Aug 13 2014

Replicating the Good that Came from the Debacle

A former Google engineer who was key in nursing the fledgling website to health will head a new Digital Service team as deputy federal CIO.

After the botched rollout of last fall, the website quickly became the poster child for what’s wrong with federal IT.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) began developing the website and its related systems “without effective planning or oversight practices,” and the agency racked up millions in additional costs as well as suffered delays in both the website schedule and the functionality for accompanying systems, according to a July 30 report by the Government Accountability Office.

Unlike a number of other failed IT projects, this one has a happy ending, thanks to a “team of unknown — except in elite technology circles — coders and troubleshooters who dropped what they were doing in various enterprises across the country and came together in mid-October to save the website,” as Time puts it.

The White House announced this week that one of those dream team members, former Google engineer Mikey Dickerson, will join the federal government in a permanent role as deputy federal CIO. He describes himself as “a member of the original five-person ad hoc team assembled by the White House to repair the web site after a troubled launch.” He spent several months nursing the website to health as an independent contractor for CGI Federal and Quality Software Services Inc.

Dickerson will also serve as administrator of the U.S. Digital Service, “a small team made up of our country’s brightest digital talent that will work with agencies to remove barriers to exceptional service delivery and help remake the digital experience that people and businesses have with their government,” federal CIO Steve VanRoekel, federal Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and Beth Cobert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, wrote in a joint blog post.

VanRoekel told Federal News Radio that Dickerson will work closely with Lisa Schlosser, deputy CIO, as she carries out her responsibilities for policy, agency oversight and accountability.

Adopting Industry Best Practices

Dickerson’s Digital Service team will be charged with helping agencies scale public-sector best practices. Federal News Radio reports that President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget request includes $20 million for the Information Technology Oversight and Reform (ITOR) fund, a portion of which will go toward the Digital Services Office.

The administration will use existing funds to pilot the Digital Service this year and scale it in 2015, the executives noted in their blog post. The team will also collaborate with 18F, a digital hub housed at the General Services Administration that rapidly tests and deploys digital services to agencies.

Specially, the Digital Service team will:

• Establish standards to bring the government’s digital services in line with the best private-sector services.

• Identify common technology patterns that will help the government scale services effectively.

• Collaborate with agencies to identify and address gaps in their capacity to design, develop, deploy and operate citizen services.

• Provide accountability to ensure that agencies see results.

The Government’s IT Playbook

The administration is also making sure that agencies have internal resources to provide better services. A new Digital Services Playbook, released this week, offers 13 strategies gleaned from the public and private sectors for delivering successful projects and programs. Each one comes with a checklist and key questions that should be asked when rolling out digital projects, such as, who are the key users, and how often are you testing the services with real people?

There’s more. Agencies will also have access to the TechFAR Handbook, to help agencies execute digital service plays within the guidelines of the Federal Acquisition Regulation.

Here are the first five plays:

  1. Understand what people need
  2. Address the whole experience, from start to finish
  3. Make it simple and intuitive
  4. Build the service using agile and iterative practices
  5. Structure budgets and contracts to support delivery
Oleksiy Mark/thinkstock

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