Ann Lewis is bringing tech talent to bear on a range of big, pressing service delivery challenges from her perch as director of the Technology Transformation Services.
Leading the tech innovation hub at the General Services Administration, Ann Lewis wears a lot of hats. The Technology Transformation Services has oversight of the digital services agency 18F, digital identity platform Login.gov, the IT Modernization Centers of Excellence, the U.S. Digital Corps, the System for Award Management — the online infrastructure used to communicate contracting needs to industry — the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and more.
"I'm really proud to head up the largest agency-independent technology organization in the federal government," Lewis told Nextgov/FCW. "We're now more than 500 people strong across 24 programs, and almost all those programs have their origins in administration priorities. So we're bringing in the best folks from the tech world to solve some of the hardest problems in government."
Lewis was appointed to her post in December 2022. A 20-year software industry veteran, she was chief technology officer at Next Street and MoveOn.org and has served in government as senior advisor for technology and delivery at the Small Business Administration.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nextgov/FCW: Your 2024 budget request mentions a strategic shift going back to 2022 to focus on High Impact Service Providers. What precipitated the change, and how does this structure better deploy resources that you have?
Lewis: I think of High Impact Service Providers as a great framework for understanding how to prioritize the customer experience, opportunities and improvements that exist across the whole of the federal government, and it's something that was emphasized as a focus in terms of the consulting projects that we work on at 18F and the Centers of Excellence. But I do feel like when I took the reins here that our strategic priorities weren't really changed. Customer experience work always was and probably will forever be important. And we also have some administration priority programs that we're really focusing on investing in and supporting and lifting up, and those are Login.gov and FedRAMP.
Nextgov/FCW: Can you highlight some of the big customer experience projects that you're working on?
Lewis: One of my favorite examples is that the Centers of Excellence has partnered with the Farm Service Agency to improve a loan assistance tool that directly supports economic relief for the American farmer. This partnership intends to lower the barrier for entry of loan applications to decrease frustration and hopefully improve transparency for farmers who need immediate relief.
I think the beauty of the TTS role in customer experience is that we're uniquely situated to see challenges across government and help address them. And I think that the way that budget and decision-making authority is distributed in the federal government generally encourages agencies to focus on just the programs and the pieces of the customer-experience puzzle that they own.
[TTS] can see the full picture of the experience. We can measure the path between where they started and where they were trying to get and understand where are the barriers, where are their opportunities to reduce steps, and we can recommend improvements that span agencies and programs. So we try to embed with agencies and use a variety of tools and tactics to help agencies with this.
Nextgov/FCW: How is the cultural fit when you embed? How are you meshing with different sorts of CIO organizations and other groups?
Lewis: All different kinds of ways. Sometimes CIOs will reach out to us and say, hey, we want to do this kind of project, and we'd love some additional product managers or designers to help us out. Sometimes we'll work with U.S. Digital Service and team up on projects like the IRS Direct File project. Sometimes, programs will reach out to us and say, “Hey, we'd love to engage your consulting organizations. What are our options?”
When we engage in these ways we try to bring in best practices from the tech sector but in a really pragmatic way. So we're not going to say, “Do it this way because we're from the tech industry; we know better.”
We're going to work to understand the context of the agency and the context of the program, the history, and really understand the reasons that drove their systems. And then we accept these reasons, we accept this context, and then try to use tech best practices to adapt processes, try new ideas and, in particular, create feedback loops and do a whole lot of testing and help agencies become more empowered to more aggressively manage their implementation teams. What we try to do is lift up the agencies as the heroes here.
Nextgov/FCW: We've seen some oversight reports critical of innovation organizations for falling short on cost recovery. Do you see larger value derived from what your organizations deliver that is separate from the gains on each project that you're accounting for?
Lewis: I definitely do. I think that every time you invest in reusing a website, using building blocks versus building your own, you're reducing costs and you're increasing the utility to customers. There's huge value that's pretty hard to measure. So I think we do a disservice to our agency partners and the public if the only metric of our success was cost recoverability.
Nextgov/FCW: You mentioned Login.gov as one of the big cross-cutting efforts. Tell me a little bit about the status of the program and goals for compliance with NIST identity standards.
Lewis: We're very proud to say this now has more than 70 million multifactor authentication-enabled user accounts, over 20 million new accounts being created just in the past year. As of August 2023, Login.gov is enabling access to 43 federal and state agencies — an increase of over 50%. This broad adoption of Login.gov means that access is both easier and more secure for tens of millions of users.
Every Login.gov account has multifactor authentication automatically enabled by default. The tech industry has made a shift from knowledge-based to evidence-based verification, and we're making that shift along with it. Evidence-based verification makes it significantly harder for fraudulent actors to steal a user's identity, and it raises the bar on protection of taxpayer dollars.
Nextgov/FCW: I want to pivot to some workforce talk. Can you update us on the Digital Corps?
Lewis: We celebrated the second anniversary of the U.S. Digital Corps on August 30. The program now has almost 100 total employees, including 90 fellows across two cohorts last year. As our 2022 fellows moved into their second year this summer, they were very well positioned to support our new 2023 fellows, who came on board in July, as peer mentors and supporters. So not only are the cohorts themselves having a big impact, but they're creating this ecosystem of expertise and support.
What we're seeing is that our fellows’ skills, even at the early-career stage, are in incredibly high demand by our agency partners. Since we've launched the program, we've had more demands for fellows each year than our capacity to meet that demand, which is why we've been investing in growing the program team that supports the fellows. We now have fellows at 19 different federal agencies supporting key initiatives, including customer experience, equity, cybersecurity and open science.
Nextgov/FCW: Can you give us an update on the project to build a kind of federal front door at USA.gov?
Lewis: In the tech world we have Conway's Law, which is sometimes paraphrased as "you ship your org chart." The internal structure of an organization ends up showing up in the actual way products are structured. The federal government is like Conway's Law on a national scale.
I think agencies investing in search engine optimization and content strategy can help with this. The two key principles to me that we need to bring to all of our work are that we need to meet users or the public where they are, and we need to figure out what their user journey is and remove barriers. If we can do those two things in all of our projects, including USA.gov, we will be successful. And we've already seen success in making it faster and easier for the public to get the information they need.
One of my favorite things to do is listening in on USA.gov contact center calls. We have a public listening session every Friday, and you can really hear firsthand what people are calling in about and what barriers they have. It's a humbling experience. You know, as a technologist, you can spend a lot of your time having all these big ideas about how the world should work and all these things that we're going to do at the end of the day. But if it doesn't work for the next person who calls in on the USA.gov contact center, we're not doing good enough and we need to do better.
Nextgov/FCW: It's been about 10 years since the failed rollout of Healthcare.gov that led to the development of innovation teams like 18F. What's your take on the overall impact of this focus on trying to drive technology innovation by using small, agile teams?
Lewis: I think we've learned a lot in the last 10 years. One key lesson we learned is that technologists need to be at the table for all aspects of managing implementation work — from the leaders who are defining the budget and authorities and shape of the project, to the project managers talking directly to the vendors, to the program managers who are connecting all the different implementation teams together.
Another big lesson for me is that complexity compounds. Building a giant system because of a bunch of policy choices, with resource constraints forcing a particular set of implementation choices, by itself creates a lot of technical debt. But when you do that with 10 other systems that are interconnected, you're heading into maximal complexity. Do you need that? Do you want that? If not, aggressively control for complexity at the policy level and at the planning level, in the ways that you communicate your choice points to your leaders.
Figuring out how to match complexity to the system or the need is a big challenge, especially for tech leaders. And I think it's always a challenge everywhere in the world.