Two Years of the U.S. Digital Service

To be honest, it sounded daunting: building a tech startup, inside of the Federal Government.

U.S. Digital Service
Aug 9, 2016 · 11 min read

But since day one, President Obama has utilized technology to better connect with the American people. With this vision the Administration created 18F, the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, and many other tech-focused initiatives.

On August 11th, 2014, President Obama added to this tech portfolio with the founding of the U.S. Digital Service. The mission was ambitious: to apply best practices in technology and design to improve the usability and reliability of our government’s most important digital services.

Two years later, it all seems (a bit) less daunting.

At the U.S. Digital Service, we’re focused on the future and spend little time looking through the rear-view. But on our second birthday, we’re taking a moment to pause, enjoy a slice of cake, and share a few achievements.

34 highlights from the last 2 years (in no particular order):

  1. Launched a new digital application for health care at Veterans Affairs (VA), making it easier for Veterans to access health care. Previously, less than 10% of applicants used the Veterans Online Application for a simple reason: the form would not open for most users. The application was a fillable PDF that required Veterans to use Adobe 8 or 9 via Internet Explorer. More than 70% of U.S. Government traffic comes from Chrome, Safari, or Firefox, meaning that more than 70% of visitors would have trouble accessing the health care application. Together with the VA Health Eligibility Center, we introduced a new digital application for health care built with Veterans, not for them. In the 30 days following the launch of the digital application, more than 11,600 Veterans have used it to apply for health coverage, with many receiving it in less than 10 minutes.
Usability Testing: Veteran trying to apply for VA healthcare using the fillable PDF.
Usability Testing: Veteran trying to apply for VA healthcare using the digital application prototype. Our time with Vets, and what we learned from them, formed the foundation on which we built this product.

2. Modernizing our immigration system. We’re supporting U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services in digitizing the external application and internal review process for over seven million annual immigration applications and requests. Through the new platform and Electronic Immigration System, an increasing percentage of the immigration system is now online, including the green card renewal application (I-90), which has a 93% user satisfaction rate. Improvements to software development practices, system architecture, and design make it easier for users to interact with our immigration system.

Simplifying the experience.

3. Helped strengthen information security at the Department of Defense (DoD) with the launch of Hack the Pentagon, the first bug bounty program in the history of the Federal Government. This private sector best practice led to 138 reports of vulnerabilities on DoD sites, all of which have since been fixed.

4. Named a project Hack the Pentagon. Yes, this gets its own bullet point. We came a long way from “Absolutely not. No. There is no way you can call this Hack the Pentagon.”

Credit: xkcd

5. Launched the Digital Services Playbook. This resource scales best practices from the private sector and government by highlighting 13 key “plays” for building more effective digital services.

6. Recruited 170 (and growing) engineers, designers, product managers, and more to serve tours of duty with the Federal Government. In the early days, we worried if more than ten people would apply to join the team. Two years later, folks from Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and the likes have joined to put their skills towards helping Veterans, students, small businesses, and all Americans. Harry Truman (or Woody Allen, or C.J. Cregg, depending on who you believe) said it best: “decisions are made by those who show up.” We feel lucky that such a diverse and talented group has done just that.

Don’t worry — the application isn’t actually paper based. Join the team:

7. Digitized the refugee admissions process for Federal agencies. We worked with the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security to launch a digital approval stamp process for Federal agencies processing refugees who have already been interviewed in-person, and who have cleared all security and background checks. More than 57% of cases require this action, so having the flexibility to conduct it from any location at any time is a significant benefit. The digital stamp approval process is the team’s first step towards modernizing the refugee admissions process by increasing officer efficiency and reducing wait time for applicants, while upholding rigorous security standards.

The digital approval system improves officer efficiency by replacing a physical, paper based process.

8. Consistently managed to fit 100+ people into a small conference room. File this under government startup problems.

9. Developing a unified digital experience for Veterans. is a simple, easy-to-use site that consolidates important information for Veterans. One website — not thousands. Built in partnership with leaders at VA, launched in November 2015 in beta to provide tools and resources that are easy to find and use. Veterans are actively testing the site so we can learn, as we build, what is working for them, and what is not. one website, not thousands.

10. Helping to transform Federal IT procurement, working with the General Services Administration and OMB’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy. We’ve built a dedicated acquisition team to improve the government’s technology marketplace and help the government make better buying decisions. A few examples:

  • 11. Assisted the Small Business Administration (SBA) in establishing an agile procurement to modernize technology and streamline the certification process for small business owners. The resulting saves small businesses time and money, and increases the SBA’s capacity to provide small businesses access to the Federal contracting space. This acquisition was awarded in 3 months and serves as a baseline for the agile software procurement model.
  • 12. Developed resources such as TechFar and the TechFar Hub to help agencies implement procurement best practices. We launched an agile acquisition toolkit to provide agencies with a suite of tools for rapid procurement of agile software development. This helps the government more consistently procure high quality products for users, and maps a path between industry best practices and government regulation.
  • 13. Developed a digital IT acquisition professionals’ community with the Digital Service Contracting Officer Training Challenge. Working with the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), we posted on asking for training program ideas to make contracting officers successful in the era of digital government. The challenge winner created a training pilot to test with 30 contracting officers, who completed the program empowered to act as business advisors to their agencies on digital service procurement.

14. Increased Mikey Dickerson’s (Administrator of the U.S. Digital Service) tie collection by 100%. We apologize in advance to whomever’s wedding he wears this.

15. Helped students, parents, and families make more informed decisions about college selection through the College Scorecard. Working with the Department of Education and 18F, we launched the new College Scorecard to give students, parents, and their advisors the clearest, most accessible, and most reliable national data on college cost, graduation, debt, and post college earnings. Within the first year, the College Scorecard had nearly 1.5 million users, more than 10 times the users its predecessor had in a year. By giving developers access to an API, dozens of other organizations have used the Scorecard data to launch new tools to support students in their college search and application processes.

16. Brought consistency and good user experience to government websites with the launch of the U.S. Web Design Standards. Built in partnership with 18F, this new UI system provides guidance for creating easy-to-use digital interfaces by unifying visual language and interaction patterns that meet high standards of web accessibility.

A snapshot of buttons across government websites highlights the need for a unified design language.

17. Provided secure access to one’s taxpayer information. Working with the Internal Revenue Service, we introduced Secure Access, a user verification process that relies on strong identity proofing and two-factor authentication to protect users’ sensitive tax records. Secure Access ensures that users have convenient, real-time access to their transcripts while protecting taxpayer information from automated fraudulent attacks.

18. Streamlined VA disability compensation processing with Caseflow Certification. Hundreds of thousands of Veterans have waited more than three years for a final disability compensation appeal decision, relying on a complex and cumbersome process. Working in collaboration with the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, we launched Caseflow Certification, a straightforward web-app to improve paperless appeals processing by detecting if required documentation has been added before an appeal can move forward. This simple check helps reduce preventable errors and avoidable delays caused by disjointed, manual processing.

Caseflow Certification in action

19. Won two softball games. We won’t mention how many we lost.

20. Helped student borrowers more easily navigate the complexity of student loan repayment plans with Built in partnership with the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid, this site helps borrowers find their best repayment options in five steps or fewer.

We went through 19 versions of designs before the team wrote any lines of code.

21. Modernizing the Department of Defense travel system. The Defense Travel System (DTS) is currently used by the DoD for civilians and service-members around the world, accounting for $3.5 Billion in travel spend every year. The Defense Digital Service is assisting in the transition of DTS over to a cloud-based, SaaS solution. The new system — which is currently being piloted — has greatly improved usability, simplified travel policies, and has the potential for large cost savings.

22. Helped to ensure access to affordable healthcare for millions of Americans. Since the 2013 Open Enrollment, we partnered with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to support the day-to-day operations and infrastructure of, helping millions of Americans gain access to affordable health coverage.

23. Helping implement Medicare payment reform at the Department of Health and Human Services. We are assisting CMS in the implementation of the new Quality Payment Program for Medicare under the bipartisan Medicare Access and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA) legislation with a new approach that pays clinicians for the value and quality of care they provide.

24. Successfully obtained this placard for the Defense Digital Service office at the Pentagon.

25. Grew from one startup at The White House to a network of teams across the Federal government. We now have teams working with the Departments of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Defense, Education, State, Health and Human Services, Treasury, and Small Business Administration.

26. Improving the import and export system. We’re working with U.S. Customs & Border Protection and partner agencies across the government to improve the stability and performance of a new system that will collect and process data on all imports and exports coming into or leaving our country. The Automated Commercial Environment, is a modern electronic filing system that serves as a “single-window” through which all import and export documentation would be filed, vastly improving efficiency and the user experience.

27. Developing a common identity management platform to provide a secure and user-friendly login process for the government’s digital services. We’re working with 18F and a team of technologists across government to build, a modern, user-friendly shared login service that has strong authentication and effective identity proofing technology.

28. Collaborating with the Air Force to reduce project cost and schedule slip for the next generation of the U.S. Global Positioning System. The Defense Digital Service is working alongside DoD contractors to automate configuration, testing, integration and deployment, while also introducing DevOps methods. The next iteration of GPS will provide dramatic improvements to location accuracy and signal acquisition to continue supporting capabilities for billions of people across the globe.

29. Won “Most Unique Decor at The White House” award. Fine, this isn’t a real thing. And we’d probably win an award for most random decor, anyway.

30. Created a window into understanding the way in which people access the government online with the Digital Analytics Dashboard. The dashboard, developed in partnership with 18F, draws on data from across the government collected by the Digital Analytics Program. We use it to focus teams on the services that matter most to the American people.

31. Enabling the Precision Medicine Initiative to gain new insights for the development of individualized care. Announced by the President during the 2015 State of the Union, the Precision Medicine Initiative is a new effort to revolutionize how we improve health and treat disease by taking each unique person’s genes, environment, and lifestyle into account. We’re working with the Department of Health & Human Services to enable this medical transformation, partnering with National Institutes of Health and VA to build their volunteer research platforms and the supporting technology.

32. Improved the technical infrastructure supporting Service Treatment Records (STRs) — the documents that detail a Veteran’s full medical history from their period of service. STRs are essential for a Veteran to be eligible to receive medical benefits. By improving a variety of technical issues, we prevented health records from getting lost in the transfer process between the DoD and VA.

33. Learned that while failure is not plan A, it is an option. Part of our culture is having an unyielding appetite to tackle the hard stuff, even when success isn’t guaranteed. We know the notion of learning from failure is a Silicon Valley cliche. But embracing this idea has been an important part of evolving government’s tech culture.

not quite (Credit: HBO | Silicon Valley)

34. Hired you. Yes, you reading this. For every project we’ve tackled, there are five more waiting for talented people to take them on. And while we don’t make many promises, we’ll make one. When you work at the U.S. Digital Service, you change the lives of millions of Americans. Ready to apply?

U.S. Digital Service

The United States Digital Service is a tech startup working…

U.S. Digital Service

Written by

The United States Digital Service is a tech startup working across the Federal government to deliver better services to the American people.

U.S. Digital Service

The United States Digital Service is a tech startup working across the Federal government to deliver better services to the American people.

U.S. Digital Service

Written by

The United States Digital Service is a tech startup working across the Federal government to deliver better services to the American people.

U.S. Digital Service

The United States Digital Service is a tech startup working across the Federal government to deliver better services to the American people.

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