The U.S. Digital Service:
An Improbable Public Interest Start Up

By Mikey Dickerson, Administrator of the U.S. Digital Service

The story of how the federal government came to call upon
America’s growing technology sector to help transform
public services. And how we need you today.


More about the U.S. Digital Service at whitehouse.gov/us-digital-service

The limitless opportunity

A year ago, I returned to California after working on the rescue team to fix Healthcare.gov. I slept for a couple of weeks, and I began the task of processing what I had seen and done. I knew that Healthcare.gov was the most important work I had been a part of. I saw that technology in parts of the government was in bad shape.

But there was hope. When asked, some of the very best engineers and troubleshooters in the world willingly put their lives on hold to dedicate their time to this very difficult problem. When they got there, they found government officials and contractors, who also wanted nothing more than to fix the site and who were ready and willing to work together to make it happen. There was limitless opportunity to do more.

A daunting idea

In May, we started to talk about creating the U.S. Digital Service. This was a daunting idea — because the challenges we face are so complicated and so important. But, I had seen first-hand how we can make a real difference when we bring the best talent to our toughest problems. Knowing what I knew, it would have been disgraceful not to try.

So in August, I moved to Washington, D.C., to start the U.S. Digital Service with one other employee, Erie Meyer. Since then, she and now many others have helped me navigate, Forrest Gump-like, a series of milestones and major events that I only partially understand.

“I had seen first-hand how we can make a real difference
when we bring the best talent to our toughest problems.”

Today, we have a few dozen world-class technologists working at the U.S. Digital Service. We have technology experts working on the veterans’ disability claim backlog, Freedom of Information Act, climate change action plan, Ebola, and so many pressing issues that make a real difference in people’s lives.

We need you

We kept quiet for a while to see if our ideas proved out, but now it is time to go bigger. We need more technologists to join us as we strive to:

  • Deliver veterans their earned benefits faster.
  • Connect people with student loan debt to their best, most affordable repayment options.
  • Make Social Security benefits as simple to manage as a social media profile.
  • Unlock capital and other resources available to startups through the Small Business Administration.
  • Create visa applications and passport renewals to be as clear as ordering a book online.

Join a Digital Service team.

Answering the call

Lots of people have asked me what’s been most surprising about my time in government so far—I think they’re expecting me to say the bureaucracy, the Blackberrys, or the curious practice of writing everything in Powerpoint form before printing it and handing it out.

But what’s truly been the biggest surprise is how the very best engineers, technologists, and designers are ready to give up the perks of the private sector and work alongside equally talented government colleagues to take on the toughest problems in government. They are seizing the tremendous opportunity we have to transform the way government delivers services to people. They are not discouraged by challenges. They are energized. Mastering technology is one of the greatest challenges facing our government, and our generation is answering the call.

“Mastering technology is one of the greatest challenges facing our
government, and our generation is answering the call.”

Our team already includes the lead developer on Google Chrome, the third engineer ever hired at Amazon, and the former Operations Director at Twitter—all people who had likely never considered serving in government, until they were asked to. And now they are applying their cutting-edge skills to fixing the very services that their friends, neighbors, and so many others depend on.

Building world-class public services

We are recruiting talented professionals like these to form Digital Service teams throughout the government. We are partnering with dedicated public servants to embed these teams into agencies where they can gain traction on mission critical problems that have the most impact on everyday people. We are lucky to already have 18F at the General Services Administration, and the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, as part of the team.

We’re especially proud of our work at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where we’re helping build a Digital Service team. In its short time on the ground, this team has already worked on projects like the Veteran’s Employment Center. This one tool, built in three months, delivered the functionality of three different planned IT systems an entire year early and eliminated about $14 million in planned procurements and contracts. The cost savings matter. But most important are the stories of customers like Vickie, a homeless vet in Seattle who — with the help of the tool — landed two job offers.

“We are partnering with dedicated public servants to …
gain traction on mission critical problems that have the
most impact on everyday people.”

“No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”

I don’t blame you if you are skeptical that we can fix the biggest problems in government. I used to be, too. But every day, I am reminded of a quote by President Kennedy that is sewn into the Oval Office rug: “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”

We have found the problems. We need the human beings. We are calling on America’s talented technologists to be part of the solution.

We hope we’ll hear from you soon.

To learn more about the U.S. Digital Service, check us out here.