What's up in govtech?

I originally wrote this post on Facebook to share some context on the govtech sector with friends.

With the new administration coming in, I thought I’d share some thoughts + insights from the world of software development for the federal government and what we’re expecting.

There are two agencies in the federal government that more people should know about: the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) and 18F. I’m gonna share a little about each of them and their role in this space.

To talk about USDS, I have to start with Healthcare.gov. If you remember back to 2013, Healthcare.gov was a key piece of the ACA (Obamacare) and was a massive failure on launch; people were mostly unable to load the site, let alone sign up for healthcare. Addressing this involved pulling a bunch of industry tech folks, throwing them in a room together, telling them they had to fix it. It took a few months but was successful.

The next year, a number of those people returned to form the U.S. Digital Service, a group that tries to replicate this model across the federal government. USDS loans out teams of people to federal agencies that want to fix their infrastructure, launch a new website, digitize a paper-driven process. Those teams are staffed from people in industry who do “tours of duty” with the government, coming to USDS for rotations, usually 1-2 years. The idea is to regularly bring modern ideas and practices from industry into government. USDS tries to find federal agencies that are willing to give their placements a lot of autonomy, letting them cut through red tape to get things done.

I get to work with USDS on the regular in my work at VA. I’m on the contractor side, working for a company (Ad Hoc) that was also born from of the Healthcare.gov rescue. USDS works with VA to set technical direction, Ad Hoc builds the websites and infrastructure they want. Before USDS came in, VA.gov was primarily a site about the agency itself and difficult to navigate for anything veterans actually needed; five years later, we’ve fully rebuilt everything, turned many paper forms into online processes, made it easy to manage benefits online — and user research has driven the design and user interfaces. Ask a veteran about VA.gov over the last few years, and you’ll typically hear pretty positive responses, especially compared to the low bar that had been set.

The other agency I mentioned was 18F, named for their location in DC (1800 F Street). They started around the same time as USDS, a web agency group as part of GSA (General Services Administration). My understanding is they initially focused on in-house website development for federal agencies, or doing “meta” work like Login.gov (digital identity) and analytics projects across government websites. I don’t work as closely with them, but I run into them in this space often, especially people who’ve done a stint at 18F and then jumped to another similar job.

In the last couple years, 18F has shifted to get involved in software contract procurement, helping federal agencies understand how best to manage software projects. This has meant helping agencies write better RFPs (requests for proposals) to solicit potential government contractors, helping them evaluate submissions to find quality contractors, then advising those agencies on software development. Last year they even published a website called “De-risking Government Technology”, full of advice on how to have successful software projects in government!

OK, all that was context to talk about what’s happening now. In 2017, it wasn’t clear if Trump would keep USDS around. But they’re still here, and they’ve spent the last four years extending their tendrils into more federal agencies. Add in 18F’s involvement in supporting government software more generally, and these two agencies combined have laid a ton of groundwork for better software development in the future. Some federal agencies are already making a lot of progress on modernization (VA, CMS), others are just getting started, and there’s work to be done everywhere.

Enter Biden. Two major things immediately change. First, we’re no longer under Trump, which means a lot of people who wanted to do this work but weren’t interested in working under a Trump administration might suddenly join. (I don’t hold that against anyone, set your own boundaries — but at the end of the day, people still need their government to be functional and accessible, regardless of who’s in office.) I gather USDS is expecting a major influx of new recruits and has been planning accordingly. Second, he’s intentional staffing key technology positions across federal agencies where meaningful influence can happen on technological transformation. Ideally, these administrators are going to be a strong catalyst in jump-starting us forward.

The staffing part has clearly been in the works for many months. I can’t find it now through the mess of news about the new administration, but there was a public doc floating around at one point listing many of these key positions, how they fit into each agency and what kind of technological influence they had. Even before the election, my coworkers and I were solicited (indirectly / grapevine) for our recommendations on what should be key technology priorities at VA for a Biden administration, and I’m sure this is happening across other agencies. This administration has been meaningfully planning ahead, putting together the pieces and personnel to unblock digital transformation across the board.

Today, Reuters reported that whitehouse.gov has a cute message in the HTML source, followed by a link to the USDS website: “If you’re reading this, we need your help building back better.”

I’m excited to see what happens next. We’ve already been getting the ball rolling the last few years. Come join me, let’s build back better.