Formalising success in a bureaucracy

It's only natural, when you've managed to get out of a hole against all odds, that you want to re-use the people and/or planning that made the difference. You'd be wasteful if you didn't, to be honest. Following this line of thinking, and after a small team of digital fixers managed to save the flagship Healthcare.Gov federal healthcare exchange from near-certain doom, the White House is trying to do just that.

Today they announced the launch of the new U.S. Digital Service which aims to replicates the lessons of the (relative) success in saving Healthcare.Gov with other troubled US federal government IT projects. Heaven knows that there's no shortage of potential targets for USDS to help with. The question of the moment is: can this new government team actually succeed? If so, what does success look like?

US CIO Steve van Roekel outlined the USDS role:

"This isn't going to be a group that we parachute in to write code," as Van Roekel put it in a call earlier this summer, and with perhaps the Department of Health and Human's experience with HealthCare.gov on the brain, "This isn't decending a group of developers onto the scene." Rather, the focus is going to be on helping agencies figure out where their weak points are and how to fix them.
Note that therefore the role of USDS staff isn't actually the same as the Healthcare.Gov fixers, but that might be OK as the fixing itself wouldn't scale; if you want to solve the key IT problems of more than one government agency at at time then you can't have most your staff embedded in one project, and there's no reason to think that the government can recruit multiples of the motivated team that fixed Healthcare.gov. They're going to have to strike a balance, though. They won't be able to determine the principal IT problems of an agency without spending time working with and talking to the agency's tech team. The more time they spend there, the more trust they'll gain and the better the quality of information they'll gather - but then they won't be able to help as many agencies.

The danger with any new government agency is that after a time it accumulates bureaucrats whose primary purpose is propagating their own employment and importance. Van Roekel seems to be aware of this and planning to bring in people for 2-4 year rotations. With placements of 3-6 months this may be about right; long enough for the new people to spend a placement or two with the veterans and absorb the institutional knowledge, do a couple more placements as peers while encouraging their friends to join up, then lead new recruits in placements as the veterans leave.

What's going to be interesting is to see how the USDS embeds are treated in the troubled agencies. Are they going to have the influence and effective power to remove obstructions - such as long-term barnacle workers who hoard knowledge and obstruct progress? If not, they're unlikely to be able to change much. If so, the agency's workers are going to hunker down and be terrified of being fired or reassigned. It's going to be quite a challenge for tech sector workers to get their heads around the government worker mindset sufficiently to influence those workers into getting things fixed.

Incidentally, www.usds.gov was not resolving as of posting time; I actually consider that a potential sign of success as the new team is focusing on getting operational before getting any marketing/PR in place; still, they're going to need a portfolio of some form after a few months in order to attract their new short-term hires.

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