Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series spotlighting the U.S. Digital Service. For part one, click here.

Making waves … sort of

Though the U.S. Digital Service’s mission is to transform the public-facing services of the federal government, USDS employees are adamant that they aren’t just parachuting into agencies to create upheaval and change, only to leave once they’ve done so.

“U.S. Digital Service doesn’t just dive in, build a thing and then walk out. There is an element of this that requires working hand-in-hand with our federal counterparts,” said Shannon Sartin, executive director of Digital Service at Health and Human Services and the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid.

Software engineer Andrew Nacin in an open workspace at the U.S. Digital Service, an innovation incubator located in an old town house on Jackson Place across from the White House in Washington, D.C. (Alan Lessig/Staff)
Software engineer Andrew Nacin in an open workspace at the U.S. Digital Service, an innovation incubator located in an old town house on Jackson Place across from the White House in Washington, D.C. (Alan Lessig/Staff)


Much like with the relaunch of healthcare.gov, USDS is often asked to enter projects that are already in progress.

“We’re rarely coming into a project and saying, ‘Let’s start something new that nobody else has worked on,’” said Sam Gensburg, a software engineer at USDS who most recently worked on the launch of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Blue Button 2.0. The program presents Medicare and Medicaid data in a machine-readable format that program partners can then use to create data visualization tools.

Part of the time USDS spends at an agency is often used to challenge the typically risk-averse culture of federal agencies, because a mistake could have larger public ramifications.

“There’s a cultural component and trying to build a culture where people feel comfortable shipping things quicker or taking risks, and I think that’s something that takes time,” said Joni Cooper, USDS product manager at HHS.

And though sometimes the service recruits federal employees from other agencies to join their team, more often they find it’s important to teach and learn from those employees where they are so those employees can continue to push for change and innovation when USDS leaves.

“Because it’s important for super-smart people to stay in those roles to keep the government running; you don’t want to pull them out,” said Sartin.

“One of the USDS values is hiring and empowering great people, and part of that to us is finding people who are already working on the project, who are fantastic and really excited to work hard and do really good work and helping them be successful,” Gensburg said.

USDS projects even inspire agencies they haven’t worked with to make innovative changes. When the Defense Digital Service convinced DoD leaders to conduct a bug bounty program on their public websites, and that program was successful, it inspired other agencies to create their own bug bounties.

According to USDS employees, if DoD — one of the most secure agencies in the federal government — can successfully allow the public to help them find vulnerabilities, other agencies realize there’s no reason they can’t do it, too.

Looking forward

According to a USDS press official, the service is forecasted to help the government save more than $600 million and redirect approximately 1,500 labor-years toward higher-value work over a five-year period.

Matt Cutts, acting administrator at the U.S. Digital Service, shows a timeline in the office that employees created to show the first two years of USDS, which formed in 2014. (Alan Lessig/Staff)
Matt Cutts, acting administrator at the U.S. Digital Service, shows a timeline in the office that employees created to show the first two years of USDS, which formed in 2014. (Alan Lessig/Staff)


But many USDS employees have a hard time looking so far into the future.

According to Sartin, there are so many potential projects for USDS to join, it is difficult to prioritize what can and can’t be done.

“There’s no shortage of problems to fix, but we don’t have an infinite supply of people, and there’s not infinite money to modernize everything,” said Sartin. “I definitely remember having some serious heartache over that.”

“The hardest thing for me is feeling like I personally have momentum,” said Scott Haselton, a digital services expert at USDS. He noted that in the private sector there are metrics and launches that help measure success. “Here’s it’s kind of swimming in the middle of the ocean. You swim one direction a little bit and it’s like, ‘Did I actually get anywhere?’ You definitely have to celebrate the little wins.”

The service stands likely to have a significant role to play in the near future, at least. There were multiple mentions of USDS in both the American Technology Council’s 2017 Report to the President on Federal IT Modernization and the President’s Management Agenda.