OMB wants lessons to endure in new Digital Service Office

One of the lead outside experts brought in to fix earned a permanent job with the White House. And the administration is making the concept of an IT rescue team a long-term fixture.

The Office of Management and Budget today announced Mikey Dickerson will be the administrator of the U.S. Digital Service and the deputy federal chief information officer. He joins Lisa Schlosser as one of now two federal deputy CIOs. Dickerson is political appointee and Schlosser is career employee.

“The Digital Service’s deputy U.S. CIO Mikey Dickerson will work closely with deputy U.S. CIO Lisa Schlosser in her role of policy, agency oversight and accountability to ensure we are seeing results and carrying best practices to the whole federal enterprise,” said federal CIO Steve VanRoekel in an emailed response to questions from Federal News Radio.

The Digital Service Office is part of President Barack Obama’s second term management agenda.

VanRoekel introduced the Digital Service Office as part of his Smarter IT Delivery Agenda. In May during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing VanRoekel said the office would consist of about 25 experts brought in on two- to four-year term appointments to help agencies plan, improve and fix IT programs.


In a blog post, VanRoekel, federal Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, and Beth Cobert, the Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management, wrote that Dickerson will lead the Digital Service team to apply technology in smarter, more effective ways that improve the delivery of federal services, information and benefits.

“The Digital Service will work to find solutions to management challenges that can prevent progress in IT delivery. To do this, we will build a team of more than just a group of tech experts — Digital Service hires will have talent and expertise in a variety of disciplines, including procurement, human resources, and finance,” the three leaders wrote in the blog. “The Digital Service team will take private and public-sector best practices and help scale them across agencies — always with a focus on the customer experience in mind. We will pilot the Digital Service with existing funds in 2014, and would scale in 2015 as outlined in the President’s FY 2015 Budget.”

Innovation offices popping up

The President requested $20 million for the Information Technology Oversight and Reform (ITOR) fund to support, in part, the Digital Services Office.

VanRoekel said the Digital Service Office will work closely with the General Services Administration’s 18F initiative.

“The creation of the Digital Service and 18F are all part of the same, broader strategy designed to address how the federal government assesses the use and gaps in service delivery (Digital Service) and then fills those gaps by delivering 21st century solutions (18F),” VanRoekel said in his email.

The 18F is one of several innovation labs popping up across government. The Office of Personnel Management opened an Innovation Lab in 2012 and the Department of Health and Human Services recently issued its first solicitation under its Buyers Club initiative.

Dickerson said he’s excited for the opportunity to lead the Digital Services Office. He said he hopes “to shift the focus of government it delivery from compliance to greater impact, and meeting the needs of real citizens. We can make services a lot more effective and cost efficient with better use of technology.”

OMB also announced the release of the initial versions of the TechFAR Handbook and Digital Services Playbook for public comment.

OMB says agencies should use the TechFAR Handbook and the playbook together to improve IT projects through an agile or iterative approach.

“The TechFAR is designed to facilitate a common understanding among these stakeholders of the best ways to use acquisition authorities in making these investments to level set expectations and maximize the likelihood for success,” the handbook’s executive summary stated. “The TechFAR consists of a handbook, which discusses relevant FAR authorities and includes practice tips, sample language, and a compilation of FAR provisions that are relevant to agile software development.”

For example, the TechFAR lists questions and answers, including one focused on identifying requirements in a request for proposals.

To meet the requirements in the FAR, agencies should identify “a Product Vision and [couple] it with an explanation of how the agile process will be used to achieve the product vision. Rather than providing a set of ‘how to specifications’ (or requirements traceability matrix), the product vision will focus on a desired outcome, similar to performance-based contracting, which has been permitted by the FAR for many years.”

13 plays to get to agile

The OMB executives wrote in the blog that too often agencies don’t have the guidance necessary or to feel comfortable enough to use innovative contracting practices.

OMB said it hopes the TechFAR “will guide agencies in how to procure development services in new ways that more closely match the modern software development techniques used in the private sector.”

In conjunction with integrating the agile methodology with the FAR provisions, OMB’s playbook details 13 “plays” developed from public and private sector best practices that used together would help agencies deliver online services more effectively and efficiently.

Each play includes a checklist and a set of key questions to ask to ensure the project manager covers the basics of the play.

“We’ve made the TechFAR and Playbook a part of the PortfolioStat process,” VanRoekel said by email. “In this year’s PortfolioStat, agencies were asked to identify their highest impact programs. Through our engagements, we are working with agencies to raise awareness of the TechFAR and Playbook to ensure these high-impact programs follow their lead. In certain cases, we will also be collaborating with the agencies through the Digital Service.”

OMB is asking for comments on both the TechFAR and Playbook. The administration will include any comments submitted by Sept. 1 in the next version of the documents.

“Smarter IT delivery is a core part of the President’s Management Agenda and the administration is committed to improving the value that we deliver to citizens through federal IT,” Cobert said. “The Digital Service will help us execute on this agenda, and we are incredibly excited that Mikey is onboard to drive this effort forward.”


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