In breaking government news, West Wing aides are now permitted to use iPhones and the White House employees can now print in color. The conference calling system just got its first update since the Clinton administration.
This push for updated technology on Pennsylvania Avenue was inspired by the success of another tech-related government initiative. A small group of product designers, engineers and tech veterans have been operating like a startup inside the White House. The "startup" is called the United States Digital Services, and they're retooling how the U.S. government creates digital products for its users, a.k.a. millions of American people.
You can order sushi online or a cab to your door in 10 minutes. Could the process be just as simple for someone who needs to apply for healthcare, request veterans' benefits or navigate the immigration system? The U.S. Digital Services team thinks so.
In a recent TED talk, U.S. Digital Services co-founder Haley Van Dyck discussed how her team is applying startup best practices to help design government services that work better and cost less.
1. Ditch the politics
In a startup, the cumbersome layers of bureaucracy aren't yet in place. New-in-town startups have advantages over long-established companies because they can move, iterate and improve faster. Plus, the team can maintain laser-sharp focus on their mission.
At present, few federal IT projects finish on budget or on time -- if they get done at all. In her talk, Haley Van Dyck says only 40 percent of projects end up seeing the light of day. With government, every single decision is political. Take those tech upgrades to the White House, for example. Part of the problem was that responsibility for White House technology was shared between four agencies, each with its own chief information officer, the New York Times reported.
US Digital Services is having none of that. With top talent from companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, the team brings not only their tech knowledge to the White House, but also their expertise of how work gets done in outside government walls.
"We don't care about politics," Haley Van Dyck says in her TED talk. "We care about making government work better, because it's the only one we've got."
2. Pair program every project
In agile software development, pair programming involves two programmers working together behind one screen. One programmer writes the code. The other reviews the code as it's typed. Both roles are equally important. The final code is a built with both of their contributions.
In the same way, members of the US Digital Services team are paired with the civil servants who are already working in government pushing for change. Side-by-side, the technologists and civil servants work to build a solution and implement modern business practices.
This strategy is also contributing to a culture shift in the White House. Government employees don't want to rely on clunky, outdated systems that don't actually help people. By shaking up the status quo, the US Digital Services team is helping those civil servants better accomplish the life-changing work they set out to do.
"One of the dedicated civil servants... said that she's never been this hopeful or optimistic about a project in her entire time in government," says Van Dyck. "And she's been doing this for 30 years. That is exactly the kind of hope and culture change we are trying to create."
3. Design for the users, not the stakeholders
U.S. Digital Services has started rolling out small, yet monumental successes. Van Dyck contributes this progress to a seemingly natural step in developing any new product, yet one that's radical for the United States government. Instead of designing a website around what was assumed to meet user needs, the team starts by asking the people who actually know: the users themselves.
Here's how Van Dyck described how they designed a user-focused site for veterans.
"Far too often, product decisions are made by committees of stakeholders who do their best to represent the interests 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."
Based on this user research, Van Dyck's team launched vets.gov. Visit the website and you'll see it's super simple, with just two areas of focus. These are the two areas are exactly what veterans told the team they need help with the most.
It's a breath of fresh air to the U.S. Department of Vetetans Affairs website, which is overwhelming with the amount of information it provides. Though it's comprehensive, you can understand how a veteran seeking disability benefits might have trouble navigating the site.
4. Starting small can pay huge dividends
Today, massively successful unicorns such as Uber and Airbnb seem they were always destined to disrupt their marketplaces. It's easy to forget both were once small-time operations that launched with only a sliver of the products and services they now offer.
Uber launched strictly with black car service in targeted markets. The AirBnB founders started by renting out their own apartment. Once these companies had proof of concept, it became easier to pick up steam, win over new users and grow massively at scale.
As the largest institution in the world, the United States government spends $86 billion annually. That's more than all of venture capital spends in a year. To disrupt the entire system's process of doing business seems insurmountable. Impossible even. That's why U.S. Digital Services is tackling small projects first, learning and iterating on the process and growing their scope from there.
One problem the team dug into was how immigrant visa holders could apply for replacement green cards. Previously, the process could take six months and involved a long paper trail. The U.S. Digital Services created a streamlined process.
"You can now, for the first time, file for a replacement green card entirely online without anyone touching a piece of paper," Van Dyck reports. "It is faster, it is cheaper, and it's a better user experience for the applicant and the government employees alike."
U.S. Digital Services is just getting started in how they reinvent the government process using their startup know-how. Read the transcript or check out Van Dyck's full TED talk below for more info.