Agencies beginning to seed roots of digital service culture change

More than a year after agencies began to embed digital services teams into their organizations, some are beginning to challenge often outdated and misinterpreted federal policies to develop new customer-focused products and tools.

“We cannot just accept no for an answer,” Emily Tavoulareas, founding member of the VA Digital Service, said during the Digital Services Summit in Washington March 2. “The purpose of the work we’re doing is to serve people, not to just follow rules without asking questions. Rules are there to protect us, and rules are there to protect others. But we need to make sure that they’re actually doing what they intend to do.”

For many agencies, fully realizing the philosophy of the U.S. Digital Service and 18F means, rather than developing specific project requirements, first asking “what are we trying to accomplish?”

“My boss was once told … that the job of IT is not to push back but to build whatever is being asked of them,” Tavoulareas said. “And if the client asks for a cement boat, they will build them a cement boat. Not OK. The people who come to us often don’t actually know what they want. They just feel like they need to make a bunch of stuff up because we need to put a contract together.”

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The Homeland Security Department’s Digital Service quickly learned this lesson when it visited U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service employees in the field to learn how they could improve their internal application processing system.

Instead of following a long requirements gathering process, the Digital Service quickly designed new prototypes for the system and tested them with the CIS officers, said Eric Hysen, executive director of the DHS Digital Service.

“We watched how these officers do their jobs,” he said. “We saw the processes they had for themselves, the tools they had in house, the workarounds that they made when there were things that were imposed on them by headquarters that were making it too difficult to get their job done. One of the key things we noticed … is that the way our internal users, our officers, were operating in the field, was pretty drastically different from what the lengthy requirements documents that were coming out of headquarters in D.C. were saying.”

Hysen said his team is applying those same lessons it learned in developing a new internal system for CIS officers to the products it’s creating that are geared toward the public.

The Transportation Department is also using the 18F model to lay the groundwork for a future digital services enterprise. The agency doesn’t have a designated digital services team now because it won’t have funding for one until next fiscal year. But Maria Roat, the department’s chief technology officer, is planting the seeds for one now.

Roat is building out a “sandbox,” a place where Transportation employees can experiment and test their own specific ideas.

“People will come in with a hypothesis,” she said. “They will have two to four weeks to try something out. It’s in a very finite amount of time. It will not be an environment where someone can do a pilot. No pilots, it’s a hypothesis and a safe environment to be able to experiment.”

Her office will use two cloud environments for the ideas employees develop in the sandbox. One cloud is live now, and the other will go live soon, Roat said.

Aaron Snow, executive director of 18F, said agencies are applying the lessons they learn after his digital service teams leave the organization and move on.

“We make clear that what we’re trying to do in every engagement is make sure that the methodology and the principles that we apply take root,” he told Federal News Radio. “We think the best way to do that is to create great examples of it working. When we do a project hand in hand with an agency partner and they are able to achieve better, faster, cheaper results, we think the results speak for themselves.”

Balancing risk

The U.S. Digital Service and 18F are helping agencies step out of their comfort zones and weed out a sense of institutionalized fear, which IT leaders said often prevented them from asking questions and overhauling broken customer-service systems.

Greg Godbout, who first served as the 18F director before joining the Environmental Protection Agency as its chief technology officer nearly 10 months ago,  said morale was low when he first got to the organization. Employees with an idea on how to improve a process or an EPA service were afraid to voice it, he said.

“There were literally people that would tell you they wanted to help secretly on a program and give their advice on how to do it,” Godbout said. “I would hear things, ‘I didn’t want to get my neck stepped on’. … Everyone was expected to protect the territory first and communicate through the proper channels.”

Now, Godbout said he sees the agency operating much differently because EPA leaders are learning to empower employees within program offices to speak up.

Ann Dunkin, the EPA’s chief information officer, said she noticed a turning point when she realized her project managers were afraid to fail.

“There’s this blame conversation going on,” she said. “Procurement is saying, ‘Well, you told us to change this and now we’re going to be late.’ I just looked at the procurement manager and said, ‘I’m responsible. If anything goes wrong, you blame me.’ And the entire conversation in the room changed.”

But Mike Kruger, deputy director of public affairs and director of digital engagement at the Commerce Department, encouraged agencies to go about change in an agile, incremental way. If an organization fails, there’s often much more at stake in the public sector than the private sector, he said.

“The only real way to get there is through incremental change, just for the fear and risk factor that exists in the Washington, D.C., bubble that doesn’t exist if you’re a private sector company,” Kruger said. “If you fail, it’s maybe an embarrassing story or it’s a black mark on your resume. Here, if we don’t pull off the 2020 Census correctly, heads will roll.”