Doing IT Right: Congressional Oversight of President Obama’s Signature Tech Teams

On June 10, the U.S. Digital Service and 18F came to Capitol Hill to testify before the House Oversight Committee. Here’s what happened.

If you missed it, here is a preview post on the June 10 oversight hearing.

Congressional oversight is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. Especially in a divided, often divisive, Washington, D.C.

You never know what you’re gonna get.

On June 10, as House Oversight and Government Reform IT Subcommittee Chairman Will Hurd (R-TX) gaveled open an important oversight hearing on the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, no one knew what they would find inside. Would committee members and witnesses seek to score partisan political points? Would private-sector IT vendors benefitting from the broken status quo gang up and pull out the knives? Or would a fact-based, bipartisan and productive dialogue ensue? As a veteran of this committee, I’ve seen plenty of both. When the top comes off the oversight box, you really do never know what you’ll get.

“For real reform to happen, the Federal Government needs talented, experienced people to work on IT projects that are bigger than themselves.” — Chairman Will Hurd

What we got was a fantastic discussion led by Chairman Hurd and Ranking Member Robin Kelly (D-IL). We saw Congressional oversight at its best. All those involved, from Members to staff to witnesses, deserve a hug, a firm handshake and pat on the back. Rolling through the questions and statements, you couldn’t easily tell who on the dais was a Republican and who was a Democrat. We saw witnesses carry themselves with aplomb, delivering substantive, thoughtful answers to equally weighty questions. Heck, we even saw USDS Administrator Mikey Dickerson in a suit and tie!

U.S. Digital Service Administrator Mikey Dickerson testifying on June 10, 2016

Any fan of civic technology and good government should watch the entire 90 minute hearing (subtitles and closed captions included free of charge). But if you can’t, I’ve pulled out below some hearing highlights and key exchanges intended to underscore three important points.

  1. Members of Congress of all stripes and party affiliations are embracing the game-changing promise of better government technology shipped by the modern approach employed by hundreds of hardworking people serving their country at 18F and USDS. Same goes for the career bureaucracy, to varying degrees. And it appears that, at least under oath and the klieg lights, the private-sector vendor community grudgingly does too.
  2. The culture change 18F and USDS embody is starting to take hold, challenging the mindset of entrenched for-profit IT vendors, attacking the billions wasted each year on busted IT, and putting the status quo on notice.
  3. Last but not least, congressional oversight can and must fulfill its critical role in improving government IT by not only holding Executive Branch programs accountable, but by also delivering real legislative reform. We can’t expect better federal digital services without robust, sustained involvement by the U.S. Congress.
Chairman Will Hurd (right) and Ranking Member Robin Kelly (left) | Hurd.House.Gov

Support for 18F & USDS extends across the partisan divide…and into the for-profit vendor community?

From Chairman Hurd on down, no one felt that the federal government has perfected IT acquisition, support, development or deployment. And these imperfect systems are badly in need of an overhaul; systems that, it is worth noting, come from big, private-sector vendors hocking closed, proprietary platforms. How bad is it? According to a recent nonpartisan GAO report, as much as $60 billion — a full three quarters — of the federal government spends on technology goes to maintaining outdated systems. And as much as $20 billion of this IT budget is wasted, according to an investigation conducted by this very House Oversight Committee under the direction of then-Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) [full disclosure: Issa co-founded The OpenGov Foundation with me and I worked on the report just cited].

That continuing taxpayer-funded tragedy, plus government’s to-date inability to hire and retain enough tech talent, was the real problem hanging over everything, and what 18F and USDS were created to solve. For if government is definitionally risk-averse, if it is designed to avoid failures, and if it has a procurement process to match, you’re going to get at best merely sufficient technology built or bought. 18F and USDS have a mandate to disrupt that absurdly adequate way of doing business. But for the new approach to truly take hold, you also need a new way for Congress to conduct its constitutional job of oversight.

“When the government’s IT services aren’t working, the government isn’t working.” — Oversight IT Subcommittee Ranking Member Robin Kelly

Just as the federal IT culture is pegged to “just don’t screw it up,” so to has Congressional oversight — under both parties — become a finely-tuned machine expert at calling out malfeasance. The sea change on display in this hearing, then, is twofold. First, 18F and USDS shoot for excellence, not good enough. That is a new thing on the federal IT scene. And second, if you have a mandate for excellence, damn the torpedoes, you need legislative branch oversight to match. It becomes just as much, if not more, about highlighting what is working and building off of success than about highlighting failure and exposing waste, fraud and abuse. This fresh conceptual framework was on display throughout the hearing.

Chairman Hurd: “The government’s messed up. All right? The way we buy IT goods and services is messed up. We have difficulty getting smart people that have the technical skills to solve the problems of the future is difficult…Because the only way that we are going to get a digital infrastructure within the Federal Government that is, that the American people deserve, is if we break some things on the inside…”
18F and USDS were created, in part, to find smarter ways to upgrade the approximately $60 billion the federal government spends each year maintaining aging, broken and obsolete IT systems | PBS/Getty Images

This is precisely why 18F and USDS exist, and judging from this hearing, there is clear and growing bipartisan support for their continued existence far beyond the Obama Administration. Even more promising was the stated support shown for the President’s top tech teams by representatives of the private-sector IT vendor community.

Ranking Member Robin Kelly (D-IL) | Kelly.House.Gov

Ranking Member Kelly: “At almost every hearing we hold, I ask agency heads to list some of their greatest challenges, and without fail, we hear about the challenges of recruiting and retaining a talented IT workforce. I have been impressed by 18F and USDS’ ability to open the door to public service in one of our fastest growing industries. These employees are using the knowledge, skills, and experience they’ve gained in the private sector to help improve Federal IT.”

The Ranking Member then asked the two industry witnesses — Trey Hodgkins of the Information Technology Alliance for Public Sector (ITAPS), and David LeDuc, of the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) — if they agreed [emphases mine throughout]:

Ranking Member Kelly: “Mr. LeDuc, in your written statement you said, and I quote: “We support much of the core mission of the both USDS and 18F.” What role do you think the Digital Service and 18F can play in the Obama administration’s efforts to modernize Federal IT?”
Mr. LeDuc (SIAA): “Thank you for that question. As I mentioned, we’re very supportive of the different thought process that 18F brings and their goal bringing in innovative IT companies, small IT businesses, and integrating that into agency solutions, working alongside of agencies to help them in designing their procurements and deciding what types of technology they need. We think 18F can be particularly helpful in that role, consulting two agencies to help them obtain the right technology.”

Turning to the other representative of private-sector government IT companies:

Ranking Member Kelly: “Mr. Hodgkins, in your written statement, you said, and I quote: “In some ways, 18F and USDS are positioned to be key enablers in these efforts to achieve a digital government.” In what ways do you think the Digital Service and 18F can enable the Federal Government to move into the digital age?”
Mr. Hodgkins (ITAPS): “Well, they are already serving as disrupters, as we just discussed, around the cultural change that is necessary. We actually had to change the thought process of the bureaucracies and how they look at technology, and then that translates into how they buy it. And they are a leading edge on many of the elements of those different equations that have to be changed before we can fully incorporate technologies.”
Ranking Member Kelly: “Thank you. Does ITAPS believe that the Digital Service and 18F are having an overall positive effect on modernizing the IT acquisition? It is the same question.”
Mr. Hodgkins: “I think in certain areas, yes.”

Support for 18F and USDS extends across the aisle. But Chairman Hurd also reminded us that the point of government IT isn’t elegance or cutting-edge for cutting-edge’s sake. The point is efficient, effective and accountable government that works for the American people.

Chairman Will Hurd (R-TX) | Dallas Morning News

Chairman Hurd: “Taxpayers deserve a government that leverages technology to serve them rather than one that deploys unsecured, decades‑old technology that places their sensitive and personal information at risk. They also deserve a Federal Government that is transparent…If 18F and USDS can help us achieve an efficient and transparent government worthy of its people and do so in a way that is clear, cost‑effective, measurable, and appropriate for a government role, then I’m very open in supporting them.

GAO’s David Powner, testifying on a report prepared for the Oversight Committee by his agency that highlighted areas in which 18F and USDS need to improve, then endorsed the new, innovative approaches now being brought to bear on the federal IT bugbear:

Mr. Powner: “18F has worked on some major IT projects like the U.S. immigration transformation and the VA benefits delivery system. They also have two initiatives where agencies will be able to quickly access agile and cloud services. Our customer satisfaction survey showed that most customers were pleased with their services.”
“USDS has worked on seven major IT projects, including U.S. immigration transformation and SSA’s disability case processing. A much higher percentage of their work is associated with large IT acquisitions when compared to 18F. Our customer satisfaction survey showed that all customers that responded were satisfied with their services.”
“As an example, at DOD, Terry Halvorson ‑‑ the travel system at the Department of Defense has been a mess for years. We haven’t been able to deliver on it. So he said, yeah, I want the digital service team to try to tackle that. That’s great. They agree on what they’re working on, and they agree that that’s a priority system that we’ve had a lot of problems, and that’s where Mr. Dickerson can really help move the ball forward with those troubled projects.”
“We’ve always supported a SWAT team out of the White House that could parachute in...” — GAO IT Management Issues Director David Powner

Big government IT is broken, and on notice

But it begs the question: why are those projects troubled in the first place? How did federal IT go this far off the rails? How did it get so broken, so outdated, and fixing it so sisyphean? These failures have many fathers, but the hearing made clear that the balance of blame should rest on the shoulders of a bureaucratic government procurement culture that verges on the criminally insane, and the constellation of enormous and hide-bound IT vendors that reap billions building and perpetuating bad technology at taxpayer expense. You don’t need to an advanced degree in computer science to see that small, talented and agile teams like 18F and USDS are a threat, if you want to call it that, to both — or that private-sector vendors will continue to have an important role to play in delivering federal government digital services for the foreseeable future.

Fixing federal IT used to be a sisyphean slog | Design You Trust
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA): “The Federal Government spent, of course, $80 billion in IT in 2015. Mr. Powner, you testified before the full committee just 2 weeks ago that agencies are spending up to 70, 75 percent of that money on legacy IT systems. GAO’s high‑risk list includes management of IT acquisitions and operations. Agencies need to modernize their systems and their way of thinking about IT investments. The creation of the U.S. Digital Service and 18F in 2014 brought some critical focus to those issues.”

The GAO concurred, endorsing the small, agile approach to federal IT projects taken by 18F and USDS.

Mr. Powner (GAO): “We know there are a lot of problems with large acquisitions. There’s a top 10 list that goes to the Appropriations Committee. You guys got an updated report yesterday. We need to fix those large projects. There’s a lot of opportunity there. The legacy side of things, not just acquisitions, but swapping out these old legacy, where we have a lot of data conversion, application conversion, that’s where USDS could really help the Federal Government.”

Speaking on behalf of the traditional federal IT vendor community were Trey Hodgkins of the Information Technology Alliance for Public Sector (ITAPS), and David LeDuc, of the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA). To give you an idea of exactly whose interests LeDuc and Hodgkins represent, check out this list of ITAPS members and this (very long) list of SIIA members.

During the hearing, both ITAPS and SIIA spoke favorably about 18F and USDS. However some of their members may feel, we have to take them at their world. Their testimony, either way, was a smart strategic play. In the current world of federal IT, it would be a fool’s errand to put big vendors against lean, agile teams like 18F and USDS.

But on the off-chance someone did want to cleverly undercut the new kids on the block, they might go about it like this. They would seek to “raise troubling questions” about “best practices.” They would call for “openness and transparency,” as long as it isn’t demanded of them and their clients, too. And when all else fails, they would ask Congress this: “WHAT OF THE CHILDREN?!? WHAT OF AMERICAN SMALL BUSINESSES?!?”

From ITAPS’ testimony:

Mr. Hodgkins: “Based on our discussions with vendors and government personnel,” — Which vendors? Which personnel? — “there is a general lack of clarity and understanding about these programs. What are they doing? What are they not? And how can they be expected to operate? This opaqueness has created a degree of uncertainty, concern, and suspicion.”
“To address and counter these perceptions and to assure that these programs can be sustained into the future,” Hodgkins continued, “attention should immediately be paid to creating a very transparent and open operating environment. Furthermore, applying comprehensive metrics will provide oversight to ensure the interests of the taxpayers and to demonstrate that these programs are not wasteful of time and resources.”

From SIIA’s testimony:

Mr. LeDuc: “18F’s focus on “build custom” departs from the longstanding reliance on a “buy, not build” IT procurement policy.”
“Competition from 18F can only be expected to grow stronger over time for private IT vendors, particularly affecting small businesses.”
“18F has the ability to operate outside of the traditional procurement process with the dual role of design agency procurements and to compete for the opportunity to provide the solutions without sufficient transparency and oversight.”
“As an internal government IT consulting service, 18F should undergo the traditional oversight and scrutiny by both Congress and the administration to ensure that it will stay within a well‑defined designated lane.”

I understand that SIIA and ITAPS have dues-paying members to represent, who in turn have profit-driven interests to protect. $80 billion a year provides quite an incentive. And throughout the hearing, Members and witnesses returned to the notion that the private sector does have an important role to play in delivering federal digital services. But the fact is inescapable: 18F and USDS are already disrupting far beyond the projects with which they are directly involved. With each line of code, with each consulting relationship, with each process reformed, they are demonstrating just how bankrupt the traditional federal government IT community has become.

On patriotism and open source

Before closing with the reform side of the oversight coin, let’s take a moment to meditate on two awesome hearing exchanges on what I think are some of the most magnificent monuments to freedom mankind has made: the United States of America and open source software.

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX): “Now, you indicated you came out of the private sector and into government. I want to ask another broad, general question here. There’s a very different mindset, especially in the startup world in California or even working in a big company like Google, you know, where you have these big campuses with bicycles everywhere and free meals. How does the government compete for IT talent against that?”
Ms. Phaedra Chrousos (18F): “In one word, it’s patriotism. So all of the people that come and join us are very mission‑oriented, and they are leaving behind cushier environments, let’s say, to come and work on products that impact the American people.”

Coders serving their country? Patriotism trumping paychecks? Good gracious, that’s a beautiful thing. Now, over to one of the top minds in government technology, Eric Mill of 18F.

What he said. Watch Rep. Farenthold declare his love from the dais. Farenthold — who along with Reps. Jared Polis (D-CO), Seth Moulton (D-MA), Mark Takano (D-CA) and Darrell Issa (R-CA) founded the Congressional Open Source Caucus and last year successfully pushed the U.S. House of Representatives to finally approved the use and development of open source software — is himself a software industry veteran, and knows of what he speaks.

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX)
Mr. Farenthold: “I’m a huge advocate for open source. I actually do think that’s the way the government can address some security issues as well as make stuff available across government lines.”

Couldn’t agree more.

Strong oversight of 18F and USDS must lead to legislative reform

Good congressional oversight must lead to reform. If the Executive Branch and Legislative Branch cannot come together to publicly admit areas in need of improvement, cannot productively explore what is needed to actually improve, and cannot cross the aisle to cement those lessons-learned with legislation, then far more than government IT is broken.

On that, all hearing participants seemed to agree, with a focus on the two areas in need of improvement documented in GAO’s report. First, 18F and USDS need to do a far better job at telling their story and defining their mission to the American public, to their fellow technologists inside and outside the Great Government Firewall, and to Capitol Hill. And second, as young organizations radically departing from business as usual, clear and common-sense performance metrics need to be developed for their work that capture not just the dollars-and-cents savings delivered by 18F and USDS, but also the broad benefits of time saved, hassles saved, processes improved and, of course, titanically bad IT decisions avoided. As someone who works in civic technology, that second challenge is one that no one has solved. Speaking as someone who has closely watched this Oversight Subcommittee and President Obama’s top tech teams in action, I am confident that if anyone can get a yardstick on this smarter approach to delivering federal government digital services, they can. But none of it will be easy.

For 18F and USDS to keep the trains running, Congress needs to lay the tracks

So much is riding on 18F and USDS succeeding. There is so much that sustained, bipartisan oversight and common-sense legislative reform can do to support that success. And while cleaning up the Augean Stables-sized mess that is federal IT won’t get anyone reelected, on the news or into a higher tax bracket, it will unquestionably strengthen our nation’s ability to tackle the growing challenges of our time.

Chairman Hurd: “You’re not going to hold a rally for IT procurement or a parade. However, you know, this agile delivery service, blanket purchase agreement concept is a concept that I think could change this, right? And if we fix this, Ms. Chrousos, I will hold a parade on IT procurement, and you will be the grand marshal.”

I’ll be there cheering as the parade rolls by.

The Players, Prepared Remarks & Video