I just watched the Congressional hearing of the 18F and U.S. Digital Service Oversight committee. The hearing was initiated by a GAO report titled: “DIGITAL SERVICE PROGRAMS: Assessing Results and Coordinating with Chief Information Officers Can Improve Delivery of Federal Projects” published on June 10, 2016.
The report showed that most agencies were fully satisfied with the digital swat teams that helped them fix their IT problems:
The GAO inspectors talked to four CIOs (DHS, DOD, VA, DOS). The first three were fully aware and happy with the services 18F and USDS provided to their agencies. The State Department’s CIO was not aware enough, but then paddled back and said in follow-up discussions that he had actually been satisfied and involved from the beginning. Nevertheless, GAO found that CIOs need to be fully involved and IT acquisition should not happen behind their back – based on a statement of one CIO who had forgotten about the initial meetings he was involved in.
18F and USDS were criticized by the private sector witnesses for their opaque operations, vague agreements, and that they introduce an agile delivery BPA process that not all vendors and contractors want to follow due to intellectual property right protection. The agile blanket acquisition agreement encourages future contractors to showcase their code and ability to use agile methodologies in order to comply with the draft open source policy and lightweight production cycles. Vendors who don’t want to participate won’t be able to be involved in selected future IT acquisitions. Clearly that raises red flags on all sides, but moves government IT acquisition toward a disruption of the clearly broken IT acquisition process.
Communication and transparency are huge factors in explaining how a young start-up inside of government functions, moves their operations along, and comes up with oversight and accountability procedures and structures. The 18F blog is a valuable resource for a general audience, but I do believe that there is an industry-inherent over-reliance on publishing code and text on the social coding side Github. IT professionals value this resource highly, will find code, reuse it, or help the federal government to improve the code, but I don’t think that the community can expect Members of Congress or GAO inspectors to learn and read Github updates. This is where the bureaucracy meets the digital swat teams and more communication is necessary.
I was dismayed to hear the low profile USDS and 18F were keeping in their testimonies. There is so much more data out there that was already published on non-traditional outlets, such as Medium or blogs, that clearly shows how many millions of dollars the digital teams have saved the agencies they worked with. Why not show the numbers? No one else can show them except for those teams that have actually worked on comparing vendor data with digital service team data. Do it!
Generally, I recognize the statements of the private sector witnesses as a sign that they fear the disruption that 18F and USDS have started. This is a good thing — but needs to be aligned with the expectations and regulations that are there to protect government and its citizens against rogue behavior. As the chair of the oversight committee said: “Y’all should be holding hands and work on this together, because you y’all have the same goal.”
[Will update this post as process some of the statements a bit more]