Federal digital transformation: What's next for USDS and 18F?

The government's digital teams have provided desperately needed skills, but government is an "at-scale" enterprise that cannot afford to wait for a small cadre of specialists to make its way around to everyone.

Shutterstock image (by Ismagilov): restructuring business processes.

It's no secret that exciting Digital Age technologies such as cloud, mobile and social media are allowing us to connect and create value across boundaries and changing the nature of human interaction and invention.

As a result, Americans have new expectations and needs. They are no longer passive recipients of government services. They want to be engaged actively, provided choices, afforded convenience and enlightened with content tailored to them. They expect information and value delivered in every interaction.

And government leaders are thinking differently about how their agencies engage with the public and with their employees so that those interactions are more consistent with everyday life outside the government ecosystem. Transitioning from Industrial Age business processes to Digital Age agile, mobile, flexible and data-driven solutions has become a high priority for government, but it is clearly a mammoth undertaking.

As the largest purchasing entity in the world, the U.S. government is not built to implement solutions at digital speed. The challenge is marked by a federal technology workforce that has nine workers over age 50 for every one under 30, according to the Professional Services Council. Millennials account for just 7 percent of the government workforce, compared to 34 percent representation in the general economy and more than 50 percent at some leading companies.

Due in part to the scarcity of digital talent inside government and the pressures to move quickly, the General Services Administration created 18F in spring 2014 -- now part of GSA's Technology Transformation Service (TTS) -- and the White House launched the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) in late summer of that year. Although 18F and USDS operate somewhat differently, both foster digital transformation by helping agency leaders understand and implement new approaches, business models and technologies.

USDS provides rapid-response technology support when urgently needed, whereas 18F works with agencies to build digital understanding, test projects and develop contract vehicles to give the government access to private-sector partners that can help expand the government's capabilities and talent in desired digital areas.

18F and USDS provide critical skill sets that complement the expertise of the technology industry. Government agencies sorely need a cadre of talented, digital-savvy professionals who can help them start or accelerate their digital transformation. Without that expertise, agencies risk being mired in the Industrial Age -- behind the times and behind other nations.

Digital at an inflection point

Lawmakers recently sought to learn more about the activities and accomplishments of the now two-year-old 18F and USDS. A June 10 hearing held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's IT Subcommittee shed some light on the potentially significant value those entities can bring to the government's digital journey and the factors critical to realizing that value.

In testimony before the committee, then-TTS Commissioner Phaedra Chrousos described an 18F initiative with the Department of Health and Human Services to revamp the agency's request for proposals process from a waterfall-type approach to an agile, user-centered and open-platform framework.

USDS Administrator Mikey Dickerson highlighted USDS' efforts to improve services to military veterans, including providing a single, united digital experience for accessing Department of Veterans Affairs benefits.

Those and other glimpses into their activities not only showed the value they have delivered but also highlighted the need for strategic choices about the path ahead for those two digital organizations.

18F and USDS: The next horizon

In particular, two considerations resonated during the hearing: the importance of transparency, communication and collaboration between 18F, USDS and the technology industry, and the importance of a "buy first" rather than "build" philosophy.

As Chrousos told the subcommittee, "We haven't done a very good job of communicating what 18F does…. We absolutely take a buy-first approach."

That is important because government is an "at-scale" enterprise that cannot afford to wait for a small cadre of specialists to make its way around to everyone. That small team simply cannot deliver digital transformation projects at the size, scope and speed required of our government. Thus, private-sector partnerships are essential to achieving that level of change. Partnerships provide an opportunity for public service-minded professionals in the private sector to rotate in and out of government roles.

Today's priority might be agile development; tomorrow it might be cognitive computing. A "buy first" attitude can help meet such shifting priorities by providing access to the private sector's technology strength and depth. Giving agencies access to different private-sector skill sets and the flexibility to adjust to funding requirements is a considerable advantage over trying to staff up to fill a 300-person roster.

In fact, TTS and 18F could make a significant impact by expanding their focus on procurement issues and traveling from agency to agency with the goal of educating feds about Digital Age opportunities, delivering pilot projects that directly engage government employees and creating contracting vehicles so the government can quickly reach out to industry as needed to scale. Then they could move on to the next issue or agency, and repeat the process.

Industry partnerships come in many flavors -- a significant advantage for 18F and USDS. For example, on the one hand, nontraditional government contractors can bring fresh commercial thinking and strong technical skills. On the other hand, the wealth of talent among traditional contractors combines innovation capabilities with deep knowledge of government missions and needs, a passion for government service and the know-how to execute in a government environment.

Building on success, leading into the future

In just two years, 18F and USDS have made substantial contributions to advancing the federal government's deployment and integration of digital technology. Looking to the future, an ongoing commitment to transparency, communication and increased collaboration with industry will be vital to building on those successes and driving the "at scale" solution that is needed to transform the federal government.

Clear understanding of the roles and relationships between those organizations and the technology community can help maintain the flow of fresh ideas, leading-edge technology and breakthrough solutions. And those solutions can propel the government's digital transformation and better meet the needs of federal employees, our citizens and our country.