U.S. Digital Service at TED
Haley Van Dyck, Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Digital Service, recently took the stage at TED to share what we’ve been working on. Today, we’re thrilled to share the video and transcript of her talk.
I’m here to talk to you today about a story that we have all been conditioned to believe is not possible. It’s a story about a living, breathing startup flourishing in an unlikely environment, the United States government. Now this startup is fundamentally beginning to disrupt the way government does business from the inside out, but before I get there let’s start with the problem. For me, the problem begins with a number: 137. 137 is the average number of days a veteran has to wait to have her health benefits processed by the VA. 137 days.
Now in order to file that application in the first place, she has to navigate over 1,000 different websites and over 900 different call-in numbers, all owned and operated by the United States government, which for me puts in perspective my frustration trying to figure out what number to call my airline at when I need to change a flight.
Now the absurdity of this system has a very tangible cost, because veterans waiting to have their health benefits processed are not waiting for paperwork. They are waiting to see a doctor, and this has real, real tangible human cost. Now as everyone knows, government’s inefficient and obsolete services are not confined to veterans. How many people here have actually enjoyed the process of renewing your passport, or your driver’s license for that matter?
Now we live in times of incredible change. The private sector is constantly changing and improving itself all of the time. For that matter, it’s removing every single inconvenience in my life that I could possibly think of. I could be sitting on my couch in my apartment, and from my phone I can order a warm, gluten-free meal that can arrive at my door in less than ten minutes, but meanwhile a working mother, who depends on food stamps to support her family, has to complete an arduous, complicated application, which she might not even be able to do online, and the inability of her to do that same work from her couch means that she might be having to take days or hours off of work that she can’t spare.
And this growing dichotomy between the beneficiaries of the tech revolution and those that’s left behind is one of the greatest challenges of our time — because government’s failure to deliver digital services that work is disproportionately impacting the very people who need it most. It’s impacting the students trying to go to college, the single mothers trying to get health care, the veterans coming home from battle. They can’t get what they need when they need it. And for these Americans, government is more than just a presidential election every four years; government is a lifeline that provides services they need and depend on and deserve, which is quite frankly why government needs to get its shit together and catch up. Just saying.
Now this wasn’t always a problem I was passionate about. When I joined President Obama’s campaign in 2008, we brought the tech industry’s best practices into politics. We earned more money, we engaged more volunteers, and we earned more votes than any political campaign in history. We were a cutting-edge startup that changed the game of politics forever. So when the President asked a small group of us to bring that very same disruption directly into government, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy work, but I was eager and showed up ready to get to work.
Now on my first day in DC, on my first day in government, I walked into the office and they handed me a laptop, and the laptop was running Windows 98. I mean, three entire presidential elections had come and gone since the government had updated the operating system on a computer! Three elections! Which is when we realized this problem was a whole lot bigger than we ever could have imagined.
Let me paint the picture for you. The federal government is the largest institution in the world. It spends over 86 billion dollars a year — 86 billion — on federal IT projects. For context, that is more than the entire venture capital industry spends annually on everything.
Now the problem here is that we the taxpayers are not getting what we pay for, because 94% of federal IT projects are over budget or behind schedule. 94%! For those of you keeping score, yes, the number 94 is very close to 100. There’s another problem. 40% of those never end up seeing the light of day; they are completely scrapped or abandoned.
Now this is a very existentially painful moment for any organization, because it means as government continues to operate as it’s programmed to do, failure is nearly inevitable, and when the status quo is the riskiest option, that means there is simply no other choice than radical disruption.
So what do we do about it? How do we fix this? Well, the irony of all of this is that we actually don’t have to look any further than our backyard, because right here in America are the very ideas, the very people who have swept our world into a radically different place than it was two decades ago. So what would it look like if it was actually as easy to get student loans or veterans’ benefits as it is to order cat food to my house? What would it look like if there was an easy pathway for the very entrepreneurs and innovators who have disrupted our tech sector to come and disrupt their government?
Well my friends, here is where we get to start to talk about some of the exciting new formulas we’ve discovered for creating a change in government. Enter the United States Digital Service. The United States Digital Service is a new network of startups, a team of teams, organizing themselves across government to create radical change. The mission of the United States Digital Service is to help government deliver world-class digital services for students, immigrants, children, the elderly — everybody — at dramatically lower costs. We are essentially trying to build a more awesome government, for the people, by the people, today. Who doesn’t want a more awesome government, right?
We don’t care about politics, we care about making government work better, because it’s the only one we’ve got. Now you can think of our team — well it’s pretty funny — you can think of our team a little bit like the Peace Corps meets DARPA meets Seal Team Six, or like the Peace Corps for nerds, but instead of traveling to crazy, interesting far-off places, you know, you spend a lot of time indoors, behind computers, helping restore the fabric of our democracy.
Now this team, our playbook for the United States Digital Service is pretty simple. The first play is we recruit the very best talent our country has to offer, and recruit them for short tours of duty inside government. These are the very people who have helped build the products and companies that have made our tech sector amongst the most innovative in the world. Second, we pair these incredible people from the tech corps with the dedicated civil servants already inside government on the ground creating change.
Third, we strategically deploy them in a target formation at the most mission-critical, life-changing important services that government offers, and finally, we give them massive air cover from the leadership inside the agencies all the way up to the President himself, to transform these services for the better.
Now this team is beginning to disrupt how government does business from the inside out. Now if you study classic patterns of disruption, one very common pattern is rather simple. It’s to take something that has become routine and standard in one industry, and apply it to another where it’s a radical departure from the status quo. Think about what Airbnb took that was normal from hospitality and revolutionized my apartment.
The United States Digital Service is doing exactly that. We are taking what Silicon Valley in the private sector has learned through a ton of hard work about how to build planetary scale digital services that delight users at lower cost, and we are applying that to government where it is a radical departure from the status quo.
Now the good news is it’s starting to work. And we know this because we can already see the results from some of our early projects. Things like the rescue effort of Healthcare.gov when that went off the rails. Fixing Healthcare.gov was the first place that we ran this play, and today we are taking that same play and scaling it across a large number of government’s most important citizen-facing services.
Now if I can take a moment and brag about the team for a second, it is the highest concentration of badasses I could have ever dreamed of. We have top talent from Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and the likes, all on staff today. All choosing to join their government. And what’s incredible is everybody is as eager and kind as they are intelligent, and I might add by the way, over half of us are women.
So the best way to understand this strategy is actually to walk through a couple of examples of how it’s working out in the wild, so I’m going to give you two examples quickly. First one is about immigration. This, my friends, is your typical immigration application. Yes, you guessed it, it’s almost entirely paper-based. In the best case, the application takes about six to eight months to process. It is physically shipped thousands of miles, thousands of miles between no less than six processing centers.
Now a little story. About a decade ago, the government thought that if it brought the system online it could save taxpayer dollars and provide a better service, which was a great idea. So the typical government process began. Six years and $1.2 billion dollars later, no working product was delivered. 1.2 billion, with a B. Now at this point the agency responsible, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, could have kept pouring money into the failing program. Sadly, that’s what often happens, that’s the status quo today. But they didn’t. The dedicated civil servants inside the agency decided to stand up and call for change.
We deployed a small team of just six people — and what many people don’t know is that’s the same size as the rescue effort of Healthcare.gov, just six people — and that team jumped in side-by-side to support the agency in transitioning this project into more modern business practices, more modern development practices. Now in non-tech-speak, what that basically means is taking big, multi-year projects and breaking them up into bite-sized chunks so that way we can reduce the risk and actually start to see results every couple of weeks instead of waiting in a black box for years.
So within less than three months of our team being on the ground, we were already able to push our first products to production. The first one, this is the form I-90. This is used to file for your replacement green card. Now for immigrant visa holders, a replacement green card is a big deal. Your green card is your proof of identification, it’s your work authorization, it’s the proof that you can be here in this country. So waiting for six months while the government processes the replacement is not cool. I’m excited to tell you that today you can now, for the first time, file for a replacement green card entirely online, without anyone touching a piece of paper. It is faster, it is cheaper, and it’s a better user experience for the applicant and the government employees alike.
Another one quickly. Last fall, we just released a brand new practice civics test. So as part of becoming a US citizen, you have to pass a civics test. For anyone who’s taken this test, it can be quite the stressful process.
So our team released a very easy, simple-to-use tool in plain language to help people prepare, to help ease their nerves, to help them feel more confident in taking the next step in pursuing their American dream. Because all of this work, all of this work on immigration, is about taking complicated processes and making them more human.
The other day one of the dedicated civil servants on the ground said something incredibly profound. She said that she’s never been this hopeful or optimistic about a project in her entire time in government, and she’s been doing this for 30 years. That is exactly the kind of hope and culture change we are trying to create.
Now for my second example, I want to bring back to veterans for a second, and what we are doing to build them a VA that is worthy of their service and their sacrifice. I’m proud to say that just a few months ago we released a brand new beta of a new website, Vets.gov. Vets.gov is a simple, easy-to-use website that brings all of the online services a veteran needs into one place. One website, not thousands.
Now the site is a work in progress, but it’s significant progress, because it’s designed with the users who matter most, the veterans themselves. This might sound incredibly obvious, because it should be, but sadly, this isn’t normal for government. Far too often, product decisions are made by committees of stakeholders, who are doing their best to represent the best interest of the user, but they’re not necessarily the users themselves. So our team at the VA went out, we looked at the data, we talked to veterans themselves, and we started simple and small with the two most important services that matter most to them: education benefits and disability benefits. I’m proud to say that they are live on the site today, and as the team continues to streamline more services, they will be ported over her and the old sites will be shut down.
To me, this is what change looks like in 2016. Now when I started working on the campaign in 2008, I had no idea this is where it was going to take us. I never expected to step foot in the Oval Office, and still to this day, the first few minutes I’m in there I’m always flustered. Just a couple of weeks ago, I actually — I walked in and I almost sat in the President’s chair on accident. I was totally mortified. But fortunately, the United States Digital Service has quite a reputation of not wearing suits around the White House, so the sight of one of my colleagues walking in behind me in a full suit and tie was quite enough to steal the president’s full attention, so I got away with it.
But I always begin to relax every time the meeting starts, and I get to see how excited the president is about the work of the United States Digital Service and what we can achieve. Now when you walk out of the Oval Office, the first time I was ever there, I noticed a quote the president had embroidered on the rug. It’s a classic JFK quote. It says, “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” It’s true. We have the tools to solve these problems. We have the tools to come together as a society, as a country, and to fix this together. Yes, it’s hard. It’s particularly hard when we have to fight, when we have to refuse to succumb to the belief that things won’t change. But in my experience, it’s often the hardest things that are the most worth doing. Because if we don’t do them, who will?
This is on us. All of us, together. Because government is not an abstract institution or a concept. Our government is us.
Today, it is no longer a question of if change is possible. The question is not, “Can we?” The question is, “Will we?”