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The Man from Google Who Came to Fix Federal IT Still Doesn’t Have His Own Website

Flickr user O'Reilly Conferences

With much fanfare last summer, the Obama administration named Mikey Dickerson the unofficial savior of federal IT projects in the post-HealthCare.gov age.

Most of us haven’t heard a peep since.

That’s an exaggeration, of course. Dickerson, the head of the U.S. Digital Service team, has given speeches, made appearances at tech conferences and even popped up in a tongue-in-cheek White House video depicting the Silicon Valley sage’s first fish-out-of-water day in the West Wing.

But nearly six months after its creation, the agency whose stock-in-trade is digital services still has no discernible Web presence. No Twitter profile or other social media existence. And aside from Dickerson and a handful of hires announced when USDS was stood up in August, information about the tech aces who populate the office is hard to come by.

USDS was born out of Dickerson’s work last winter to rescue the floundering federal health care signup site. That fix-it-first mentality appears to have prevailed. But to the detriment of transparency?

Officials acknowledge USDS’ role has mostly been behind the scenes, as it builds the capacity to execute its mission. An administration official told Nextgov the office is working to have a larger public presence in 2015.

But will USDS ever publicize who’s on its team and the kind of projects it works on? That remains to be seen.

Luke Fretwell, a digital consultant and the curator of the GovFresh blog, said USDS’ low profile makes sense – for now.

"What they're trying to do is address immediate needs and hire really great people,” he said. “It's not about marketing what they're doing."

In other words, the local firehouse doesn't have to publicize its services; people know whom to call when they spot a blaze.

Still, a team of former Silicon Valley tech gurus tasked with helping the government straighten out digital projects without a website seems curious. Even the tiny – some might say obscure – agency responsible for paying benefits to retired railroad workers has a website.

USDS’ operations look especially opaque compared to another recently stood-up innovation office in government, the General Services Administration’s 18F team.

Named for the intersection of streets at which GSA headquarters sits, 18F maintains a swanky new website -- with a list of all its team members -- and a bustling presence on Twitter and code-sharing portal GitHub.

18F has also shown a knack for self-promotion. Here are recent stories we wrote on how 18F is helping agencies use technology to streamline Freedom of Information Act requests and a plan announced this week to ease agencies’ path toward agile development.

In contrast, we only learned months later -- and not through official channels -- that USDS had been hauled in to shore up network security at the White House after hackers infiltrated an unclassified network there last fall.

There’s a similar amount of fuzziness surrounding USDS staff.

When Melody Kramer, a long-time National Public Radio digital strategist, announced this week she was leaving the station to join the 18F “skunkworks shop,” the news circulated far and wide on social media and the trade press.

But when high-profile Google engineer and self-described “security princess,” Parisa Tabriz, joined USDS on an interim basis last fall to help shore up White House computer security, we only learned of it months after the fact – and only because Tabriz had added it to her publicly available resume and an eagle-eyed Twitter follower spotted the update.

Administration officials told Nextgov the USDS team is made up of about 20 staffers -- a mix of political appointees, career staff and outside consultants -- but declined to comment further on the agency’s staff makeup.

Perhaps USDS’ relative lack of transparency compared to 18F has something to do with the two agencies’ divergent missions?

18F is about creating user-friendly digital services from the ground up. USDS, on the other hand, parachutes in to other agencies only when there are problems, a role Dickerson has likened to the “Navy Seals” of federal IT.

18F can point to the shiny new objects it’s helping agencies create. It may be only natural the administration would want to keep a tight lid on the screw-ups USDS is helping to quietly fix.

"Everybody wants to start with a blank slate and a green field and build the next great thing that’s going to be awesome and make all the decisions along the way,” Dickerson said at a meeting of federal managers in September, in some of his first remarks upon taking the job. “But the job that not as many people want is: Somebody already built this thing and it’s not working at all, and it’s really important, so somebody needs to fix it."

So, maybe USDS has put everything else on the back burner -- website included -- because there are still too many fires to put out?

That very well may be the case, Fretwell said.

"I understand where they're coming from because they're probably just dealing with an onslaught,” he said. "They're just so inundated and they don't really have the bandwidth to address all that stuff and be as transparent with what they're doing right now."

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