The Government Has Its Own Tech Startup, and It's Fixing a Lot

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Answers by Matt Cutts, U.S. Digital Service, Defense Digital Service, on Quora:

A: Different folks work on totally different projects. If you check out the USDS website you can see twelve different projects that give you a good flavor of the variety of stuff going on at the USDS.

I'm an individual contributor. I came on as a software engineer, but the team is small enough that people help out in all kinds of ways. For example, one things that the US Digital Service does is called a "discovery sprint." That involves a team of people spending a couple weeks or so digging into a topic to figure out what's working and what can be improved.

So far, I've been primarily helping with two discovery sprints. In the first sprint, we went to Afghanistan to see what sorts of issues were snagging people working there. We came back with three or four different important issues that we've been trying to help on.

The second discovery sprint that I've been working with involves how the government and the military hire people and clear them for specific roles. About a year ago, over twenty million Federal employees had their personal information stolen as part of a breach at the Office of Personnel Management. That was a terrible incident, but it prompted a lot of smart folks to ask how things could be improved. Parts of that system and process are now being improved and parts are being replaced. The Defense Digital Service has been observing that process, and I've been helping around the edges with some of that.

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A: That's a great question. We're part of a larger organization called the United States Digital Service. The USDS started almost exactly two years ago as a startup at the White House. Since then, it's grown to a network of teams throughout the Federal Government.

Ash Carter, the Secretary of Defense, stood up the Defense Digital Service. The Defense Digital Service tries to bring good ideas, folks, and practices from industry to help solve problems for Department of Defense. It's a small team (fifteen or sixteen people), but we've got engineers, bureaucracy hackers, designers, and project managers. We're physically located in the Pentagon, which is pretty wild for someone used to wearing shorts and a T-shirt to work. I still wear shorts and a T-shirt most days. You can see Chris Lynch wearing a hoodie in this meeting with the Secretary of Defense:

As far as projects, an early effort discovered and fixed a problem where thousands of medical records for veterans were getting silently dropped on the floor if a doctor selected the wrong dropdown when scanning a document. Another project called Hack the Pentagon was the first bug bounty program in the Federal Government. Folks in industry know that paying for security vulnerabilities can make products more secure, but the US government hadn't really caught on to bug bounties before. That project alone has the potential to protect millions of citizens.

The Defense Digital Service is also helping with part of the next-generation GPS system, and they're also working to replace a tool called the Defense Travel System that the military uses for booking travel. One of my colleagues says that for people looking to improve things, "it's not a target-rich environment; it's an environment made of targets." So one of the challenges is narrowing down the projects that would have the most impact, but also have a solid chance of success.

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A: The one-sentence answer is that we're trying to make government work better by bringing in top talent and best practices from the technology industry. We've got software engineers, designers, bureaucracy hackers, and even procurement folks.

We have four main focus areas:

  • Improving critical digital services for people. Think public-facing services and web forms. User-centered design and agile software development helps with these sort of projects.
  • Rethinking how the government builds and buys digital services. I never realized how much of an impact procurement has on the lives of regular people. It turns out that procurement matters a lot.
  • Initiating the development of common platforms and standards. For example, the USDS and 18F collaborated on U.S. Web Design Standards that make it easier and faster to build websites.
  • Bringing top technical talent into public service.

For tech folks, government now represents a third option besides industry and academia. I love that.

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