Ready for modernization? US Digital Service launches ‘maturity determination tool’ to make that call

The U.S. Digital Service has launched a tool to make sure agencies overhauling their IT don’t bite off more than they can chew.

The Digital Service Maturity Determination Tool scores agencies on nine different criteria — from openness and transparency to acquisition — to determine if they have the resources needed to support new projects.

Florence Kasule, a digital services procurement expert with USDS, said her office developed the tools for contracting officers to better understand the “organizational culture” of an agency seeking their expertise.

“I have sometimes, unfortunately, seen where there isn’t a win-win environment, [where] tone has not been set for that,” Kasule said Wednesday at FCW’s digital transformation summit. “It is sometimes an ‘us versus them.’ We have brought contractors into the environment and we need them to perform, and the atmosphere has not been set up for mutually beneficial outcomes.”

To help manage the culture change of transformation for the federal workforce, most agency IT shops working on modernization are now getting a hand from other functions, like data scientists, user-design gurus, and records management experts.

That’s one of the lessons the General Services Administration learned from a recent hackathon, which focused in part on the agency’s IT service and management platform.

David Harrity, GSA’s associate chief information officer for enterprise infrastructure operations, said the hackathon presented the agency with an opportunity to overhaul its customer experience. The overhaul focuses on a shift away from phone service, which is how Harrity said he manages more than half of his interactions with customers, and wider adoption of chatbots.

“Customers like it, but it’s also very costly from a labor perspective,” Harrity said about the GSA’s reliance on phones for customer support.

Chatbots are just one way agencies are looking to bring automation into the way they do business. Agencies, including GSA, are also looking at robotic process automation to automate rote tasks.

While RPA pilots have been useful at automating rote tasks federal employees don’t like doing, there are bigger hurdles to overcome.

Defense Digital Service: ‘Design with’ users in mind

Ranjeev Mittu, the head of the Naval Research Lab’s information management and decision architectures branch, said agencies need to break down some of the barriers around their data sets for automation to have enough training data.

“I think the key and very important aspect for everyone in the DoD and the federal government is going to be, how do we start … figuring out which things, when composed together, actually provide the best way to solve a given problem,” Mittu said. “That level is, I think, where you start to look at optimization and learning.”

The Pentagon doesn’t lack for innovation hubs. There are established offices like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and startups offices like the Defense Innovation Unit and the Defense Digital Service.

Katie Olson, the chief of staff of the Defense Digital Service, said her office’s mantra is to “design with” users having a seat at the table, rather than design a solution for them. And when working alongside the military services, Olson said her team looks at rethinking the way DoD carries out entire work processes, rather than just update the tech.

The service, for example, has worked with TRANSCOM to help military families move to their next assignment more easily through Olson said DDS’s original task was to fix the back end of the website, but the project soon took on a larger scope.

“It’s been previously sort of a black box. You don’t necessarily get the support that you need to transport you and your family around the world,” Olson said. “Not only did we fix the back end of it, but we worked with the military and their families to create a front-facing website that would allow users to plan their move.”

The next iteration of the website, Olson said, will include an online portal that will display a service member’s relocation orders, as well as support services to book moving services, buy moving insurance and troubleshoot problems with a move.

“This is a case where if we just had engineers, we probably could have fixed the back end and fixed some inefficiencies to make the orders more readily available and streamline the process,” Olson said.

But instead, the team, by talking with the website’s end users, have stood up a front-facing website to help more than 400,000 families move around the world.

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