USDS’ year-long effort to modernize military relocation site to launch in June

The U.S. Transportation Command brought in the U.S Digital Service after its Defense Personnel Property System suffered a two-week outage.

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For service members and their families, springtime doesn’t just mean April showers and May flowers, but changes to duty stations.

About 400,000 service members move every year, and let’s just say the technology to support them in this time of stress has been less than adequate. For example, the Defense Personnel Property System (DPS), run by the U.S. Transportation Command, was reliable only 16 percent of the time, was not mobile friendly and would crash, making it difficult to schedule moves.

Starting last year and continuing into this summer, the U.S. Digital Service is beginning to relieve some of the stress that comes with moving.

Lauryn Fantano, a project manager and designer for USDS  working with the U.S. Transportation Command, said the team had to start almost from scratch to redesign and transform the application that service members use to track and expedite their move.

In June, USDS will pilot the replacement for DPS, testing with about 2,000 families for the summer moves.

“It will be a soft launch with select service branches and select families. We are channeling it down by geography and route because it is a very new system,” Fantano said on Ask the CIO. “The other thing the new system will have will be the ability for service spouses to have their own account and track their own move’s progress. Before, they were left in a black box and didn’t have access to anything related to their move, even though as we did research we found that service spouses in particular handled this process more often than service members do in the instance that they are married.”

Fantano wants to work out the kinks of the system over the summer and then have it ready for broader use in the summer 2019 busy season.

The work on the new system had to come after USDS did what it could to fix the existing system with the 16 percent up-time reliability and laundry list of other problems.

“Our initial engagement was really just a firefighting effort of looking at that system and figuring out how to improve reliability going into the summer of last year when a majority of military families will move,” Fantano said. “Our engineers were able to take two weeks, go on the ground and work with their developers and improve the reliability to high a 90 percent ever since them.”

USDS database system reliability engineers reviewed the code running behind the system and fixed the structure of the system to increase its uptime.

Fantano said initially that fixing the DPS wasn’t on USDS’ to-do list as there were other systems in more critical need of care. But after an outage of more than two weeks, the Defense Digital Service and the Transportation Command made it clear that USDS’ firefighters had to help.

The success with the DPS is one of several projects USDS highlighted in its annual report to Congress.

Acting USDS Administrator Matt Cutts writes that over the past year, the team of about 200 digital service experts helped agencies with a variety of projects ranging from DoD’s application to move service members to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s Electronic Immigration System to the Small Business Administration’s certification program.

“Still, opportunities to modernize government services abound. Three criteria continue to guide us when selecting new projects: what will do the greatest good for the greatest number of people in greatest need, how effective and cost-efficient our work will be, and the potential to scale technical solutions across government,” Cutts writes.

As with almost every project, Fantano said once USDS helped fix the initial problems with DPS, it moved on to the longer-term vision of modernizing the portal.

For that, USDS met with Gen. Darren McDew, the commander of USTRANCOM, to understand his vision for the system.

Then, USDS started a nationwide tour over an 8-week period talking to service members and their families to better understand the current processes and pinpoint areas of heartache and stress.

“Some of those were technology problems and some of those were policy problems so we were able to create a strategy to improve the technology over the last year as well as provide guidelines for USTRANSCOM to follow up on some of the policy changes on their end,” Fantano said. “Simple things like not being able to check your move status on your phone when your laptop or computer is packed on the truck because the old system was only available on a PC were some of the things we were able to pick up on.”

Elliott Wilkes, a digital services expert for USDS, said the personnel property system relied on service members and their families inputting information instead of relying on system-to-system communications.

“One of the big things that we are crafting are some initial API specs to more efficiently share data across entities rather than a lot of human processes that involve people typing things in,” Wilkes said. “When you are dealing with a scale of tens of thousands of moves over the course of just a few months, it’s really a struggle to meet that demand.”

He added that DPS relied on both paper processes but also inefficient electronic functions.

Another piece to the project was simplifying the website, which Fantano described as a Wikipedia tool of how to move in the military.

USDS worked with the command to remove government speak and answer the questions that families most care about when it comes to moving. USDS relaunched in December.

Part of any USDS project is constant testing and iterative development based on the user experience. For the new personal property system, Fantano said USDS is testing weekly with the different transportation offices across the U.S., showing every screen design, going over the language so it’s not filled with jargon or acronyms, and ensuring the steps are intuitive.

“Overall my hope for this program is we start to treat it more like a traditional service you would find in the private sector and have the technology meet them where they are,” Fantano said.

Wilkes added USDS also wants to ensure that it is handing the continued development of the software back to U.S. Transportation Command and the engagement with all stakeholders, whether it’s with the service members and their families or human resources and logistics activities, continues for the long-term.

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