea of their development and management style:

You can see more (and comment) on the the playbook here.

USDS will complement 18F, a government agency that was formed last March. (Their office is at the corner of F and 18th in Washington). Both groups are largely staffed by former Presidential Innovation Fellows and they have a common point of view. Unlike USDS, 18F actually builds tools and implements government systems. I am sure they will work closely together.

President Roosevelt (radio) and Kennedy (TV) were leaders at using new commuication media and President Obama was the first succesful Internet campaigner. Now he hopes to modernize government IT -- he might be remembered as the Internet President.

Update 8/13/2014

USDS is also offering suggestions for addressing problems with the federal procurement process that leads to IT failures like HealthCare.Gov -- the TechFAR Handbook, which highlights the flexibilities in the Federal Acquisition Regulation that can help agencies implement “plays” from the Digital Services Playbook that would be accomplished with acquisition support — with a particular focus on how to use contractors to support an iterative, customer-driven software development process, as is routinely done in the private sector.


18F is building tools and expanding -- hacking bureaucracy and promoting open source. They've reduced the hiring cycle from six to nine months to six to eight weeks by making Schedule A hires, which are limited to four years. That is sufficient for people used to working in "startup mode" and reminiscent of the grad students who worked on short-term grants to build the ARPANet and NSFnet.

Update 9/9/2014

18F is building a new system for processing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Since the passage of the FOIA in 1966, journalists and other citizens have been able to request copies of government documents, but the system is often slow and fails to find relevant documents. 18F hopes to fix that with a consolidated FOIA request submission hub.

They began the project by meeting with stakeholders, both inside and outside the government, to discuss some of the practical obstacles impeding the current FOIA experience. They are now have a rough prototype of the FOIA request system running and the development process is open to public scrutiny and participation. You can follow, comment and contribute to the project here.

Update 11/1/2014

18F Executive Director Greg Godbout, speaking at the 50th annual TechAmerica Foundation Vision conference reported that since its founding in March, 18F has grown from 14 to 100 employees -- it is now a small business, not a startup.

He said they were not competing with Federal contractors, but were a third-party trusted adviser to the contracting agency and developer, with "no skin in the game."

Their expertise is in "agile" hiring and development and "user centered design." Let's hope these are more than buzz words and their consulting pays off.

Update 12/4/2014

USDS is expanding, working on 2.0, digitizing the VA and collaborating with 18F.

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