Category Archives: 18F

New report on Digital Service Teams

Screen Shot 2017-05-31 at 7.09.15 AMIBM – The Center for the Business of Government has published my report titled “Digital Service Teams – Challenges and Recommendations for Government“.

The report is part of a larger research project in which I work on understand how different countries are using start-up teams inside of government to move their public administrations toward digital transformation. I am currently working on three other country cases (Estonia, Denmark, and the UK) and will add more cases as funding becomes available.

Here is the executive summary of the report:


Executive Summary

Digital service offices have emerged in governments around the world over the past six years as “tech surge teams” to respond to and repair urgent technology failures, or as an alternative structural approach to rethinking processes and implementation strategies in government digital transformation efforts.This report shares insights about three types of digital service teams:

  1. Centralized teams directly supporting national priorities, such as the U.S.Digital Service, or the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service
  2. Enterprise teams supporting innovation in IT acquisition and internal consultancy services, such as 18F, an office within the Technology Transformation Service at the General Services Administration (GSA) that states it is a “services company and product incubator” with the goal of providing digital development and consulting services for other federal government agencies or programs
  3. Agency-level teams, such as those pioneered in the U.S.: the Digital Service at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Defense

The insights provided in this report are based on a review of relevant literature and interviews with founding members, current directors, line managers of digital service teams, their counterparts in the offices of the Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at the agency level, and private-sector representatives aiming to collaborate with these new teams.The interviews focused on the structure of the teams, the use of agile and human-centered design processes, changes to human resource (HR) processes to attract information technology (IT) talent from the private sector, the incentives for IT professionals to join the U.S.federal government, and the changes made to federal IT acquisition processes.

One of the catalysts that led to the creation of these various digital service units was the inability to deliver an operational HealthCare.gov website on time in late 2013, which was symptomatic of a broader federal challenge in delivering large-scale IT projects.A post-mortem assessment found that the government’s existing IT expertise did not reflect private-sector industry practices, and that there was a gap between the needs of program managers and the technical capacity available to implement large projects effectively.A key contributing factor was that over three-quarters of the current IT budget for the federal government is earmarked to maintain existing, outdated legacy IT systems, leaving little room to exploit the potential for adopting innovative, new technology approaches and capacities.

A near-term solution to this lack of technical capacity and innovation skills was the introduction of so-called “IT start-ups” within government, also known as “digital service teams.” These small teams typically operate outside existing agency IT organizational structures and recruit IT talent directly from the private sector.They are given a mandate to rapidly implement change initiatives using commercially-developed tools and processes such as human-centered design and agile innovation management techniques—which are standard practice in the private sector, but have been infrequently adopted in the public sector.

The report identifies six challenges that digital service teams face in their efforts to implement digital transformation projects in a government context:

  • Embracing an agile development approach
  • Attracting IT talent from the private sector
  • Maintaining and scaling a start-up culture in government
  • Improving the acquisition of innovative IT
  • Funding digital service teams
  • Addressing whether innovation should be “bought or built”

From these challenges, several recommendations emerge for agencies that are in the process of setting up their own digital service teams, or are considering doing so.These include:

  • Understanding that digital transformation in government is not a “software problem,” but requires a holistic and strategic approach
  • Using “outside-the-box” thinking to infuse innovation into acquisition strategies
  • Phasing-in the use of new cost models to support digital services “start-up” teams
  • Including non-technical government employees as part of digital services teams
  • Challenging perceptions that “innovation can’t happen here,” given existing regulatory and cultural constraints
  • Enlisting facilitative leaders to champion digital transformation
  • Promoting greater collaboration among digital service teams and agency IT stakeholders

In addition, the author recommends that policy makers take steps to ensure longer-term sustainability of digital transformation through the use of digital service teams.These steps include:

  • Aligning the priority of digital transformation with other mission-driven national and agency-level priorities
  • Addressing the legacy IT problems of the federal government
  • Scaling up digital service team activities where they demonstrate value
  • Expanding agencies’ authority to use innovative personnel tools to bring IT talent into government
  • Adopting a new approach towards third-party service providers that reduces procedural acquisition burdens in favor of demonstrated capacity to deliver results

Media coverage:

Reference:

Mergel, I. (2017): Digital Service Teams – Challenges and Recommendations for Government, IBM – The Center for the Business of Government, Using Technologies Series, Washington, DC.

Award: Research stipend from IBM’s The Center for the Business of Government

 

IBM – The Center for the Business of Government has announced a new round of winners of their research stipends. I won an award to write about my research on digital service transformation in the U.S. federal government.

Here is the announcement text:

The Center for The Business of Government continues to support research by recognized thought leaders on key public management issues facing government executives today.

The Center for The Business of Government continues to support reports by leading thinkers on key issues affecting government today.  We are pleased to announce our latest round of awards for new reports on key public sector challenges, which respond to priorities identified in the Center’s research agenda. Our content is intended to stimulate and accelerate the production of practical research that benefits public sector leaders and managers.

My report will focus on the following topic: “Implementing Digital Services Teams Across the U.S. Federal Government”

In 2014, the White House created the U.S. Digital Service team and the General Services Administration’s 18F group. Both groups are using agile software development processes to design and implement high-profile software projects. The results of this report include lessons learned during the scaling up efforts of digital service teams across the departments of the U.S. federal government. These will focus on managerial design aspects, organizational challenges, motivations of digital swat teams and their department-level counterparts, as well as first outcomes in the form of digital service transformations in each department. This research report aims to support the presidential transition team’s efforts by outlining the current efforts of scaling-up digital service teams and their lessons learned, as well as observable outcomes of digital service teams across the U.S. federal government.

Congressional hearing about @18 and @usds operations and @gao report

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:

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 11.16.15 AM

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]

Ready to Govern: Planning the transition into public management (fast)

Last week, my colleagues Tina Nabatchi, Sean O’Keefe, David Van Slyke and I participated in the initial “Ready to Govern” event organized by the Partnership for Public Service and IBM’s Center for the Business of Government. Among the participants were colleagues from other Public Management departments around the country, practitioners from technology and consulting companies, as well as former career civil servants. The goal of the event was to identify the main management issues a new administration needs to know as soon as they take office. We were asked to take a bipartisan approach. The event was off the record, but we were encouraged to blog without attribution.

The event started out with a keynote by a high-ranking government official who reported about the second-term management innovations that are worth keeping. The current Presidential management agenda focuses on customer service, shared services, open data, smarter IT delivery, strategic sourcing, and benchmarking. While the agenda might not have changed, she highlighted that the current context in which government is operating has completely changed. She pointed especially to cybersecurity threats as well as the need to attract the brightest and smartest talent to public service. Using a new HR instrument, the current administration has created a new on-boarding tool to bring talent into government for short-term 2-year stints. These Presidential Innovation Fellows usually move back into their previous positions or might stay in government, however this tool is different than the Presidential Management Fellowship that is designed to provide a career path into government.

I was very excited to learn that especially the innovative and agile delivery of IT services through 18F plays a very prominent role in moving the Presidential management agenda forward. 18F is (located at 18th and F street in DC) home to many Presidential Innovation Fellows. I like to call them a ‘digital swat’ team. They helped for example to fix HealthCare.gov, created DOD’s Blue Button health records access, or the recent soft launch with improvements to FOIA. It is also interesting to note – at least from my perspective – that the federal government has accomplished to change the perception and potentially even the culture of government. Granted, this happens in a very small pocket of government, but it’s exciting to see that 18F attracts the best IT talent in the country. For example, the senior software architect of the NYT left the industry to join 18F recently, because his own industry is not innovating fast enough. Implied here is that he believes the federal government is a more attractive employer that is able to innovative faster. Obviously given the current arrangement the 18F fellows have to work on high profile/high impact projects, it is difficult to transfer the same environment easily to other federal agencies. But I like to think that change and innovation needs to start somewhere.

As part of the recent developments to improve basic public management practices, our keynote speaker highlighted also the strategic sourcing initiatives to make government a smarter buyer by changing the incentives to buy in bulk. One goal is to use existing data and analytics better and bring on more expertise to leverage the buying power of the federal government.

For the current administration open data plays a central role for economic development. With currently over 120,000 federal data sets published on Data.gov, the administration sees huge potential for economic development. The effort will continue to publish more data and shift the focus from mere publication to actual better use of the data. There are many (almost already ‘traditional’) success stories, such as NOAA’s weather data sets that are adding value with new business models outside of government. As an example, pilots and farmers are creating applications that are useful to them and are moving them on the market. However, the federal government wants more people to pick up the data and come up with meaningful applications.

In a world of big data analytics and the Internet of Things, I believe that government has barely scratched the surface of real-time collection and interpretation of data in the moment they are created and to use them to improve government decision-making. One of the problems to tackle is the existing data quality, (slow) decision making where to pull the data from, how to clean it up and get approval to publish the data. However, most of the issues with the data can only become apparent when people actually start to work with the data and use it. I have high hopes for the recently appointed White House Chief Data Scientist that he will have the time to make a meaningful contribution and initiate changes before the current administration rotates out of government.

After the initial keynote, it was time for us as a group to focus on getting the next management transition ‘righter’. One of the participants who was sitting next to me made a powerful statement: He said he has been part of eight Presidential transitions and it never goes smoothly. Another colleague, a former political appointee, raised the concern that every department head receives 18 binders with super urgent issues to immediately tackle, which bogs down initiatives and changes for the first six months of each administration. His wish was that each new public manager receives a short list of 3-5 issues to tackle and hit the road running, put together a team s/he trusts, focus on the department’s core mission, and get ready to tackle (new) national priorities from the start.

Our group then discussed the main management challenges a new administration has to face. We compiled an initial list that focused on those practices that we think should be kept and moved over to the next administration. We also identified a list of gaps that we think can be tackled by smart public management researchers.

I’m sure the list will come out soon – I am actually not sure if I am aloud to publish it, but there is significant overlap with the Presidential management agenda: we were concerned about fundamental management practices, such as recruiting and retaining talent, innovative management practices, etc.

My main concern is however: what if we work – in different constellations and with the input of many smart public management researchers and public managers on recommendations for the next Presidential management team and no one is listening? How do we accomplish the task to inform both Presidential candidate’s teams before they take office? Can they even communicate with us or are they too occupied to focus on political campaigning and don’t have the capacity to think beyond election day? I trust that the Partnership for Public Service and IBM’s Center for the Business of Government have the connections to communicate with future decision makers. My concern also highlights the wide gap between current public management research that is usually published with a 2-3 year time lag and the actual need for just-in-time research and information by policy makers and decision makers. We – researchers – need to get better at communicating more directly with the administration.

I would love to see a smooth transition that builds on the past strengths and quickly moves public management forward without losing the momentum that I have observed – especially in smart IT delivery.