Tucked in the president's 2016 budget proposal is an innovative initiative aimed at overhauling the way federal digital service delivery gets done.
The $105 million request, if enacted, would finance a battalion of 500 IT specialists — collectively known as the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) — recruited from the private sector.
Their mission: To deploy across government and short-circuit the plodding, stovepiped, risk-averse bureaucracy in the advancement of more modern service delivery to American citizens.
Think Silicon Valley meets Federal Triangle. Skateboards, T-shirts and foosball tables mashing up with PIV cards, org charts and Federal Acquisition Regulations.
USDS Director Mikey Dickerson, a former Google engineer leading the effort from the White House, is well aware of the friction his disruptive teams are likely to encounter.
"We bring people from working in Silicon Valley where they sit on a bouncy ball instead of chairs," he said. "The lifestyle is a little bit different and they come here and there's a bit of a culture clash."
Healthcare.gov was the inspiration
The concept of USDS grew out of the disastrous Healthcare.gov website rollout in October 2013. Hoping to quickly mend the troubled website, the White House recruited fixers from Silicon Valley who knew something about delivering commercial-grade digital services on a large scale.
Dickerson led that effort and, after getting Healthcare.gov working, he was tapped by the White House to create a small cadre of tech-savvy developers at the Office of Management and Budget to hotwire other high-profile digital services projects mired by bureaucracy or poor project leadership.
A second team was later stood up at the Veterans Affairs Department, where the director, Matthew Weaver, holds the official job title of "Rogue Leader."
Now the plan is to scale USDS across government — creating teams at the two dozen biggest federal agencies — to disrupt traditional federal approaches to planning, developing and rolling out digital services.
The big question is whether an expanded USDS will bring about needed changes to reshape how IT gets done in government and avoid future missteps like Healthcare.gov.
The heart of the culture clash
It's one thing for these new recruits to adjust to a more staid, buttoned-down office environment. It's quite another for them to thrive in an environment that tends to quash innovation as a reflex.
"There's kind of a default assumption [in industry] that if you've thought of something new and you want to try it … there's a standing assumption that the company will try to help you try your new thing," Dickerson said. "There's a little bit of an attitude in some agencies that's a little more change-averse – more resistant to outside ideas."
When dealing with agencies, Dickerson said it sometimes feels like people are putting all their creative energy into finding ways new ideas won't work, rather than working on ways to make them successful.
Slowly but surely, the Digital Service teams are looking to change that perception and make government as agile as industry.
The key to success, he said, is to get everyone working on a shared mission with a mandate to get things done.
"What we're relying on to overcome the change resistance is working on projects where there's a strong sense of urgency. When we were talking about Healthcare.gov in 2013, we didn't worry about people saying, 'You can't try this new thing,' because there was nothing to lose," Dickerson said. "People are perfectly capable of pulling together and working as a team when they feel like it's the right thing to do."
USDS could benefit from top-down approach
The USDS also relies on the power of a top-down approach, Dickerson said, noting that agencies are more likely to embrace the idea when they know it's a presidential priority.
At VA, the integration of a Digital Service team has gone pretty smoothly, said Chief Technology Officer Marina Martin.
"There's always a challenge in change management but so far it's going really well," Martin said. "It's not about the Digital Service being a separate team that does separate things. It's about going right into the heart of the organization, working alongside people, understanding what the biggest challenges are and helping them remove and solve those challenges."
A significant part of that is helping employees understand that the new teams are there to help them, not replace them.
"Our engagement model is finding the folks that are already doing the work … and saying, 'What's your challenge and how can we help you,'" said Weaver, VA's Rogue Leader. "It's actually very easy when we show up and say, 'You've already had your eye on this ball for some time – how can we help you?'"
It's also hard to argue with technical experts like Weaver and Dickerson who have vast experience with innovative technologies.
"It's difficult to tell somebody who designed the shopping experience at Amazon that they don't know how to do consumer experience," Dickerson said. "That's not to say they would beat everybody about the head with their Amazon resume everywhere they go, but knowing that's their background" gives weight to their input.
Another pillar of the Digital Service model: bring in expert talent from the private sector that not only have great technical abilities, but also the skillsets and experiences to create environments that foster innovation.
Once over the cultural hurdles, the teams have wide authority to work across an agency, parachuting in on whatever project needs the most assistance.
"I am freed from some of the organizational constraints that a lot of other folks at the agency have to work inside of," Weaver said. "I get the luxury of focusing entirely on helping people solve problems."
In order to do that effectively, Weaver's team has been given the ability to communicate with departments throughout VA without having to wade through the bureaucratic process first.
Breaking through and finding areas where the team can make a quick but significant impact was key.
"You have to find the people who already have an idea, are already working on a problem and go in and help them," Martin said. "You've got to look for those quick wins early on that can help everybody win and share that credit. That can help build the capital you need to invest in a harder or more challenging change that's necessary down the line."
Most members of the Digital Service team at VA joined government for the long haul, but future iterations at other agencies will likely see individuals joining up for more limited tours of duty, said Federal CTO Megan Smith, a Silicon Valley veteran herself.
"We want technical people to come and serve," she said at a February conference on government innovation. "You don't have to come for your whole life — you can if you want to. But come for tours of duty: come as a reserve, come for two weeks, come for months, come for two years and come in and out of government just like our colleagues in other fields are doing."
While any extra assistance is appreciated, Weaver suggested people come for at least a year to be truly effective.
"Short-term engagement here at the agency isn't actually particularly helpful," he said. "Everyone is already trying to solve these problems — they're very challenging, very big — and what actually helps is being able to take a significant amount of time — a year or two — and stand side-by-side, trying to move the rocks together."
For Weaver, wading through the bureaucracy and strict regulations of government has been worth it.
"It feels surprisingly better to be helping our veterans than it does to be operating one of the largest machines mankind has ever built," he said in reference to his time managing Google's search engine. "The magnitude of that difference was a big surprise to me."