US Launches Tech Avengers

06/01/2015 01:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016


"Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth." -- President Lincoln (1863)

Former CTO of the United States, Todd Park, is now chief advisor of the U.S. Digital Services (USDS) and has been given the formidable task of "Crossing the Chasm" between the U.S. government and the people.

I spoke directly with Mr. Park at Twilio's Signal Conference in San Francisco. "The goal is to drive the U.S. government to world-class digital services at low cost," he told me.

But unlike most government programs that utilize internal resources, the USDS will leverage private tech sector talents to provide solutions.

Let's put the Tech Avengers through the shark tank:

The Problem

Government as a service is a notoriously lumbering giant and opaque like the Bay Area fog. The USGS realizes it needs to debug public services so that resources can be effectively and efficiently allocated.

This problem became apparent when was re-released in October 2013. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the three flaws that plagued were inadequate capacity planning, software coding errors, and the lack of functionality. The causes of the problem were the mismanagement of requirements, inconsistent testing, and ineffective project oversight. The cost of delivering the broken website was estimated to be $300 million, which took three years to build.

The trauma team, including Mr. Park, was credited for revamping in 10 weeks. However, the fundamental problem of mismanagement was systemic throughout many public services. Mr. Park identifies Veteran Affairs, immigration services, health care, Social Security and Student Aid as top priorities. Noticeably absent from the list was the Internal Revenue Service, which is amongst the most common webpage of all U.S. government websites.

Americans live in one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, yet the distribution of services has created waiting lines akin to the Soviet era. Long lines are not just a waste of time; it wastes lives.

The Solution

The mission of the USDS is to improve and simplify the digital experience that people and businesses have with their government by:

  • Establishing standards to bring the government's digital services in line with the best private sector services;
  • Identifying common technology patterns that will help us scale services effectively;
  • Collaborating with agencies to identify and address gaps in their capacity to design, develop, deploy and operate excellent citizen-facing services; and
  • Providing accountability to ensure agencies see results.

Effectively, the USDS is pressing CTRL-ALT-DEL to install agile methods that will revamp how Federal contracts are awarded. Currently, the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) governs how the government must buy services from the private sector.

TechFAR is a new guide for agencies to procure development services in ways that more closely match the modern software development techniques used in the private sector. Ultimately, it is meant to provide essential services to veterans, immigrants and patients. While idealistic, it remains uncertain whether the USDS can teach an old dog new tricks.

The Game Plan

The USDS created a playbook that has elements of the Lean Startup methodology of Build, Measure, Learn... and then added some ingredients of it's own. The Playbook features 13 digital service 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
  6. Assign one leader and hold that person accountable
  7. Bring experienced teams
  8. Choose a modern technology stack
  9. Deploy in a flexible hosting environment
  10. Automate testing and deployments
  11. Manage security and privacy through reusable processes
  12. Use data to drive decisions
  13. Default to open

Furthermore, milestones in one, three, six, and 12-month increments are distributed amongst four categories:

  • Information Centric
  • Shared Platform
  • Customer Centric
  • Security and Privacy

If you have feedback or suggestions on the Playbook or TechFAR, submit it here.

The Numbers

The Digital Analytics Program collects web traffic from almost 300 executive branch government domains, across over 3800 total websites, including every cabinet department. The most popular domains (by topic) are the environment, health care, and taxes.

Currently, the near real time stats on include daily users, top page views and device type. While these vanity figures are more form than function, the dashboard should include more meaningful performance baselines that would better gauge the program's effectiveness.

Decisions in Silicon Valley are guided by Key Performance indicators (KPI) such as Lifetime value (LTV), Conversion Rates, Dropouts, Cost per Acquisition (CPA). These KPIs are also relevant to the USDS and should be used to keep the public informed with progress (or problems).

The Budget

Governments are not known for being the best bookkeepers. It's important to know how funds are used so burn rates can be contained, if not transparent. After all, it is the taxpayers' dollars that are fueling this program. Unfortunately, when asked about the budget, numbers were not mentioned.

The Team

The USDS is comprised of captains of the private sector -- affectionately named "Tech Avengers". Led by Mikey Dickerson of Google, other notable pedigrees including talents from Twitter, Apple, IBM, Amazon, Code For America, and most recently, Twilio CTO Evan Cooke.

Evan Cooke's expertise is in building intelligent and complex communications systems. His philosophy is based on unified deployment, which "provides identical interfaces for local, stage, and production environments while meeting the needs of both application developers and infrastructure operators."

The USDS is seeking more thoroughbreds in project management, engineering and design to solve big problems. The Tech Avengers are projected to grow from 130 to 500 by 2016.

If you think you can Hulk Smash it, apply here.

The Office Politics

In a startup, time and money are scarce. With governments, pockets are deep, but have a rigorous congressional due diligence process that would paralyze the most seasoned Silicon Valley founder. For example, the bottleneck behind immigration reform is arguably a legal problem rather than an issue with latency.

The Tech Avengers are given less than two years to deliver on objectives, which means every week is worth ~1 percent. With the current administration's term coming to a close, will there enough time to show meaningful impact to justify continuity?

The Risks

Beta users are early adopters who have a high tolerance for a glitchy Minimum Viable Product (MVP). These early iterations require asking for forgiveness, not permission. After the fiasco with, it is questionable whether Joe the Plumber will have the stomach for "dog food".

Security and privacy also remain an itch that gets scratched without relief. On May 26, 2015, the Internal Revenue Services (IRS) announced that an unauthorized third party infiltrated, the IRS' "Get Transcript" application, which compromised approximately 100,000 tax accounts. This data included Social Security information, date of birth and street address. Although the USDS is not openly involved with the IRS, consumer confidence over the government's handling of sensitive information continues to strain.

The Future

It's too early to determine the Tech Avengers' success and there is clearly much work to be done in a short period of time. The USDS needs to develop quantifiable deliverables, milestones and budget to empirically demonstrate that change is better. Stay tuned for The Great Hackathon...