What, exactly, does a digital service team do?
The White House raised eyebrows with its fiscal 2016 budget request to expand the U.S. Digital Service into most major agencies. The $105 million plan, if fully funded by Congress, would scatter some 500 technology specialists across government.
The immediate question, of course, was obvious: What, exactly, would this army of agile techies actually do?
Mike Kruger, the Commerce Department's director of digital engagement, sketched out his agency's digital service vision at BMC's recent federal IT conference in Washington, D.C. The idea of digital services, he said, "has gone from [basically] zero 18 months ago to front and center." And while full-scale funding is far from guaranteed, Kruger said agencies can begin planning now for what digital services can -- and can't -- do for them.
First, Kruger said, digital services will "tackle the 'hair-on-fire' projects." These cases, he said, are often "the ones that make the news," like HealthCare.gov, the Veterans Affairs Department’s scheduling system, and the State Department's visa processing system. But they can also include "less interesting but equally important things like payment systems" and other back-end services.
"People want Google ease and Amazon personalization," he said. "It's got to be that simple."
And hopefully, Kruger said, crisis-mode rescue efforts will be relatively rare, so that digital services can spend more time moving systems "from mediocre to great." While Commerce has no "hair-on-fire" projects right now, he said, "we have plenty" in the second category. And ideally, digital services will be that group that "gets you over the hump."
"We're the group that comes in and helps you define need, and user experience, and gets you going so that you can make the argument for funding, for resourcing, for whatever," Kruger said. Digital services should be "the team that you can call in on a short-term basis, to either get you started or get you finished, so that we don't have systems that languish."
That support, he said, will be built around several key principles, including:
- * The end user experience comes first -- it is designed at the beginning, and tested throughout development.
- * The work will be done by small, nimble teams, assembled on a project basis.
- * Metrics must be incorporated from the start, and relied on to refine the service.
* The development will be iterative and flexible.
What digital services can't be, Kruger stressed, is a replacement for agencies' core IT teams or for contracted support.
Digital services' role "will stop when we get you to minimally viable project," Kruger said. The team can help define user needs, build in analytics, wireframe the user experience, deploy and test alpha and beta versions, and generally tune and refine a service to ensure it can serve the intended purpose. "When we're happy with that, we'll hand it back to the business unit, and they'll own it -- to maintain it, to make improvements over time."
"We're not going to be here forever," he said. It is up to the business unit to plan for ongoing maintenance and support, and "from the beginning, we're going to have that conversation."
"We're going to try and get you there, and then get out of the way and leave it up to you," Kruger said. "That's going to be the goal."
This approach, Kruger acknowledged, "will of course require some internal governance changes." And there are other significant obstacles ahead as well.
If the budget does materialize, Kruger said, the biggest challenge will likely be talent. "There aren't enough Python developers in D.C. ... to staff all these projects," he said. "User experience experts are hard to come by. ... So if a lot of federal agencies get this money, we'll all be in the same boat for these same people."
Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW and GCN, as well as General Manager of Public Sector 360.
Prior to joining 1105 Media in 2012, Schneider was the New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company. The founding editor of NationalJournal.com, Schneider also helped launch the political site PoliticsNow.com in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, WashingtonPost.com, Slate, Politico, National Journal, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.
Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.
Click here for previous articles by Schneider, or connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.