How VA is disrupting tech delivery

A former Digital Service specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs explains efforts to transition government from a legacy "project" approach to a more user-centered "product" method.

Pilot Class. The author and Barbie Flowers are first row third and second from right, respectively.
 

Pilot Class. The author and Barbie Flowers are first row third and second from right, respectively.

I arrived at VA's Medical Center (VAMC) in Washington, D.C. at 8:30 a.m. on a sunny morning in June to pilot a new training program to 40 of my VA colleagues. Most of the staff in VA's Office of Information Technology (OIT) have been trained in traditional project management, which is plan-driven, including managing schedules, budgets, and scope. But, for the first time, VA leadership is now investing in re-training OIT in modern product management, which is user-driven and has the goal of shipping well-designed products that meet user needs.

My team, tasked with designing and conducting the training, had a big mandate. We knew that while both disciplines are important, it is also essential that VA begin training OIT personnel in productmanagement. VA's leadership had reached a conclusion that much of industry had already arrived at: there's little value in delivering something on-time and on-budget if it's the wrong thing.

As I waited in the bright atrium of the hospital lobby for my colleagues to arrive, a question popped into my mind, and I suddenly felt a surge of anxiety: Can we possibly transition the U.S. government from an entrenched legacy "project" approach, to a more user-centered "product" approach that results in digital products that are on par with the private sector?

Unlike traditional government trainings, our inaugural product management class included volunteer work in the field, in order to build empathy with real users—Veterans. Volunteering at a VAMC seemed like a great idea as we discussed it in a conference room two months ago, but today as our class was arriving in small groups, we waited in the hectic lobby and seemed to be in the way wherever congregated. Some students had already expressed doubts about volunteering.

At stake is a fundamentally urgent issue that affects every citizen who wants to access government services online. And, for the first time since we started planning the new training course, I was nervous we might fail.

Can VA's digital transformation meet modern user expectations?

At 9 a.m., our volunteer coordinator escorted our class to an employee break room to receive our assignments: pharmacy, prosthetics, long term care, waiting room areas, main lobby information desk, the cafeteria and others. One assignment was a last-minute addition: operating an old popcorn machine, the kind with a large tin container hanging from the top to hold the hot oil as the popcorn spills out.

Our coordinator's request for volunteers to operate the popcorn machine was met with silence. I started to raise my hand, but I would be absolutely lost trying to operate such a device. I imagined the lobby filling with smoke, and Veterans and their families eating burnt popcorn or cracking teeth on hard kernels.

But then one of our students, Barbie Flowers (who leads one of VA's most important products, Vet360, which helps share data across VA systems), sprang into action, embracing the challenge with courage and humor. A few others volunteered, and the team wheeled the machine back up to the main lobby.

As I watched Barbie and a few members of her team figure out how the machine worked, laughing and trying to solve a problem together under pressure, I saw other students start talking to Veterans who were assembling around them as they waited for a snack. Despite being in a hospital setting, the Veterans were cheerful and positive.

And then I realized everything was going to be fine. We were on to something.

Our training was about a culture shift in mindset to how we solve problems at VA, and this was exactly our goal: a small, empowered team working together to solve a problem that would improve Veterans' experience that day in the VAMC. OIT teams weren't in their offices guessing what Veterans wanted; they weren't focused on meetings and documents. They were in the field and engaging directly with users, understanding the problem, and building empathy.

This is the mindset shift we wanted.

The problem we're solving: reinventing training to include empathy building with users

The U.S government has delivered hundreds—thousands—of digital products over the past decades. In fact, most of the ubiquitous technologies we use today were developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, NASA, and other government agencies and Federal Laboratories. Yet you won't find any job openings for a product manager (that accurately describes the role) on the USAJobs website.

The lack of product roles in government is just one indicator of a larger problem: Government is using traditional project management methods but expecting great digital products….and it's not happening. Moreover, individuals are investing in costly professional certifications, such as the Project Management Professional (PMP), which isn't going to help them deliver better products to users.

In 2017, VA's Digital Service team (DSVA), part of the U.S. Digital Service, piloted Human Centered Design (HCD) and product management classes at VA with informal brown bag sessions. In early 2018, the refined curriculum was rolled out externally to DoD and other agencies through Dcode's innovative Executive Technology Entrepreneur Course (DETEC), and later that year it was used in Georgetown's Professional Certificate Programs for broader government and industry feedback.

In the spring of 2019, we pitched Bill James, VA's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Development Operations (DevOps), to formalize the training and include volunteer work at VAMCs. He not only approved the idea but also became a champion of the program participating as a guest speaker. James Gfrerer, VA's CIO also supported this new, user-centered approach.

By June 2019, the curriculum was finalized: Day 1 would be classroom instruction using applied learning methods with students working in small groups, in rapid iterative cycles throughout the day. Students learn about product management, HCD, minimum viable products (MVPs), and DevOps. Day 2 would be field work at a VAMC building empathy with users and using some HCD concepts learned in class. Each class would include a cross-disciplinary selection of students from OIT, business teams, procurement, security and privacy.

The objective of the class was to shift each student's mindset from a plan-driven approach (project management) to a user-driven approach (product management and HCD).

Training for success: VA's shift is a model for other agencies

VA is making a massive culture shift that puts Veterans at the center of every digital product we ship. This new approach to training is unlike any other government training, and the market is taking notice.

Steve Kelman, Harvard professor and author of Federal Computer Week's "The Lectern," has been writing about VA's leadership in product management since August 2018. And Georgetown University is leveraging VA's thought leadership and curriculum, offering a new professional certification in product management this fall to rival the PMP that includes classes in product management, HCD, and engineering taught by USDS experts and senior reliability engineers (SREs) from innovative companies like Ad Hoc, Inc.

Perhaps most helpful to other government agencies is VA's transparent approach, following a play from the USDS playbook, "default to open." VA is sharing what we are doing so other that agencies can learn from our success—and mistakes. A product guide that is used to support VA's training class is publicly accessible for use by any government employee to get smart on HCD and product management.

It's not just government that benefits from this approach. It's clear that vendors are hungry for this type of change. The vendor community already knows that a PMP, the expensive commodity credential for project managers, isn't enabling them to deliver great products to users.

In March, Bill James spoke at a VA acquisition event to more than 1,500 vendors and made it clear that HCD was not just a nice to have, it was going to be a contractual requirement. This message was heard loud and clear by one of VA's small business partners, AbleVets, an IT company that made a big investment in sending nine of their team leads to Georgetown's product management class.

"VA's shift from project to product management has inspired us to take on a new way of thinking and problem solving," said Avinay Vaswani, AbleVets' VA Account Vice President.

The June class was the first in what will be monthly sessions to retrain VA's 8,000 strong OIT team, business sponsors, procurement teams, and other cross-disciplinary partners who play a role in digital product delivery at VA.

The pilot training in June was a success, with students returning to the classroom from volunteering to share stories of what they'd learned. Students were emotional; they talked about being surprised, angry, and excited, but mostly they were thinking about problem-solving in a different way.

Barbie Flowers said, "I found myself surprisingly emotional spending the day at the VAMC engaging with Veterans and the VA staff. Empathy for the Veteran experience is crucial to delivering value to our customer and not just building another 'thing'."

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