U.S. Digital Service may be a new government ‘startup' but will it work?

Critics worry office is too weak and too late

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A new government office has a lofty goal of bringing clunky government websites up to date with more streamlined 21st century versions, but is it too weak and too late to make a difference?

Promoted as a start-up within big government, the U.S. Digital Service aims to eventually overhaul the way government agencies build and run their sites. Employees are even being allowed to ditch their ties in Silicon Valley style! Yet despite the White House’s eager backing of a new tech-savvy department, it’s unclear whether the program will have enough teeth to yield any real changes.

Launched in early August, the USDS is run out of the White House General Services Administration (GSA) and is led by technology maverick Mikey Dickerson formerly of Google—the same guy responsible for fixing the glitches behind the HealthCare.gov debacle.

Government agency websites aren’t known for their usability. Most are composed of a mess of multiple menus, drop down lists and tabs with no clear search functions for specific data. That’s pretty much how it’s always been. But the fallout from the failed healthcare.gov site last year highlighted the government’s inexperience to the point of embarrassment.

The USDS’ mission is to make sure that never happens again.

The goal should be easy considering the office is composed of some of Silicon Valley’s biggest and brightest—but then again, this is the federal government.

“Bringing a bunch of smart people into government in order to implement tech is a very good thing,” said Clay Johnson, CEO of the Department of Better Technology and founder of the firm that managed President Barack Obama’s 2008 online campaign. “But it’s not the lack of talent that is causing the government to have such a problem, it’s the bureaucracy and the culture of enterprise technology development that causes the government to fail so miserably.”

The USDS is modeled after a similar office launched in the United Kingdom in 2012 called the Government Digital Service. After a 10 billion pound project  to upgrade the IT systems for the country’s National Health Service was abandoned, the government responded with a plan to upgrade its 25 most used services to turn them “digital by default.”

But unlike the UK’s system, the USDS lacks fire power. Right now the service has released guidelines for agencies to follow when hiring contractors to build and work on their websites but falls short of being able to mandate agencies to follow the rules, or to work directly with USDS at all.

“The difference between the USDS and the GDS is the GDS has teeth and has the authority to tell agencies no—and Mikey Dickerson doesn’t have that authority,” Johnson said.

And when there are millions of dollars on hold to build these sites, Johnson says it’s even less likely that IT employees at certain agencies will want to listen to the opinions of the new blood at the USDS.

“I think it’s a disconnect between the reality of implementation and the culture of implementation,” he said. “If you think a website costs $1 million to make because it’s always cost $1 million to make and then someone comes in and says no actually it costs $100, they will think you are crazy.”  

Part of the disconnect between government IT workers and the private sector is that historically the U.S. government has focused on safeguarding data before public usability.

“The federal government spends about $80 billion each year on tech.  Those are often very large enterprise based systems,” said Beth Simone Noveck, former deputy chief technology officer at the White House and Director at New York University’s Govlab. “And the way the federal government contracts is not typically infused with modern principles of user-centric design, which means thinking about who the recipient is, who uses the system, and then designing from there to create a system that is useful to people.”

In fact, the U.S. has a track record of mucking up big IT projects to the tune of billions of dollars wasted. Take the six-year long Visa application system the Department of Homeland Security spent $1.7 billion to speed up unsuccessfully. Or the joint Veterans Affairs Department and Department of Defense $1.3 billion dollar venture to integrate health care records into a single system—which four years in has yet to emerge. 

 “We saw this with heathcare.gov quite clearly that you cannot think of technology as an afterthought,” Noveck said. “A huge amount of effort was invested in the hammering out of the legislation and then attention was turned to the development of the website. There was a failure to recognize that the realization of the vision comes from the website people end up using.”

Despite the USDS’s promise to change the government culture, critics are highly skeptical of what it actually can achieve—especially since the digital service is only just now being established, two years from Obama’s departure.

The White House hasn’t clarified the exact roles or powers the USDS will have. A spokesperson would only tell DecodeDC that the team “will focus on high impact programs that have the greatest impact to American citizens and national priorities.”

Nevertheless, Noveck says she’s optimistic about the service’s potential.

Ultimately, she says, the power of the USDS will depend on the “interplay” between GSA and the White Houses’ Office of Management and Budget, which holds the purse strings. If the OMB mandates that all agencies must get USDS approval before receiving funding to build their websites, the service will wield more power. 

“Hopefully if it’s done right [the USDS] will be releasing alpha versions of tools and sites.  They talked about being transparent from day one—you should start to see designs coming out right away,” Noveck said. “If they are practicing what they are preaching I think we’ll be seeing stuff quickly.”

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