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White House U.S. Digital Service Aims to 'Identify and Fix Problems'

The private-sector-inspired consulting department's core mission is to improve and simplify IT operations across the federal government.

by / August 12, 2014
Former Google Site Reliability Manager Mikey Dickerson shares a few laughs at the launch of the California Health and Human Services Open Data Portal in Sacramento, Calif. Dickerson will now lead the U.S. Digital Services to help agencies produce more resilient tech. Jason Shueh

Hampered agencies struggling to deliver tech projects may have a new help hotline.

On Monday, the White House formalized the creation of the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), a tech consulting team under the administration tasked with offering agencies advice in Web user experience, infrastructure and — generally speaking — to help “identify and fix problems,” according to a White House press release.

Leadership talent for the team comes from Mikey Dickerson, Google’s former site reliability manager who assisted with repairs for -- the medical insurance platform mired with launch failures in 2013. At the head of USDS, Dickerson takes on the role of administrator and the title of USDS deputy federal CIO.

“I am excited for the opportunity to shift the focus of government IT delivery from compliance to greater impact, and meeting the needs of real citizens,” Dickerson said Monday.

The team’s core mission is to improve and simplify IT operations across the federal government -- a formidable charge. However, the White House said it saw the need, especially after’s call to action. Despite the extent of the team’s role, answers to questions like how and where USDS will direct efforts is still developing. As a pretext, however, the White House loosely identified four aims.

  1. To promote modern private-sector standards for government IT projects.
  2. To identify tech patterns that help scale services
  3. To reach out to agencies to identify and plug resource gaps hindering development and operation of citizen services.
  4. To provide guidelines for accountability that points agency tech toward efficient and tangible results.

To set the course, the administration accompanied the USDS announcement with a set of best practices dubbed the U.S. Digital Services Playbook. The online document is a list of 13 key “plays” drafted from the private sector and government officials. Topics circulate around tech project management and touch multiple themes like open data, intuitive design methods, iterative thinking, leveraging modern tech and more.

As a traveling companion to the playbook — and for more nitty gritty details — a procurement guide called the “TechFAR Handbook,” offers agencies creative tips to accelerate through procurement hurdles within the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), rules relating to private-sector contracting.

At California’s Health and Human Services open data portal launch on Aug. 8, Dickerson made an unofficial announcement -- filled with a few jokes and a touch of candor -- about his new job

“I’ve worked at Google for the last eight and a half years, and that ended yesterday [Aug. 7] at 3:30 p.m. That was my exit interview.” he said. ”Now I have a new job, which — believe it or not — will be in the federal government.”

Without giving away specifics about the announcement, Dickerson compared and contrasted private-sector virtues against government, saying he hoped his new role would help shift -- or at least shake up -- some of the culture dynamics in big government. Chief among these were areas of policy, office culture and government’s hesitancy to lean on the adaptive thinking of the tech industry.

"People who end up not wearing a suit actually do know what they're talking about,” he joked, referring to the tech industry’s casual attire.  

Though the USDS has a near identical mission as “18F” -- a White House General Services Administration department that also supports private-sector thinking in government IT -- it appears the USDS is focused primarily on efficiency and reliability counseling as opposed to dealing with projects hands on.

In a statement by federal CIO Steven VanRoekel to the Senate’s Committee of Homeland Security and Government Affairs, this mission was outlined in depth as one that would remove barriers and make projects arrive on spec, on budget and on time.

“By increasing emphasis on customer needs and making it faster and easier for individuals and businesses to complete transactions with the government -- online or offline -- we can deliver the world-class services that citizens expect,” VanRoekel said.

The USDS will partner with 18F and other White House tech initiatives as it rolls out. In tweets, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park followed the USDS announcement with a “huge thank you” to Code for America Founder Jennifer Pahlka, who he said worked with legislators to co-invent the USDS and its supporting documents.

In a tweet of her own, Pahlka said the USDS is intended to be a turning point not just for tech, but for citizens' relationship with the federal government. “Today is a big day” Pahlka tweeted.

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Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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