DHS’ move to agile development to buoy customer experience too

Eric Hysen, the DHS chief information officer, and Dana Chisnell, the director of CX, are expanding their priorities areas to include more customer and employee...

The Homeland Security Department is breaking new ground for how it will focus and deploy technology over the next four years.

The department’s new IT strategic plan for 2024-2028 added three new goals that are far from typical.

Eric Hysen, the DHS chief information officer, said the new objectives around artificial intelligence, customer experience and diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility are as much about the workforce and their needs as they are about the agency’s technology needs.

“In addition to those three new pillars, the plan continues our focus on leveraging data as a strategic asset across the department, on leading by example when it comes to our cybersecurity and taking the role the department has as the department that houses CISA, which is responsible for federal civilian cybersecurity, and ensuring that we are able to lead the rest of the federal government by example, in our own cybersecurity practices,” Hysen said on Ask the CIO. “And the plan also talks about how we are looking to modernize key legacy systems across the department. We make some explicit statements for the first time, even though these are really just a continuation of how we have approached legacy modernization for many years at DHS. We are focused on abandoning the big bang/waterfall approach to legacy modernization and making sure that we are adopting true agile development, that we are focused on government as the integrator not looking at overly relying on single system integrator contracts to make sure that we can modernize and retire costly legacy systems to deliver better value for our employees and the public.”

The more defined approach to IT modernization doesn’t change the types of companies DHS will work with, nor does it reduce the number of contractors.

DHS as the integrator

Instead, Hysen said DHS will manage its contracts differently and take the lead role in ensuring the software pieces and parts fit together successfully.

“When you look at the too many failed legacy modernization programs across DHS, and across the federal government writ large, you see some trends that more often than not, these failed programs involve a single contract that put out a giant laundry list of requirements and tried to get a single vendor that would solve all of them in one giant release of new software,” Hysen said after his panel at the ACT-IAC ELC 2023 conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania. “That’s not what we all know today is how a successful software project works. Not in the government and not in the private industry. So when we talk about government as the integrator, it builds off work that we have done for many years at DHS, work that that I first saw during my first stint at the department with the U.S. Digital Service, where I worked with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on their transformation program that was a notoriously struggling modernization program.”

Hysen said DHS will have government product and project owners who are responsible for the integration of multiple vendor efforts.

“This approach is increasingly becoming the default for our work across DHS. I think we saw this in USCIS transformation. We’ve seen this in FEMA with their grants modernization program that has made really an incredible progress over the last several years, similarly on their National Flood Insurance Program modernization effort,” he said. “Today, we are looking at that with our financial systems modernization effort, as we seek, in partnership with our office of the CFO, to look at strengthening the program management there. We’re also spending a lot of time looking at this approach for the Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology program, which is our biometrics modernization program.”

Hysen said he hopes the changes to the way DHS develops and manages applications will further its customer experience priority.

Customer experience at DHS is getting the type of visibility and attention that is usually needed to spark major change.

It’s number four in DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ list of 12 priorities.

Dana Chisnell, the executive director for customer experience at DHS, said the newly established directorate is maturing and growing.

Dana Chisnell is the executive director for customer experience at the Homeland Security Department.

“We were five or six people and then we ran a pretty big hiring action last September, using the Subject Matter Expert Qualification Assessments (SME‑QA) format to establish competencies and do the evaluations. We had 1,000 applications from human centered designers and product managers, and we hired a lot of people out of that. Amazingly, almost all of them showed up, which was absolutely wonderful,” said Chisnell, who also spoke at the ACT-IAC ELC 2023 conference. “Then we also merged with the Office of Accessible Services and Technology, which had been under the chief technology officer. When we started partnering on projects, it seemed obvious that we should join forces, so that partnership grew very quickly. Now we are all working on a whole bunch of new CX people landing at about the same time, and the former OST team integrating, building a culture together and learning from one another.”

DHS has hired 13 people from that initial effort, and almost as important is other DHS components from FEMA to USCIS have hired other CX experts based on initial announcement.

Chisnell said in addition to hiring people, her office is trying to build capacity and capability across the department in a number of ways. That starts, she said, with training to ensure everyone is working from the same standards.

She called this part of how DHS is “operationalizing customer experience,” which means having the right mindset and skillsets.

“We are also working on developing a way of assessing maturity in the same way that an IT program might look at program health. We plan on using that view on CX maturity to identify opportunities for the component partners and their programs to mature, but also for us to identify services that we can provide,” she said. “In addition, we are encouraging teams to look at outcomes versus outputs. There’s so many incentives in the system for outputs.”

Chisnell said eventually the metrics will be housed in and shared through a dashboard.

“We’re working on some prototypes right now with the data that we have, that will help us really understand what the story is of those services. But of course, we can pull together a whole bunch of publicly available data and show it to you on a web page, but how do we actually make that a meaningful thing that tells easily tells the story of how customer experience is improving, or progressing at DHS? So that’s a challenge that we are just starting to address right now,” she said.

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