Serving at USDS: Stephanie Grosser
In this blog series, we share the stories of USDSers. Find out where they were before USDS, why they joined, the challenges they face, the impact of their work, what life post-USDS may be, and what they’ll miss most. Hope you enjoy meeting them!
Stephanie Faith Grosser, Bureaucracy Hacker, U.S. Digital Service, previously worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), from Lincolnwood, IL and Tucson, Arizona
What’s your background?
My background, before my exposure to civic tech, was as an advocate and activist. In high school, I started a national organization to lower the voting age to 16 and testified before the Arizona state legislature on behalf of legislation I had introduced. While at Georgetown University, I co-founded United Students for Fair Trade, to get coffee farmers fair prices for their beans by convincing students to pay ten cents more per cup on campuses nationwide.
When I graduated, I applied to every non-profit opening in Washington, DC until I landed a role as a lobbyist and organizer for refugees and immigrants for a faith-based non-profit. I stayed for nearly 6 years, mostly fighting an uphill battle for comprehensive immigration reform, but also leading a successful effort to pass legislation that restored Supplemental Security Income to disabled and poor refugees in our country.
After seeing immigration reform fail year after year, I became impatient and decided to make change from the inside of government. I went to graduate school at night and upon graduation received an offer to be a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF) at the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
I was finally on the inside and over the next 5 years at USAID, learned that anything was possible within the government. That is, as long as I could keep up the stamina to push past a bureaucracy accustomed to doing things one way and uncomfortable taking unnecessary risk. I received my best advice on my first day in government when my boss told me to use the bureaucracy to my advantage — that when I am told that I can’t do something, to find another opinion, another person willing to work with me to get it done.
By luck, I fell into technology. As a PMF, I was invited to complete a six-month rotation with the future CIO of the federal government and Haley Van Dyck, who would later become one of the founders of the United States Digital Service. Together we worked on a public awareness campaign around the famine in East Africa. On that detail, I learned about wire frames, APIs, geocoding, user design, and so many other concepts that were previously unknown to me.
Six months later, I returned to my home office at USAID and began to push for and ultimately deliver innovative tech. These initiatives changed many aspects of how we worked from conducting evaluations using mobile surveys to real time analytics that liberated data from PDFs.
Colleagues began referring to me as a bureaucratic ninja since I was able to cut through the red tape and find a path forward to delivery despite the many policy related obstacles I encountered.
What inspired you to join USDS?
I got a recruiting call that USDS was looking for bureaucracy hackers who had expertise getting innovative IT projects shipped within large bureaucracies. After all, USDS could have the best engineers in the country but without coupling them with a way to ship within the government, we’d be wasting a lot of talent.
I had a one year old at home, and was trying to get pregnant again. I had doubts about it being the right time to “lean in” to such an intense position within the White House. Additionally, colleagues at USAID told me I’d be crazy to give up my permanent government position in the civil service to take a 4-year term limited role.
Three things convinced me to swallow my fears and go for it.
First, when I told USDS I needed to be able to be there with my son for dinner and bedtime every night, they didn’t just say I could — they said that they wanted to build a diverse team that represented our entire country and that vision needed to include moms. They said they could not expect to build technology that all Americans could use if it was built by a group not representative of the country at large.
Second, at USAID, four women and I had formed a career support group. We knew that women tended to underrepresent their skills or hesitate to push for or accept leadership opportunity. So we would push each other to take new opportunities and feel confident of our own skills. This group helped me overcome any concern I felt about giving up a permanent position with the government.
Finally, and most importantly, it was the mission to work on high impact, public-facing digital services that could help restore people’s faith in our government. One of the bureaucracy hackers at USDS called me and talked me through all the projects she was working on — reforming our immigration forms to help people naturalize faster, diving into the gun background check system to find and patch broken aspects, and helping Veterans unable to access health forms that were broken online.
I would get to work side by side with a brilliant mix of professionals from private sector tech companies, and see how they apply their thinking and skills to solving government problems. All without needing to leave public service. In August 2015, I joined the ranks at the US Digital Service.
As a bureaucracy hacker at USDS, what types of problems have you tackled?
In my own journey at USDS, within two different administrations, I’ve always chosen projects I’m most passionate about solving.
When President Obama declared that the US should admit 85,000 refugees in 2016, the processing systems and procedures were too slow for DHS and State to be able to achieve that target. I was part of a USDS team sent by the National Security Council to work with the State Department to modernize and digitize parts of the process to increase processing times. I took ownership of the approval process, and the length of time it takes for a case to be stamped “approved” after the last security check comes back.
Since most of the time the security checks were not finalized during a refugee’s in-person interview, they had to wait up to 8 weeks for a DHS officer to fly back to that country on a subsequent trip in order to physically stamp the paperwork and proceed with travel.
I worked with State Department engineers to prioritize a digital approval stamp within their case management system where DHS refugee officers could log-in to stamp the case approved from their desk in Washington, DC. I built the prototype with a DHS refugee officer and then worked through all the requirements, approval processes, building, and testing. We launched the digital stamp in six months. This enabled more than 10,000 refugees to come in the country faster that year alone, helping the country meet its refugee target.
Next, I joined our Digital Service team at the Small Business Administration (SBA) to launch a digital certification process for socially and economically underrepresented businesses to gain access to billions in government contracts. The previous process for these small businesses to certify with the SBA was to have them mail what could be thousands of pages back and forth with an SBA adjudicator until the package was complete and there could be a decision.
The complicated and lengthy process led many small businesses to pay thousands of dollars to lawyers who could help them with the processing. Our team worked with SBA contractors and program staff to launch certify.SBA.gov, an online platform whereby small businesses could understand questions in plain language and within hours submit their entire application for certification. Any back and forth between the adjudicator would happen through the secure messaging component of Certify. My initial role as the lead for training, change management, and adoption morphed into a larger role focused on increased user research to make sure the features in the MVP matched what users needed most from day one.
After the SBA product shipped, I joined our team working on the asylum backlog at the Department of Homeland Security. There, I led the creation of digital interactions between applicants and asylum seekers. Through user interviews with asylum seekers, we knew that one of the hardest part of waiting in the asylum system was the lack of transparency and knowledge of what was happening. I gained approvals from the privacy office, DHS lawyers, and agency stakeholder to allow us to show applicants their status online for the first time. Within six months, I found the internal developers who could build the functionality and we launched Case Status Online for asylum seekers. Today asylum applicants can enter their receipt number online and understand what is happening with their application.
Most recently, I was asked by the head of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)- the government’s agency in charge of hiring- to lead a discovery sprint in order to make a recommendation of how to improve federal hiring within 6–9 months without any changes to federal law. I led a USDS sprint team and within two weeks we had formulated a recommendation to utilize subject matter experts for resume review and phone interviews to deem applicants qualified rather than depending on self-assessment questionnaires and HR resume reviews. We then received permission — my current project- to test out the new assessment process with technical positions at two federal agencies, before figuring out how to scale the approach across the competitive service.
How does your work make an impact?
The impact I’ve had in less than four years at USDS is evident by the number of launches I’ve led. It’s evident by the higher number of small business applications received, and the complaint by one overwhelmed employee that “we’ve made it too easy to apply.” It’s evident by the high number of refugee cases that continue to be stamped digitally rather than with a physical stamp. It’s evident by the 300,000 asylum applicants who now have access to their case status online without needing to step into one of only ten asylum offices nationwide. It’s evident by the number of qualified job applicants who are going to make it through the assessment process for a competitive position on USA Jobs for the first time.
But the most heartwarming evidence is from the users benefiting from these products. I saw the names of 11,000 refugees who benefited from the digital stamp in its first three months, even if they will never know they came to the US faster because of our product launch. I talked to small business owners who had given up on the paper process and were giddy that they could fill it out themselves online in the new system. I’ve talked to enough job seekers in Washington, DC who have told me they were fully qualified for a job but have given up seeking government employment because they never hear back on USA Jobs. I know that the work we’re doing to reform federal hiring has the potential of reshaping the federal workforce and making the applicant process more fair to private sector applicants.
USDS is able to make an impact because we’re positioned to make an impact. We get to work with incredible and hardworking civil servants who are experts on these programs. We can elevate their fears and ideas to the highest levels of the government so that we’re leveraging their expertise and delivering together.
What will you miss most about USDS when you leave?
I realize every day the unique opportunity given to me by USDS, and how rare it is to be able to enter an agency and have access to all levels from the contractors to the Deputy Secretary on any given day. To be able to work with a multi-disciplinary team of USDSers hailing from private sector companies and within weeks make recommendations that we are then asked to help execute. We are given the hardest problems to solve, and we love our jobs because of it. I only have 4 months left of my 4-year term, and already I know I will miss executing such critical solutions across so many agencies.
What do you want to do after USDS?
With my four-year term wrapping up, I’m looking for a compelling opportunity to make an impact either in the private sector, for a non-profit, or within the government. It would be great if the State of Maryland established a local digital services team to see this type of reform at the local level. I could also see myself on the leadership team of a non-profit working to infuse talent, technology, and communication to elevate critical causes. I’m also talking to a few federal agencies now about opportunities to continue the work I’ve been doing within their ranks rather than from the USDS.
I hope I have an opportunity to stick around longer. I absolutely love public service: working side-by-side with committed feds and helping the government achieve its potential. Delivering modern digital services is no longer a novelty — it’s an expectation that the government needs to meet.
The best of technology.
The best of government.
And we want you.
We’re looking for the most tenacious designers, software engineers, product managers, and more, who are committed to untangling, rewiring and redesigning critical government services. You’ll join a team of the most talented technologists from across the private sector and government.
If you have questions regarding employment with the U.S. Digital Service, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit usds.gov/join.