Making Government Work

Go Inside the Mission That’s Bringing the Federal Government into the Digital Age

June 20, 2016
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Go Inside the Mission That’s Bringing the Federal Government into the Digital Age
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Led by Haley Van Dyck, a team of visionaries at the U.S. Digital Service thinks that government can be just as technologically nimble as Silicon Valley.

Eight years after President Barack Obama promised to change the way Washington does business, there’s not much evidence of a new era of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill. His administration, however, has brought an antiquated, disjointed and inflexible bureaucratic system into the tech age. With a team of 153 people working across agencies, the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) retooled and modernized online applications for student loans, veteran’s healthcare and immigration visas. NationSwell spoke with Haley Van Dyck, a San Francisco native who co-founded the initiative, about running the federal government’s in-house startup.

The President asked you personally to change the government’s online systems. Why did you say yes?
Well, the president is a pretty hard guy to say no to! Honestly, why I’m here is because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else right now. Government is, I think, an overlooked platform for creating change in people’s lives. When you take a platform the size and scale of the United States government and you combine it with the transformative power of technology to create change, it can be a force multiplier for good.

What specifically are you integrating into government operations?
Our team is focused on how we can bring in the best technology talent across the country and pair it with the innovators in government to focus more on the underlying systems. There are services that government provides every single day that are utterly life changing for Americans, and whatever we can do to bring what Silicon Valley has learned about providing planetary-scale digital services that work into services that are in desperate need of upgrades is an incredibly appealing mission.

The federal government currently spends $86 billion on IT projects, but nearly all these projects go over budget or miss deadlines. Two out of every five are shut down. What’s getting in the way?
There are a lot of factors that go into it, so there’s no easy answer. Government still builds software the same way it builds battleships: very expensive, long planning cycles. That is simply not the way that Silicon Valley and the tech industry writ large has become one of the most innovative sectors, because it’s found ways to take very, very large projects and break them up into smaller pieces where they’re more approachable and [easier to] deliver results on a much faster, much less risky surface area. I think that is one of the big problems of government — it’s structured to do these large projects, and that’s what it continues to do.

Another problem we run into is just outdated technology. You will still find COBOL [a 1959 computer programming language] alive and well in parts of the United States government, because doing these kinds of technology upgrades are hard and complicated and challenging, and it takes a lot of work. So those two — the mentality as well as the existing technology — combine together make a very, very hard problem to solve. That’s basically what our team is targeting, right?

The rollout of healthcare.gov, by anyone’s assessment, was a logistical disaster and a political nightmare. Did that failure mark a turning point in how the government does its business?
There was obviously a ton of work underway long before healthcare.gov happened to solve this problem. But absolutely, I do think healthcare.gov was an incredibly critical turning point in two big ways. The first and most important one is that the rescue effort of healthcare.gov was one of the first times that many people with technology and engineering backgrounds were able to see how their skill-sets could truly help benefit a large number of their fellow Americans. It really shone a light onto the pathway for public service. The second way in which it was a defining moment was internally across government (for everyone from the White House down) it showed that the status quo right now is the riskiest option. The way the government goes about building software today is not successful and needed to change. That was a critical piece of energy and momentum that we needed to break the inertia and look at the problem from a different perspective.

Tell us a little bit about your first project with “boots on the ground,” where a team streamlined the transfer of health records from the Department of Defense to the Veterans Administration. Why start with such a huge bureaucracy?
If we were filtering for where the easy problems were, we wouldn’t have a ton of business. We ended up very excited and eager to work with the VA because we believe that veterans deserve a world-class experience when applying for the benefits after all they’ve done in service of their country. So it was an incredibly motivating mission.

Where does that project stand now?
We’re really excited because the team is making a ton of traction even in one of the largest, most entrenched bureaucracies in government. We’ve found incredible partners and supporters inside the VA who are really doing the heavy lifting and the hard work of creating culture change inside the agency, as they’re looking at how to improve services for veterans from all angles. The team is focused on two areas. First, how do we improve the experience for the veterans? Right now there are hundreds of websites, all intending to help veterans get access to their benefits. The work being done is streamlining all those service offerings and websites into a single place, where veterans can get better information and access to the benefits. Vets.gov is the new website that we’re building. It’s in beta and it’s launched for education and health benefits, and we continue to add services to it regularly.

The second big areas we spend a lot of time working is on the tools for the dedicated civil servants inside the VA to make it as easy as possible for them to complete their job of providing services to the vets. We just launched a product we’re excited about called Caseflow, which was designed with adjudicators inside the VA. It’s focused on streamlining and improving application processing. We realize that by helping upgrade the outdated systems that a lot of employees were using, we’re able to help the vets themselves.

In what ways is USDS similar to your run-of-the-mill Silicon Valley tech startup? And in what ways would you notice a difference?
We’re in incredible scrappy, bootstrap office spaces, with people running around in jeans, Post-It notes everywhere, tons of white boards and big discussions happening left and right. In many ways it looks and feels very, very similar to many of the startups you see across the country. But a couple of ways that it’s different, we’re actually quite proud of. For example, we have a very diverse team and are over 50 percent women, which I think makes different from a lot of companies in the Valley.

You’ve mentioned that USDS is easing arduous applications and centralizing contact information in one website. How does that work actually benefit the most vulnerable Americans?
I don’t want to pontificate too much on the status of our tech industry, but as you see various tech companies create change across the industry, they’re simplifying and improving the lives of Americans and really taking out a lot of the biggest inconveniences that we have. It is absolutely imperative that our government makes that same jump to providing services the same way that the rest of the industry does. The internet is obviously a huge conduit for that. In order to make sure that divide doesn’t become larger, between the people who are benefiting from the tech revolution and those who aren’t, government should make sure that we are also modernizing our services for the primary platform where people are looking to do business and communicate.

Now, that doesn’t mean it’s the only channel. We, as the government, do not have the luxury of segmenting our audiences the way that most companies do. We can’t just care about people on the internet. We have to care about those who don’t have access. But by the work we’re doing through actual user-centered design and modern technology stacks, we are able to do things like design for mobile, which is also addressing a huge percentage of Americans who now have access to internet only through smartphones and not through broadband. So I think that it’s an incredibly important part of the conversation, but it’s also not the entire conversation.

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