Are USDS and 18F becoming part of the govtech ecosystem?

Steve Kelman talks to both digital recruits and longtime feds about the benefits -- and lingering tensions -- that come from digital service teams.

steve kelman

I have been an admirer of 18F and the U.S. Digital Service since both organizations were founded back in 2014. They have an innovative talent recruitment model, which encourages people from tech companies to work for a relatively short time for government without committing to being "lifers." (Stints at 18F are for two years; USDS seeks six-month commitments. Both are renewable.)

These organizations attract talent based on the idea of public service, of spending some time on something more rewarding than developing a new photo-sharing app.

"I spent my whole life believing that other people were around that would magically make the government run. But there are no magic government elves and this isn't just someone else's problem, said former USDS engineer Sabrina Williams in a Medium blog post. "This is our government, our country, and our responsibility to help each other. USDS is one of many ways that you can choose to serve."

Yet while I really like the USDS/18F models, I have also been very worried from the beginning that the cultural conflicts between career feds and young digital service people would lead agencies to reject offers of digital service assistance as coming from an alien body.

As a longtime observer of federal IT told me, at the beginning there was an attitude of "we are the smartest people in the room, you feds are stupid, get out of my way."

It also didn't help that especially USDS was a favorite of the Obama White House, producing the perception that "you care only about what the president says," and that in most of its original assignments (such as the rescue) it was brought in uninvited from the White House as a sort of SWAT team after an agency had run into problems. 

As a veteran USDS-er, now promoted to a senior position, told me: "We came in under urgent circumstances, something was on fire. There was no time for stakeholder engagement. We heard the same story time and time again – we had sharp elbows."

In a recent blog on tech demos, I noticed that many agency folks volunteered (without prompting) ways that either USDS or 18F had helped them. There was no sign of culture clash in their observations. It turns out that what I had concluded based on conversations with feds who had worked on tech demos was true: USDS and 18F are generally now accepted more readily than they were before.

The most-common explanation among the feds I asked was, simply and straightforwardly, that the digital teams produced results for agencies. "Examples of success prove to the community that this stuff can work," one of the feds told me.

The head of the HHS digital services team told me that USDS had helped save CMS a lot of money -- in the hundreds of millions of dollars -- by helping a troubled effort to develop a new quality-based reimbursement system for physician payments under Medicare.

"In the VA," USDS alum Todd Stumpf said on Medium, "demonstrating repeatedly that the contemporary development practices of the industry can be applied to government projects in a safe, secure, successful manner" made all the difference.

Recently, staffers at the agency digital services teams at the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services have begun offering several hours of advice to people in the agency who have a specific problem with which they'd like some assistance.

"People thought they would be like oversight," a senior career executive told me. "But it wasn't true." And with time, the outsiders became more familiar features of the federal environment.

The second change is that, over time, 18F and USDS have also learned about how to comport themselves effectively so they don't come across as combative or condescending.

A longtime senior 18F executive told me "leadership started to let members of 18F know that we needed to take a more humble, patient, empathetic approach. Eventually, we started to adopt more formal, documented values/principles to be more client-oriented approach. We also did customer experience surveys to gauge client impressions, and responded to those. We also stood up an agency partnership team to help with client relationship management, which turned out to be a great move," the executive said.

This executive said 18F has “become more service-oriented like any professional services organization has to be in order to succeed. This isn't always the case in every engagement, and they still have a ways to go, but it's trending in the right direction."

Leadership changes, particularly at USDS, have played a role. Matt Cutts, the head of USDS, worked at Google for 13 years before joining the federal government, and was well known in tech for his work improving Google’s web search capabilities. (Cutts has 545,000 followers on Twitter.)

"When I joined the US Digital Service," Cutts wrote on his personal blog, "I only planned to stay for three months. That quickly turned into six months after I saw the impact of the USDS. In the last month, I made a big decision. On Dec. 31, 2016, I resigned from Google."

According to a USDS source, "Matt is very focused on stakeholder engagement and agency partnership." He has introduced a new protocol for possible agency engagements, which is to measure agency "readiness" to support help from USDS.

"If we don't have support, we now say maybe it's not time for USDS to engage," the source explained. 18F now does the same readiness evaluation before undertaking a job. 

Under Cutts, USDS also has gotten support from the Trump administration, after initial fears the unit might not survive, and Cutts has been named to Trump’s American Technology Council. 

While talking with people to prepare this post, I learned about two important issues involving the digital service-agency interface that go beyond the cultural conflict stereotypes presented above.

One is the perception by some skeptics that the digital services teams are interested only in doing "sexy" IT work -- high-profile customer-facing applications -- rather than work perceived as "boring" even though it's vitally important, such as helping with legacy systems modernization or development of shared services for HR and financial management.

The second is the suggestion that digital services folks always want to write code, the more imaginative the better, even though in many situations, using COTS, or modifying or reusing existing code, may be less expensive or otherwise more appropriate for agencies.

Digital services folks I have spoken with basically respond to the first criticism by saying some version of "get used to it." They point out that USDS and 18F are succeeding in recruiting very smart, accomplished, motivated people to work a stint in government. Such people clearly have other options than working for government, even for a while.

As a USDS manager told me, digital service recruits are leaving dream jobs to work in government, and "they need hugely impactful experiences. If we’re going to get that kind of talent, we can’t have them work on legacy systems.”

Chad Sheridan, CIO for the Department of Agriculture crop insurance program and a respected government IT professional, perceptively pointed out, that in Silicon Valley software is written to deliver better features than competing apps offer. So the orientation of developers to writing great code is understandable. However, that is not the government's world, where agencies are not trying to win customers from other apps. The suggestion is government digital service culture should adapt to that difference.

One of the feds I spoke with noted that increased understanding for digital service teams also went hand-in-hand with increased training in agile software development. "People are coming around little by little," he said. "Successes should be publicized. We have to persevere and be patient."

My verdict on USDS and 18F: They have now indeed become part of the govtech ecosystem. And they are making a marked contribution to better government IT.