Digital services teams will begin sprouting up across the government over the next year. The Office of Management and Budget plans to expand the number of teams of technology experts to work on troubled or high-profile projects.
“One of the things at least I hope we have some success with is building these teams, not big teams, inside agencies to build up their own technical capacity directly,” said Mikey Dickerson, the director of the U.S. Digital Service office and deputy federal CIO, in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio. “The Veterans Affairs Department is the big one we are working on. They are making great progress and we are happy for the chance to work with them to help make that happen. It’s the same idea, the same kinds of tasks that we set up U.S. Digital Service to do — being able to respond quickly to evolving needs, to help make sure procurements and acquisitions go in a reasonable direction and that kind of stuff. VA’s own digital service team should be able to do [the same things] for the VA as well and make a real difference in a lot of their veteran facing services that they need to provide.”
Dickerson said USDS is considering which other agencies have an immediate need or are more ready to set up a similar team.
“We are triangulating both of those things to prioritize where we will try to help build digital services teams next,” he said. “We don’t have a real concrete plan for which ones will come exactly next that we can talk about today.”
Despite not having specifics, OMB’s path forward has become more focused since the public release of the Digital Management Strategy in May 2012.
Over the last two years, OMB has led the effort to put the pieces in place to meet many of the 29 goals outlined in the plan.
Building the capacity in 2015
Lisa Schlosser, the acting federal chief information officer, said the initial goal of the strategy was to change the mindset of the government to think about digital and openness by default and publishing application programming interfaces (APIs). The government has an open platform with almost 500 APIs published for other public and private developers to use to create digital services and processes.
Earlier this month, the Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration and Bureau of Industry and Security worked with the departments of the Treasury and State to create a Consolidated Screening List API to make it easier for companies to ensure they are exporting to only trustworthy foreign companies.
The agencies created an authoritative, up-to-date and easily searchable list with more than 8,000 company and individual names and their aliases. The API lets developers create tools, such as websites or mobile apps, to more quickly and easily access the database.
Heading into the new calendar year, Schlosser said agencies are moving toward the next step in digital government — building capacity to integrate digital services with federal systems with expertise in agile development. OMB said agencies slowly are grasping agile or modular approaches to development. Schlosser said agencies have cut the time it takes to deliver capabilities, on average, by 20 days.
“We intend over fiscal 2015 to really reach out to agencies through the Digital Services team, through things like PortfolioStat, through agency reviews, through reviews of high-impact list to actually start to apply the digital services playbook and the plays involved to scale how we implement best practices, Dev/Ops and digital services strategies,” Schlosser said.
She said the CIO Council’s Innovation Committee, led by Margie Graves, the Homeland Security Department’s deputy CIO, and Bill Zielinski, the Social Security Administration’s CIO, is working with agencies to identify where those APIs can be applied to enhance mission and customer-facing services.
Schlosser and Dickerson say agencies continue to struggle in having the right talent in place to take advantage of the digital evolution.
“In those first couple of months we’ve been there, that’s where we’ve put a ton of [people] effort,” Dickerson said. “We’ve been hiring into our own team, the U.S. Digital Service. We’ve been working with an agency or two trying to bootstrap the same ideas over there so they can build the same capacity.”
New position descriptions under development
As USDS is trying to help agencies meet the need for talented technology workers, others already are taking the initiative to change the look and skillset of their employees.
The General Services Administration’s 18F — one of the growing number of innovation labs popping up across government–grew to more than 100 employees since March, in part, by improving the federal hiring process by applying an agile approach to it.
“We have an overall strategy to focus on getting the right talent into the government. That means talent from the outside, and giving the talent that’s in the government the opportunity to work on these high-impact programs as well,” Schlosser said. “We are putting out a lot of tools where we are working with the agencies and through the CIO Council. We recently stood up a workforce subcommittee, which is headed up by Darren Ash [the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s CIO] and Richard McKinney [the Transportation Department CIO]. They are helping to put together position descriptions for some of the new skillsets that Mikey’s team is bringing in that are relatively new to the government like digital services experts, site reliability engineers and user- experience experts. That’s where we want to start is defining what skillsets we need, and then using an approach where we give existing government employees the opportunity to train and acquire those skillsets and apply for these digital services jobs.”
She said agencies also should take advantage of the flexible hiring authorities that are allowed under policy and law.
“As the tools are available, we are putting them out there,” Schlosser said. “For example, digital services experts, we do have a good standard position description that we’ve started to share with the agencies.”
Dickerson said during his short time in government, the hiring process is the biggest obstacle to bring in these experts quickly.
Bringing in the right people or training current employees in the digital or agile approaches to development is part of the broader strategy to institutionalize the concept of these digital service teams and agile development approaches.
“We do have a governmentwide strategy that integrates all of these moving parts into one comprehensive strategy. The vision is to have this centralized capability of a digital services team that can come in and help agencies, and to a degree, train agencies on modern Dev/Ops practices and start to embed those through the normal e-government practices in the way the agencies operate from everything to funding to developing to implementing to measuring,” Schlosser said. “We also will work closely with 18F, who has a more direct delivery model so they will actually be building websites and services. We also want to scale this into agencies so agencies ultimately have this capacity within their agency based on their mission requirements.”
While agencies ramp up, Schlosser said she wants to ensure the USDS is both a strategic resource as well as one that could address immediate needs across the government.
Dickerson said that while he would love to put his office out of business over the next two years, he realizes there always will be projects that need a “swat” team to help.
But if USDS can help shift the discussion from agency needs to customer or citizen needs when building services, then his organization will be successful.