The Service Branches Go Digital


Right before the end of the Obama administration’s term, a couple of announcements from the Pentagon were made. These announcements, one by the Air Force Secretary and the other by the Army Secretary, signaled the launch of each military service branch’s digital service. The details in the announcements were a bit thin, but generally included the following themes:

  • Talent: An emphasis on acquiring and embedding digital talent into the military services
  • Nature: Troubleshooting existing programs that have been running into problems associated with software, cybersecurity, etc. (e.g. next-gen GPS)
  • Centralization vs. decentralization: Either the branch services will be part of the existing Defense Digital Service (i.e. Army, but still TBD) or independent (i.e. Air Force)

What It Means

An offshoot of the US Digital Service, the Defense Digital Service has been operating since the fall of 2015. Over this time, it has tackled Defense Department “problem children” such as veteran’s electronic medical records transfer, next-generation GPS, the Defense Travel Service Modernization and instituted bug bounty programs at the Pentagon and for the US Army.

Witnessing the apparent “success” of the Defense Digital Service, it is not surprising that the branch services of the military would want their own digital services teams. The question now becomes will the Defense Digital Service, and the US Digital Service, continue to be effective in a more decentralized model where ever more teams are embedded within U.S. government agencies and departments.

Branches in Need of Digital Transformation

Regardless of the debate over whether digital services should fall under the responsibility of the Defense Digital Service, be independently run by the service branches or connected via some other arrangement, the branches themselves do have a need for digital expertise. All military branches independently run personnel management, training, logistical support and countless other service functions online. There are large IT expenditures to run these systems and even larger gripes within the services on how these portal services are developed, deployed and operated. Anyone who has ever been a user of these services knows that functionality, design and cross-database information lags what is offered in the civilian world.

Branch Service Contracting and Procurement Knowledge Gap

Besides digital services improvement, US military branches often run their own contracting commands. For the past few years, the Department of Defense and the service branches have partnered with the General Service Administration‘s 18F to utilize their digital expertise in crafting contract requirements and review of bids on programs that necessitate the use of current development and software practices (i.e. agile, lean, Cloud, SaaS implementation, etc.).

While the branches are desirous of having their own digital service “swat teams,” they may also be wise to acquire talent and develop their own 18F-like talent within their contracting commands to deploy expertise to remote contracting offices instead of always relying on GSA and 18F to provide needed expertise. While I can’t guarantee it, I can imagine a time when the GSA and 18F’s ability to provide expertise becomes outstripped by DoD and the branch service’s procurement needs.

Way Ahead: Will De-centralization Work?

The Defense Department’s digital service evolution from central control to a decentralized model is not unique within and outside the US Government. Other digital service teams are being stood up to service agencies across the government (e.g. DHS, Department of State, Veteran’s Affairs, etc.). Countries like Estonia have also grappled with this transition from centralization to decentralization in deploying digital expertise and standards across its government.

Besides growing pains, the Department of Defense and service branches themselves face legacy issues. With older systems and vendors, the Department and the services are also prisoner to a sort of “lock in” effect with their existing vendors practices and contracting arrangements causing them not to rethink or push to far forward in areas like user design, database interconnectivity, streamlined identity management and agile project development.

Getting digital talent injected into the services is an admirable first step, but I fear that the service chiefs and Department of Defense officials may be misguided in viewing DDS, and its service branch offshoots, as “Mr. Fix-it” teams, rather than change-makers who can ween departments off outdated practices and facilitate broader adoption of digital-age practices.

While there are plenty of troubled programs to fix, the devolution of digital services to US government agencies and mission offices represents a chance to focus these teams not only on injecting digital thinking and standards into agency-level contract procurement, but also to democratize knowledge and use of digital practices.

What Success Looks Like: Organized Democratization of Ideas and Talent

As the United States Digital Service grows older and enters its next stage of maturity (including under new Presidential management), agency and sub-agency level service teams will need to rethink how digital services teams are being utilized at each level of government. Deployment of trouble shooting digital swat teams is not a sustainable model in the long-term for engendering digital practices across the government. The US Air Force and Army would be wise to instead charge their teams with focusing on the root of the problem — namely promoting and spreading adoption of digital practices within the services, including by agency contracting offices.

USDS and Defense Digital Service officers should also rethink their roles and responsibilities, as various digital service teams deploy under them at even lower levels of the bureaucracy. For instance, perhaps DDS should focus on the formulation of Defense Department-wide digital standards and procurement practices that the agency and sub-agency digital service teams should be charged with operationalizing. If digital service teams ever embed within smaller agencies, offices and mission teams, perhaps these tactical-level service teams should be focused on the nuts and bolts digital training, adoption and execution of digital service skills to aid mission-critical projects.

Most importantly, in a decentralized model, agency and sub-agency level digital service teams, should serve as cultural “change agents,” rather than viewed solely as “fix it” teams. Only by transforming to a culture that appreciates leaner, more agile and user-centric services will the government be able to treat the cause of the many troubled programs that are out there. In this way, success looks less like big-program troubleshooting (i.e. treating the symptoms) and more like changes in agency-level procurement and service delivery. Perhaps digital service soldiers and airmen in Army and Air Force can become an example for a US Digital Service at a cross roads.