USDS just 14 mil kicking the Feds IT Ass

Star Spangled Geeks

To the dismay of government contractors, the United States Digital Service is gloriously hacking away in the VA and the Pentagon.

Just what is this little $14 million boutique coding shop doing that threatens the powers that get the lion’s share of $80 billion of federal IT spending?

USDS became official in August 2014 — the VA alliance was the perfect starting point to embed geeks into the agencies. Martin began building the “Digital Service at VA.”

Fixing the sign-up process would not require groundbreaking computer science, but something that people from Silicon Valley do all the time: creating a clear front end that lets people fill out a form on the site, on desktop or mobile.

human-centered design in action

a paradigm shift: up until now, we’ve been building services for government without the people who actually build services — and that’s starting to change” they WILL NOW HIRE ENGINEERS – there are tensions between the geeks and the lifers BUT

The way files move from one step to another are tracked by a hackish program called VACOLS (sounds like bagels), which helped bridge the shift from paper to computers a few decades ago. Even so, there is a lot of manual transporting and locating involved. Massive contracts for IT projects produce nothing but failures.

A Digital Service at VA team is setting out to update it, creating a brand new system called Caseflow.

The second big initiative in the Digital Service at VA was a pet project of Martin’s— a consolidated website for the entire agency. When she arrived, the VA had over a thousand websites, with more than five hundred of them public-facing.

Vets.gov, which is only a skeleton of what the finished product will be. By the end of this year, she promises, all those different VA sites will be consolidated into just one. “You’ll be able to apply for healthcare, you’ll be able to check the status of your claim, you’ll be able to check the status of your appeal, you’ll be able to fill out online forms,” says Kelly O’Connor, the Vets.gov project manager. “There’s over five hundred forms at VA, and we’ve prioritized the top twenty based on user data.” As part of that effort, the Vets.gov team is working on the online signup for veteran’s health care benefits.

What outsiders steeped in the latest practices could do and Buck the established bureaucracy and introduce modern IT practices like this pig:

A.R.“Trey” Hodgkins, of the Information Technology Alliance for the Public Sector, funded by government contractors like Oracle, Microsoft, Accenture, Deloitte, IBM and AT&T. According to his official bio, he has previously worked for the National Rifle Association, the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, and the Association of Old Crows. Yes, this is the resume of the man Congress asked to help evaluate the mission of improving government by adopting Silicon Valley best practices. (To be fair, the “Old Crows” association has a tech bent, involving electronic warfare.) So perhaps it isn’t shocking that he suggested we touch the brakes on this effort — to “right-size” it — and that he says the “lack of clarity makes it hard to see these programs surviving a Presidential transition.” (The other lobbyist represented the Software and Information Industry Association. He also pitched a message that essentially said, “Thanks for your innovation, geeks, we’ll take it from here.”)

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