The U.S. Digital Service is Three
On August 11th, 2014, the U.S. Digital Service was founded with the mission of applying best practices in technology and design to improve the usability and reliability of our government’s most important digital services.
Three years later, we’re still here, solidly standing on our own two feet, still working to deliver the best digital services to the American people alongside Technology Transformation Service, 18F, Presidential Innovation Fellows program, and many other tech-focused initiatives.
With such an ambitious mission and more potential work than we can actually do, we don’t often spend time reflecting on our milestones. The past year hasn’t always been easy. In addition to the normal growing pains of any startup, we said goodbye to our incredible founders, welcomed new leadership, and survived our first Presidential transition. And, similar to most startups, this past year has also been filled with many success stories, and even more learning moments, challenges, and changes. Today, we’re taking some time to reflect, celebrate, and share some stories from the past year.
32 highlights from the past year (in no particular order):
1. Veterans and dependents can now apply for and manage their education benefits on Vets.gov. The previous education benefits site was outdated, didn’t work on mobile devices, and had known security vulnerabilities. Working directly with Veterans, the Veterans Affairs (VA) team built a wizard to help users identify which education benefits form they need to complete-rather than assuming they know the exact form to use. By answering two to four basic questions, users are now automatically directed to the correct form.
2. Launched Code.mil, the Department of Defense’s first free and open source initiative. Building bridges between the Department of Defense and the software development community, one pull request at a time.
3. Collaborated with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to build the USCIS Civics Test Study Tools app, which is USCIS’s official app to prep for the Naturalization interview. It’s available on the App Store and Google Play right now!
4. Got attorneys excited to try new software. Like many enterprise environments, attorneys at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals are accustomed to having software foisted upon them by the powers that be. When the VA team piloted Caseflow Reader, an evidence review tool that aims to increase productivity, attorneys were hesitant to volunteer. But, after three months of building Reader iteratively alongside a small band of intrepid users, the Board was buzzing. When it came time to recruit a larger beta testing group, the team found themselves turning away eager attorneys clamoring to try out the new tool.
5. Built and delivered software to users in Afghanistan. The Defense Digital Service team (DDS) built an engagement tracking tool for NATO advisors in Afghanistan in support of their Train, Advise, Assist mission under Operation Resolute Support. Small teams were on rotation to work directly with users across Afghanistan, which is a core tenant of USDS: we go to where the work is. Read more about it here.
6. #Procuremenati was born! Like the Illuminati, we claim to have specialized knowledge of digital service acquisition techniques, but unlike them, we shun secrecy and promote transparency as we use our problem solving skills to improve the speed of acquisition and instill a culture of delivery within the federal procurement process.
7. Built a download all button. A small feature can make a big difference. When a Veteran submits a Privacy Act request to obtain a copy of their case files, VA employees download those files from the web-based “eFolder” and burn them to a CD. However, the software only supports downloading files one-at-a-time, requiring a castanet solo’s worth of clicking to retrieve the hundreds of files that compose a typical folder. The VA team built a download all button called eFolder Express. It’s really obvious, but it saves VA employees a cumulative 17 years of productivity every year and gets Veterans their files faster.
8. Welcomed some future USDSers to the family!
9. Made it easier for small businesses to become government contractors. Since launching the first phase of the Women Owned Small Business (WOSB) modernization effort in March 2016, the USDS team at the Small Business Administration (SBA) has continued to expand the capabilities and scale of Certify.SBA.gov. We integrated US Web Design Standards and developed a feature allowing Contracting Officers to interact with Certify firms. We scaled the application to include SBA’s newest program — the All Small Mentor Protege Program — enabling them to become the first Government Contracting and Business Development program to have never required a paper application. We also brought the 8(a) program’s initial application process into the Certify system, effectively marking the start of the program’s transformation from paper-based to all-digital application processing. Our newest release, the HUBZone Map tool, represents the latest program to be rolled into the Certify.SBA.gov ecosystem. Released on June 2017, the app provides a user-friendly, 508 compliant, mobile enabled experience that allows businesses to apply for and verify their compliance with the HUBZone Program. Ultimately, the HUBZone Map is already improving localized economies by incentivizing small businesses to locate their offices and hire in areas that are in need of additional sources of employment.
10. Helped USCIS build an online Application for Naturalization, N-400 — the final step in the immigration process, after which immigrants become U.S. citizens. Once launched, applicants will be able to file their applications online through MyUSCIS, saving time and preventing errors and omissions that could set back the process by months. USDS partnered with USCIS to build the application, guide their content strategy, and help define their design processes.
11. Hacked our way through the Pentagon and beyond. Since the success of Hack the Pentagon last spring, the Defense Digital Service team has expanded the use of bug bounties in the Army, Air Force, and more. There are more bounties in the works for this year, but check out our challenges to date: Hack the File Transfer Mechanism, Hack the Army, and Hack the Air Force.
12. Launched Login.gov, a single sign solution for the Federal Government. USDS and the General Service Administration’s 18F have been building a common identity platform, known as login.gov, to improve and secure the experience of interacting with the federal government online. The two groups teamed up with technologists from across the government to take advantage of previous efforts toward this goal. Login.gov has been built to make accessing government benefits and services easier, faster, and more secure.
13. Got some new fancy hoodies.
14. Reported to Congress for the second time. Check out the latest on our current priority projects:
15. Deprecated an 83-year-old VA form. Last year, the VA team launched a Caseflow Certification tool, which ensures that appeals of disability compensation decisions are correctly transferred to the Board of Veterans Appeals. As the last step in the certification process, the tool assisted VA employees in filling out a “Form 8,” a form that has been required since 1934 but no longer serves any discernible purpose. This year, the team took the first step toward phasing out Form 8; we still automatically generate it, but in the background, never showing it to a human. In its place, we added new checks to ensure that Veterans’ information is accurate and their appeals are routed to the right place.
16. Gave presentations on modern products in a conference room with a projector on life support, so we had to improvise. After 5 months, 38 people, and over 100 emails, we finally got a new projector light bulb!
17. Open Sourced the Digital IT Acquisition Professional Program content and continue to scale the program. In order to scale the successful pilots for the Digital IT Acquisition Training program (DITAP), the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) and USDS are heading a tag-team effort to get federal government and industry training institutions to develop and implement the program, thereby increasing participation and outreach to the government at large. The pace of technological change continues to accelerate while citizen demand for federal digital services increases. As part of this effort, it was very important to share the content, facilitation material, and program design in a transparent way to allow others to recreate vs. rebuild from scratch, diminish agency training costs, and increase the speed of implementation. Anyone interested in viewing or recreating and running the successfully launched DITAP Training program can access the content here.
18. Recruited nearly 300 (and growing) engineers, designers, product managers, and more to serve tours of duty with the federal government.
19. Veterans can monitor claims and appeals on Vets.gov! The claims and appeals processes for VA benefits are complex and can take over a decade to complete. Now, thanks to a new feature from the VA team, Veterans can view the status of their claims and update any information (such as adding additional supporting documents). They can also check the status of their appeal and find out the steps their appeal has already gone through, if they requested a hearing, and if they are required to submit any paperwork. Vets.gov also includes an appeals process page that explains the steps in plain language, so Veterans know what to expect from the process.
20. Created a “Certificate of the Cybers.” Awarded to Brandon Bouier, an engineer on the DDS team, for “knowing how and when to cyber.”
21. Launched the Trusted Traveler Comparison tool, which recommends the best Trusted Traveler program for your particular travel needs. The Comparison Tool allows travelers to understand the costs, benefits, and eligibility requirements for five Trusted Traveler programs: TSA Pre√®, Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI and FAST. These programs move pre-approved, low-risk travelers more quickly and efficiently through airport and/or border security, but it’s important that travelers understand the benefits and differences of each program. Upgrading the experience of applying for Trusted Traveler status is just one piece of our mission to improve government services and people’s everyday lives.
22. Used an obscure Linux kernel feature to debug the VA network. When the VA team encountered a bug that caused their EC2 instances to crash exactly five minutes after launch, they set off down a rabbit hole of debugging that eventually turned up a firmware bug in the VA network routers. This discovery was only possible as a result of a decision by the Linux kernel developers to initialize the Jiffies (the kernel’s measure of time) at five minutes prior to integer wrapping. Check out the full story.
23. Digitized critical service records for new military personnel. The DD Form 4 (Enlistment/Reenlistment contract) and DD form 93 (Record of Emergency Contact) are forms that every new recruit signs when sworn into military service. DDS moved these manually processed, paper forms to a machine readable format that will be sent to all military services as an electronic record. These are the critical, foundational documents that begin a service member’s document history and are needed throughout one’s career to access important benefits, update beneficiary information, and more.
24. Caught (at least) two computers on fire (by accident).
25. Enabled over 231,000 Veterans to submit an online health care application. Just over one year ago, the ability for Veterans to apply for health care eligibility was released on Vets.gov. Previously, the majority of Veterans were unable to access the health care form online — blocking access to VA health care benefits for thousands of Veterans.
26. We succeeded a lot, but we did fail sometimes too. No one ever said it was going to be easy. What’s important is that we evaluate projects that did not reach the conclusions for which we were hoping and learn from our mistakes.
Lessons learned from the government’s biggest attempt to fix tech procurement
Late last year, on a beautiful fall Sunday morning, I found myself in a windowless conference room in a run down DC…
27. Created the Army and Air Force Digital Service teams. DDS expanded their team to tackle more service specific projects within the Department of the Army and Air Force.
28. Made the softball playoffs! Our kickball record wasn’t nearly as good, but we definitely won the most spirit award.
29. Developed and released an Acquisition Case study based on the VA Claims Appeals System.
30. The VA team worked with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to overturn a 2013 ruling stating that OIG needed physical access to all VA systems and data. It then helped replace the ruling with a new policy that only requires OIG to have logical access. This opened the door for VA to use commercial cloud infrastructure, such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform. In turn, this allows the VA team to have a modern development environment with continuous integration and daily deployments inside the largest civilian bureaucracy the United States government has to offer.
31. Procured a microwave at the Pentagon. It took 7 months, several phone calls, and a waiver, but the DDS team finally got a microwave in their second office. Never mind that it looks like an Easy-Bake oven.