Joho the Blog » [liveblog] Bringing Silicon Valley to Government

[liveblog] Bringing Silicon Valley to Government

I’m at an event sponsored by the Shorenstein Center and Ash Center and the Center for Public Leadership on “Bringing Silicon Valley to Government?” (#HKSgovtech). Panelists are:

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Van Dyck, Sinai, and Martin

Van Dyck, Sinai, and Martin

Maria Martin begins. She had founded a company and worked there for ten years, but then applied to be a Presidential Innovation Fellow, thinking she stood no chance. (She lightly recommends sending in a resume printed on colored paper.) She got in, and moved to DC for six months, or so she thought. Then she was asked to be a senior advisor in the White House. One day her boss, Todd Park [former federal CTO], couldn’t make a meeting at the Veterans Administration. She went and fell in love with the problem because it affected veterans and because it seemed solvable through software. The other people around the room were policy folks and didn’t know how to use software that way. She was told by her friends it’d be frustrating, but you can learn how to get things done in government. She was 28 years old when she became CTO of the VA.

Nick introduces Tim O’Reilly as “the godfather of tech.” Tim begins by denying that. “The thing I’ve done most of my career is to watch interesting people and say, ‘Wow, there’s something there!’.” “I’m kind of like a talent scout.” The person who first inspired him about gov’t is Carl Malamud. “He was the first person to put any govt agency on the Internet.” Carl went to Eric Schmidt who at the time was CTO of Sun and licensed data from the SEC. After two years Carl said he was going to shut it down unless the govt took it over. (See Public Resource.)

Then Tim saw Adrian Holovaty‘s mash up of crime data with Google Maps and said, “Wow, techies are beginning to pay attention to govt.” This inspired Tim to want to get more govt stuff into his Web 2.0 conference. He realized that government as a platform had created great value. E.g., opening up GPS. “So much of govt has been focused on, ‘We have to build it or else it won’t exist.’ … My idea was that if you open data, entrepreneuers can build on it.” Not open data for transparency so much as open data for building things. Todd Park, who was at Health & Human Services at the time, “totally got it.” When Amazon launched its Web Services, it found the people illegally hacking on its data. Tim’s company was one of them, to get book data. So Amazon brought in the hackers and built the services they need. HHS did this too. There are now hundreds or possibly thousands of apps using the HHS data.

Haley Van Dyck was on track in 2008 to move to Beijing to work for CNN on Olympics coverage. She was at a dinner where speakers talked about the need to do more for race relations in the US. Obama was running, so she went to work for him in Chicago. When they won, they were asked to connect citizens to government. She started at the FCC building the first new media team to fix their interface to the public. [Wow, they had a terrible UI. Thanks for helping to fix it, Haley!] She thanks Tim for helping to build a like-minded tech community in building. She now leads the US Digital Service.

Nick Sinai went to business school, worked for Lehman, and then pivoted to go to work for Pres. Obama, at the FCC for 1.5 yrs and in the White House for four years.

Haley: USDS is a team embedded in the White House and distributed dedicated to transform the most important citizen-facing services. It was started after the rescue effort. “Let’s bring in a couple of hyper-talented engineers” and add them to the hundreds of consultants in order to change the environment tasked with fixing the site that the President’s most important initiative rested upon. “At any moment, there were only 5-6 people working on” and they were able to fix it. The President asked that this method be used more broadly, so the USDS was founded.

The USDS theory of change is that the best way to create change is to deliver results and to do it where it’s most needed. There’s a team at the VA and a Homeland Security working on immigration services. The immigration process is currently entirely paper-based. To apply you have to send in avery long paper docket that humans then look out. It’s difficult to put this together. The paper file get sents around to immigration centers. By the end (6-9 months) it will have traveled the distance equivalent to going around the world six times. The postal costs alone are $300M/year.

A seven year long procurement for $1.2B was begun about ten years ago [I think] which resulted in a process that was even longer. The Obama administration decided to fix this. A $1.4B procurement process put it into the same hands as the first time. “We can’t build an application process the way we build battleships.” (Tim quotes Clay Shirky that the traditional waterfall sw dev process is “a commitment by everyone not to learn anything while doing the work.”) Instead, the digital team — five people — released the first sw update four months later.

Nick: Traditionally, we spend years developing the procurement. Then years writing the requirements. Then years building the system. Then in year 7 or 10 sw would actually launch. We’ll spend billion of dollars on a single sw enterprise system and then it fails because sw changes, and the requirements are wrong because no one tested them. But instead sw developers rapidly deploy, test what’s working, iterate.

Tim: There’s a real cultural change. If you’re a supplier charging the govt a billion for something that only costs a million, you don’t have incentive to shrink your profts a thousand-fold. The contractors say the project is massive like a moon landing, but Silicon Valley people look at it and say, “Actually, it’s in the range of a mid-size dating site.”

Haley: The five people on the team couldn’t have done it on their own. They worked with the contractors who were there. It’s a tight partnership.

Nick: We spend $80B/year in IT in govt, not including intelligence. (HHS has $11B budget for IT.) But we’re not getting the value.

Marina: The VA has 330,000 employees and 8,000 IT managers. It took a year and a half to get the first hire of the new team in. She had to document that she couldn’t hire through the usual pipeline…which itself took a year. She had to show the value of hiring another 75 people.

A VA example: The President was going to announce a site where you could put in the number of years of service and see how many “GI dollars” [? – couldn’t hear] you have. The contractor spent $1M building this simple page and it wouldn’t even load on the Internet. Marina asked one of the PIFs [Presidential Innovation Fellows]to look at the page. S/he called three hours later it and had fixed it.

[Audience member:] The culture, based on the annual budgets of the agencies, is more complex than you’re saying. SW companies selling to the govt have to include complexities to meet the culture and requirements. [Not sure I’m getting this.]

Marina: You change culture by celebrating vendors who do it in new ways.

Nick: The Administration has a program to educate the contracting officers across all the agencies who do the negotiations.

Marina: There are 1000+ websites at the VA and maybe a dozen IDs for each veteran. 942 toll-free numbers. So, how do you change the veteran’s experience. I could argue the need for this for 20 years, but instead we exposed it to the veterans. We didn’t close down the 1000 websites, but instead created one website that lets you get to what you need. How do we get info to the people who support veterans? To the community? The answer to our most-asked question takes 17 clicks to get to, and that answer is “Call your RO” without telling you what “RO” means (regional office) or how to call it.

The VA also built its own Electronic Health Records system many many years ago; we’re going to launch a new, open source EHR platform. And it’s building the first apps to make sure it works.

Third, the VA team is working on the appeals backlog. You have to process them in chronological order so there’s no low-hanging fruit. One of the boxes you can check is “Do you want a local hearing?” That’s very attractive to users, but it doesn’t tell them that that means a judge will be flown into their city in 2019. Giving users more info would help.

Nick: You’re engaging in user-centered design. The shift is massive. How do you hide the complexity of govt?

Tim: You should all read The UK Digital Govt Design Principles. The message is: Users first. The big difference between govt and the Valley is that in the Valley if you don’t please your customers, you’re out of business. But in govt you can go on for years getting funded. “The feedback loop is fundamentally broken.” In Silicon Valley you test, you work on it incrementally, you add new features.

Tim also recommends Jake Solomon’s “People, not Data” about food stamps in San Francisco. Why is there so much churn in the system? People apply and then drop out. One big reason: Applicants receive incomprehensible letters. “That was just the first step in debugging the system for users.” Govt administrators should be required to use this systems. (This was addressed by Code for America, which was a model for PIFs, started by Jen Pahlka (Tim’s wife.)

Haley: We’re working on a big project for the President. His advisors had a feature they really really really wanted included in the project. We were running an agile dev project, and added the feature. But in testing it turned out that the users weren’t clicking on that feature, preferring to use the search engine instead. But one of the advisors was incredibly upset that the feature he wanted wasn’t included in the launch version. We explained why. “We saw their minds just shift.” The advisor said, “You’re not building it because users don’t want it! We shouldn’t just build sw this way. We ought to build policy that way as well.'” “I left the West Wing wanting to cry [with joy].”

Tim: “If you can build something and show it works, you can change minds” about policy.

Nick: How do we turn those feedback cycles into weeks or months…?

Haley: Here’s the second half of the story. We decided to release all of the data to the partners in a private beta. It turns out that the feature the advisors wanted has been implemented by a third party as a separate standalone product.” You can achieve so much more by opening up data than by doing it all yourself.

Nick: Regulators sometimes fight innovation…

Tim: See my “Open Data and Algorithmic Regulation.” Lots of people hate regulation, but we want, for example, credit card companies to monitor usage to prevent fraud. This is a type of regulation. The credit card companies regulate in real-time and adaptively. Maybe govt regulation should look this way. The Fed does this, because we’re judged by the outcomes, not by our adherence to policy rules like “Interest rates shall be set at X.” They continuously adjust the knobs and levers. Nick Grossman has raised this recently about the debates about Uber and AirBnb. He says that they ought to open up their data to govt regulators so we can figure out the actual impact. Is Uber increasing or decreasing congestion?

Nick: What are the career paths like?

Marina: I didn’t think there was any way I could be in govt. There are many routes in.



Haley: Just do it.

Tim: You can do a lot from the outside. We all have a call to public service. We need a fundamental rebirth of civic mindedness, that govt something we do together. We need govt, unlike the conservatives and Silicon Valley believe.

Haley: We don’t know how algorithic regulation works or how far it should go into the delivery of services. This is something we all need to work on.

Nick: Engineering and Design programs should be working on these sorts of issues.


Q: Traditionally govt was not a top option for grads. Now it’s becoming more attractive. There’s more of a sense in the Valley that it’s their duty to fix things rather than just complaining.

Q: What steps are you taking beyond getting shit done to address some of the fundamental issues around procurement,agile dev, hiring quickly…?

Haley: We began with hiring. We’re done from 9 months to 4 wks to hire someone, which make us competitive with the private sector. (We use Schedule A Hiring Authority. “This is super wonky.”) The procurement process: crucial. We need to enable the right kind of companies to do the work. First, we’re working on building better buyers by bringing in technologists. In 1.5 months we’re launching an agile procurement process. We’re starting to train contracting officers with a five month course to understand how to procure digital in a way that makes sense. We’working with 18f on a pilot to reduce the barriers. We’d love to rebuild Schedule 70 .

Nick: It takes about 9 months to get on that schedule. GSA has a goal of getting this down to 21 days. There are ideas about raising the threshold for purchasing. Right now it’s an 80-90 PDF you have fill out. There’s so much friction in the system and you end up with people’s core competency is navigating the bureaucracy of the system.

Tim: As part of the new process, you’re given a data set available through a public API and you’re given a working app within a week. One of the largest IT companies couldn’t do it so they failed the agile certification process.

Nick: It’s about show, not tell.

Tim: It used to be that you had to provide a working model to get a patent. Think about all the junk sw patents. A working prototype ought to be a requirement.

Marina: And it’s not just about building apps. It’s about understanding the users and getting the incentives right.

Q: Everyone has a different definition of “agile.”

Tim: There’s always more than one way to do it, to cite the PERL slogan. There’s a family of things you can call “agile” : iterative, small pieces, feedback loops. Any version of agile is better than any version of waterfall development.

Nick: If it delivers in weeks, then I don’t care what we call it.

Q: You’re competing with Silicon Valley for people. Have you thought about offering H1 B visas for USDS?

A: That’s very interesting to us.

Q: How about the politics involved? There are forces that have spent decades dismantling in place systems that let Congressfolk know what they’re doing, etc. What are you doing to make sure that USDS is robust?

A: I’ve been surprised at how easy it’s been to identify the common causes you share whether you’re a Dem or Repub. No one wants veterans to have bad service from the VA. TBD is how the contracting community will respond. We’ve tried to be clear that this is not about taking away business from contractors. We’re not on a witch hunt against them. We want to make them more efficient. In many instances they’re delivering the systems we asked for but we got the requirements wrong.

Q: What skills should students develop to be attractive to USDS, etc.? Especially for Kennedy School students?

Marina: I hired a Kennedy School grad who’s been amazing. He has good dev skills,but more important he’s able to understand and ask questions and navigate through problems.

Haley: Show results.

Tim: It’s not about being a rockstar coder. Rather, solve user problems, and have a fundamental facility with tech that lets you say, “Oh yeah, that’s easy to do. Here’s the tool you use. The consumerization of IT means that you often don’t need to go to someone else to get something done.” “Tools like GitHub should be in your reportoire.” Young people can come into govt and help it see what things are easy so we spend money on what’s hard.

Nick: Go to a hackathon and work on some project together.

Q: As a designer and architect, how much of it is govt interacting with architects, city planners, and people who care about design? Lawyers often implement laws without regard to design.

Haley: We hire product designers, visual designers, user researchers. We’re in desperate need of more of them.

Tim: Code for America uses a lot of designers as well. And designed should be tested and iterated on as well. “It’d be awesome to have the equivalent of agile dev in city design.”

Nick: You could argue that The Constitution is a design document.

Q: I haven’t heard much from you about saving money.

Marina: I have to lead with the impact on veterans’ lives. Cost-savings is important but it isn’t enough of a driver of change. Even if we save $2B of the $80B, it barely dings the chart.

Haley: It’s an amazing secondary outcome of building better services for users. Also, cost-cutting inadvertently puts you in adversarial stance with some of the folks there. It’s easier to focus on who we are serving.

Q: What are you doing to create a sense of urgency?

Marina: We’re not going to be around forever.

Haley: We are living in a services delivery crisis. Veterans are dying because of that.

Nick: “Practice radical empathy.” You can’t just drop in as a hot shit technologist. You have to have empathy not just for veterans but for the person who’s been in this job for thirty years. You have to ask how you can make them the hero.

Tim: When immigration reform was on the table, that created urgency to get ahead of the topic so that there would’t be another sort of meltdown. And people want to be remembered for doing something good. Listen to what they’re trying to accomplish and how you can help them. There’s a human element.

Q: How to bring the human voice into policy circles? USDS asked me to report on what it’s like to get an immigrant visa. They sent me to the Dominican Republic where I talked with people about their experience, and shadowed them when they went to the local immigration office while they waited for 5 hours for their 10-min interview. The deliverable was a memo to the President. Having a background in policy was helpful in writing that in a way that made user needs and experience understandable to policy makers.

Haley: It coupled the policy discussion with implementation suggests. That’s rare and can be transformative.

[What a fantastic panel. And a completely awesome set of people — more examples of what true patriotism can look like.]

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