Efficiencies Enterprises Can Learn from the U.S. Digital Service

eWEEK NEWS ANALYSIS: Chances are you’ve never heard of the U.S. Digital Service, but this office uses technical skills and innovative approaches that provide a lesson for IT operations everywhere.

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WASHINGTON, D.C.--You’d never guess that the nondescript townhouse on a leafy street near the White House held what is one of the most effective federal agencies in this town. But once you enter, your attention is immediately drawn to the casually-dressed staff meeting around a coffee table, and to another group working on communal tables covered by a sea of monitors. On first look, the U.S. Digital Service looks like something out of Silicon Valley, but there are important differences.

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For one, you’re struck by the diversity of the staff. They are of all races, and half are women. They speak in hushed tones, and move with a sense of purpose that you’d never see in the “bro” culture of the Valley. Instead, these people are on a mission, and it shows.

That mission is to use the unique skills of a carefully assembled staff “to deliver better government services to the American people through technology and design,” according to its website.

Small Team Saves Government Big Bucks

But the agency’s 180-person staff does more than just deliver better services; it also saves the government a lot of money. In FY 2018, for example, the USDS shared a $25 million budget with the Office of the CIO, and during that time found ways to save the government more than $1 billion. This is punching above their weight in a serious way.

“This is deeply meaningful work,” said Matthew Cutts, the administrator for USDS, “and its super inspiring.” Cutts, who was one of Google’s most senior engineers for 16 years, took over the agency three years ago. During that time, the agency has racked up some impressive accomplishments.

The first effort was to fix the foundering healthcare.gov site that crashed and burned almost immediately after the Affordable Care Act took effect to provide health care for anyone who needed it. Before USDS fixed things, that site was a digital quagmire of code from a vast collection of consultants, state-run agencies and others.

Since then, USDS has taken on the data systems at the Veterans Administration, where the agency faced problems caused by antiquated equipment and code, lack of technical understanding and high turnover at the leadership level.

Saved the VA $100 Million in a Single 20-minute Meetup

“We saved the VA $100 million in a 20-minute meeting,” Cutts said. That particular savings took place by correctly sizing the VA’s cloud router buy. The USDS continues to help the VA, and in addition is helping the Department of Health and Human Services modernize the Medicare payment system and providing APIs to help developers provide Medicare recipients better services.

But there’s more than just saving money involved. The USDS also has a national security role which ranges from helping NATO advisors in Afghanistan to running a bug bounty program called “Hack the Pentagon.”

All of this is driving new levels of efficiency to government IT, partly through badly needed modernization, and partly though cutting red tape. Government IT faces huge challenges because of politics and a dysfunctional budget process that results in critical infrastructure being supported by 40-year-old computers running COBOL.

But by providing specialists who can work on site with other agencies to help implement improvements and help solve organizational roadblocks, USDS is highly effective.

What Enterprises Can Learn from All This

While the USDS doesn’t provide its services to private industry, there’s no reason why the enterprise can’t adopt its approach to solve its own IT challenges. And just in case you think that doesn’t apply to your company, recall the horror stories you’ve heard about multi-year CRM implementations that ultimately failed. The biggest difference is that a private company can go out of business if the problems are big enough.

A better approach would be to create a team of your organization’s top technologists well in advance of starting any major project and have them provide the leadership needed to see the project through. This team would have to have support at the highest level in order to have the clout necessary to cut through red tape. Like the USDS, the team would be able to embed team members with the project teams to provide a continuous source of expertise and support.

USDS provides its clout by being part of the Executive Office of the President. Your team would need to report directly to the CEO or perhaps the CFO. It can’t be someone that your mid-level executives can just blow off.

Your corporate team would also have to as close to non-partisan as one can be in a corporate setting. The USDS staff is made up of professionals who are not political appointees, and they’re in an agency that spans administrations. Your leadership staff should have a similar basis and tenure in that they don’t exist at the whim of one executive, but rather have a firm place in the corporate culture.

Enterprises Need to Adopt Principles Based on Service

Your technology team also can’t play favorites. Instead, they need to adopt a series of principles focused on service. At the USDS there are six values that the agency holds at the core of its service. They include values such as “Find the truth. Tell the truth,” or “Optimize for results, not optics.”

Cutts said that his favorite value is to create momentum. Once velocity is built, he points out, you can deliver more value faster. Those values, which you can find on the mission page, provide guidance to the staff of the agency so they can deliver the best service to the government and ultimately to the people.

At your company, your goal is the deliver the best service possible to your customers and ultimately to your stockholders. Those same practices and principles, and those same values, can go a long way in helping your company do the same.

Wayne Rash, a former editor of eWEEK, is a longtime contributor to our publication and a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...