Defense Travel System getting overhaul, one failure at a time

It’s one thing to build the plane while you’re flying it, it’s another to take a few risks when people depend on that flight.

But taking risks, embracing failure, and — in the case of the Defense Digital Service and its replacement of the Defense Travel System — spearheading a new approach, mean a better chance of success.

DDS Director Chris Lynch, told Federal News Radio that the services component is learning its new team and its hopes to improve the beleaguered travel system, on industry.

“This is a thing that the world has figured out, how do to commercial travel,” Lynch said during the June 12-14 Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit in Washington, D.C. “We are not in the business of building travel products, we are not special, we are not unique, we don’t need to own those things, but it should make sense and people should like using it.”

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“We took an approach which was ‘hey, if we came in, we’re going to help with the product management portion of it,” Lynch continued. “Product management is not a function that is native within the federal government. The idea of talking to users and the idea of actually asking them ‘does this do what you thought it was going to do,’ ‘does it work ok,’ is very foreign. So we provided that, and now we’re providing that function with the project, which was non-existent before.”

But that approach came after what Lynch said was like pushing a massive boulder up a mountain, and coming to the understanding that not only did they need to tell leadership they failed, they needed to make some changes to their approach.

In late April/early May, Acting Defense Department Chief Information Officer John Zangardi put out a pilot for commercial applications for the Defense Travel System.

While Zangardi is focused on his security team assessing how the application would protect customer data, Lynch said his team is interested in creating a system that lets people book their travel in a sensible and reliable way.

“We see it as more of a product management function as opposed to just a security thing,” Lynch said, adding that while security is important, “the real thing for me is does it work. Because right now somebody can go book a trip, it could take them 2-3 hours to book the trip, it can still fail, and then when that fails they have to call a support line and then that support line could take an hour with them and then they have to go back and do it.”

Lynch said his team is testing out the pilot with their own travel bookings.

“As things fail, we’re going back and fixing those things and trying again,” Lynch said. “We’re finding things that fail. We’re going to bring more people in and then things are going to fail; we’re going to fix that. We can do that much faster than trying to just deploy to 50,000 people and having it fail. We want people to like it as it goes.”

Failure is always an option

Not being afraid of taking risks and accepting failures was a theme throughout Lynch’s panel on modernizing government.

Hunter Price, a digital services expert at DoD, said at U.S. Digital Service and the Pentagon, you hear that failure is not an option, but in fact the government “fails all the time.”

“In incredible ways,” Price said to laughter. “The U.S. military fails all the time, just mindblowing failures. There’s never a scenario when failure isn’t an option. It’s always on the table.”

The reality is that you need to be able to roll with the punches and quickly change directions, at least to make those failures short lived, Price said.

“I think if more people across government embraced that attitude, we would start delivering a lot better services,” Price said.

Matt Cutts, acting USDS administrator, said his agency has learned to “never waste a crisis” as it acts in a firefighting capacity — like its work on HealthCare.gov and IRS’ Get Transcript cyber breach.

“Whenever something is literally on fire, people are willing to try a lot of new things,” Cutts said.

Chris McKeever, digital service lead at DDS, said the key is to find people “willing to take the risk with you.”

“Giving them the knowledge that you’re going to assume just as much, if not more of the risk on this whole thing,” McKeever said. “They’re just along for the ride under they’re ready to take off.”