OMB launches digital services team to guide IT projects

The team will be headed by Mikey Dickerson, a former Google engineer who served on the team that helped fix HealthCare.gov.

Executive Team (Shutterstock Image)

The Obama administration has launched its long-promised U.S. Digital Service, a team of experts based inside the Office of Management and Budget to improve IT procurement and agencies' efforts to design public-facing online services.

The team will be headed by Mikey Dickerson, a former Google engineer who served on the team that triaged and repaired HealthCare.gov, after its disastrous October 2013 launch. Dickerson will have the title of administrator of the U.S. Digital Service and deputy federal CIO.

The Digital Service was called for in President Barack Obama's fiscal 2015 budget request, and a small team has been piloting the idea for several months. The size of the team has not been revealed, but the $20 million budget request indicated that it would support about 25 full-time employees.

"By bringing this team in to work with the agencies proactively to do a deep engagement, it'll all be about figuring out where they are in-flight and then applying recommendations to identify where are the gaps, what are the approaches they're doing that maybe aren't compatible with getting the results we want to see, and what do we do to address that, and then hold them accountable with regular check-ins," federal CIO Steven VanRoekel said in an impromptu chat with reporters after a Senate hearing in May. The work of the Digital Team was envisioned as helping at the requirements and procurements stage, rather than jumping in on ailing projects like HealthCare.gov.

"This isn't taking over. It's not rescuing these efforts. It's really about working side by side-with-them," VanRoekel said. In his testimony in May, VanRoekel explained the Digital Service would complement the efforts of 18F, the design and development team established inside the General Services Administration. VanRoekel also hopes to reduce the amount of time it takes the government to recruit and hire developers, project managers and other IT specialists.

The Digital Service is designed to "improve and simplify the digital experience that people and businesses have with their government" by setting standards, selecting "common technology platforms" to help scale federal digital offerings, working with agencies on development capacity, and holding agencies accountable for results.

To mark the launch, the Digital Service released a playbook of best practices -- essentially 13 ideas on how to ensure that customer and end user needs are addressed in design and development, and that testing and delivery take place along efficient, predictable lines. The document includes checklists and sets of questions to guide IT acquisitions. Critically, the playbook focuses on agile methodology to deliver iterations of a service early, with multiple testing periods and frequent revisions. And it urges agencies to "consider open source software solutions at all layers of the [technology] stack."

The team also published a TechFAR handbook on GitHub that tracks with the guidance in the playbook, and specifically instructs feds on how the Federal Acquisition Regulation supports use of agile in the technology procurement cycle.

"Too often, the lack of guidance encouraging agency use of innovative contracting practices results in narrow and overly rigid interpretations of federal acquisition rules that complicate the government's ability to adopt smarter ways of acquiring high-quality digital services," wrote VanRoekel, OMB Deputy Director for Management Beth Cobert, and Federal CTO Todd Park in a blog post.

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