Innovation

What the USDS team is up to

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Like any tech startup, the U.S. Digital Service is prioritizing projects that provide the most bang for the buck.

For USDS, launched in August out of the Office of Management and Budget, that means focusing on a pair of the administration's problem children -- HealthCare.gov and the Department of Veterans Affairs -- and on that universal concern with fledgling enterprises, recruiting and hiring.

Haley Van Dyck, one of USDS's first hires and a former White House senior technology advisor, talked with FCW about what the "lean, scrappy team" of 12 has been working on, how they're deciding what projects to tackle and how they are measuring success so far.

Health Care 2.0

For the second round of HealthCare.gov open enrollment, which is currently underway, Van Dyck said the USDS has been working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to bring the user experience up to private-sector standards.

"We're trying to make sure that when Americans are trying to buy affordable health care, they can get through the website with as few number of clicks as possible, and we've gotten much better in that regard," she said.

The team helped to identify unfriendly public-facing features of the platform, such as the need for an excessive number of clicks and repetition in required information fields, and to find ways they could be reduced.

Digitizing the VA

At the Veterans Affairs Department, the USDS team has been working with the newly created VA Digital Services team on increasing capacity.

"The VA has a large number of services that directly affect veterans and their other customers," Van Dyck said. "The VA has a very clear interest in improving the way they deliver services, starting with increasing the capacity of their digital services."

A key project of the VA Digital Services team, according to the agency's "Road to Veterans Day" review released Nov. 6, involves providing tools help overhaul VA claims processing, technology, data availability and health care benefits. Those improvements were mandated by legislation enacted in August, in response the scandal involving VA scheduling.

"Digital service hires will pair with internal teams to build and strengthen the agency's internal technical capacity," the VA said in its review, "expanding adoption of modern technology and approaches to enable rapid execution against agency missions such as claims processing, health data interoperability, and expanding access."

And that's where the USDS will really come into play at agencies, Van Dyck said -- helping them to build out their own digital services teams.

At VA, 18F and a handful of Presidential Innovation Fellows are also working with the department's digital service team. According to Van Dyck, such team efforts will likely continue to be a common thread, especially between 18F and USDS.

"The USDS side is primarily focused on doing everything we can from a policy and guidance perspective," Van Dyck said. "Our staff, which includes many engineers and program managers, are dropping in to work side by side with agencies. 18F is different because they are entirely an engineering shop and can build solutions from the ground up for the agencies."

Bringing in the team

USDS is bringing the 18F philosophy of expedited hiring to VA, Van Dyck said, and hopes to implement the idea governmentwide.

"Recognizing the unique element of federal hiring is one of the biggest challenges we're currently facing," Van Dyck said. "It's hard to compete with the private sector."

But they're trying. USDS has spent more time on hiring than on anything else, Van Dyck said. That includes figuring out how to make it as easy as possible for agencies to recruit the talent they need, and how USDS can provide agencies with that kind of cover.

Inside USDS, meanwhile, the challenge is building out its own team in order to meet the demand from agencies, which have overwhelmed the service's relatively small staff with requests for assistance. The hope is to nearly double the USDS staff to 20-25 members, but that depends on the fiscal 2015 appropriations process.

About the Author

Colby Hochmuth is a former staff writer for FCW.

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