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No more glitches: A White House digital response team

August 17, 2014
By Charles Ellison

The infamous rollout debacle of 2013 was one of the most politically humiliating blows to an Obama administration that, arguably, prided itself on being the first White House to holistically embrace the Nexus of Forces.

In a recent move, the White House showed their intention to change that narrative by creating the first permanent digital rapid response team to keep that from happening again.

It’s not exactly clear how the White House will structure the U.S. Digital Force or how many experts or specialists will man it, but judging from who’s at its helm, the USDF (strangely acronymed more like a branch of the military than a back office of geeks in the White House) is set to morph into an IT force to be reckoned with. U.S. Chief Information Officer Steven Van Roekel called it a modest effort during testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs in May. But bringing on former Google engineer and Mr. Fix-It Mikey Dickerson is anything but modest, at least in terms of intended scope.

"The Digital Service will establish standards to bring the Government’s digital services in line with the best private sector service experiences, define common platforms for re-use that will provide a consistent user experience, collaborate with agencies to identify gaps in their delivery capacity to design, develop, and deploy excellent citizen-facing services, and provide oversight and accountability to ensure we see results," Van Roekel explained before the committee.

Van Roekel and others must have read Gartner analyst Rick Howard’s January note on how the crisis offered an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and enhance digital leadership in the federal government. “Government CIOs in particular can use the crisis that accompanied the flawed rollout of to reinforce the essential role they and IT have in working with the executive leadership to formulate an enterprise strategy and practice sound IT management, including effective governance,” added Howard

The most critical role USDF will play is to break through a byzantine federal procurement process that private sector technology firms have long complained stifles their ability to help the federal government truly innovate. A central office or agency to funnel critical IT needs through a rapid response pipeline can quickly remediate blunders like rather than allow them to fester. 

But it also meets the standards of an “operating model” outlined this month by Forrester’s Gene Leganza and Marc Cecere as they discussed the fundamentals of creating an information management organization. “Data management in most organizations is fragmented, governance is immature, and expertise is disconnected from business need,” observes Leganza and Cecere, a spot-on call out of the silo-based approach typically exercised by government. “To solve this, CIOs should start by creating an information management (IM) operating model to define the required data services, and then use this to identify capability gaps and develop a plan for filling these gaps.” USDF, at least on paper, seems headed in that direction.

Gartner’s Rand Leeb-du Toit argues that CIOs should begin rejecting old-school bureaucracies and hierarchies, and create systems that are fast and agile. “Bureaucracy focuses on automation, precision and unambiguity, and looks to reduce friction through standardization,” notes Leeb du-Toit. “These were suitable traits for the Industrial Age; however, in the digital Industrial Age, high-growth companies face more powerful and dynamic forces of competition, customer demands and globalization. For them, such a bureaucratic approach is dangerous. It can squash the very creativity, innovation and proactivity needed to continue to achieve growth. Its rigidity can also make it harder to adapt quickly to rapidly changing market dynamics.”

As USDF materializes, it will be interesting to watch whether its efforts will align with a myriad of recent congressional moves to catch up with the innovation economy through legislative patches such as a comprehensive cybersecurity bill and national infrastructure protection. The jury is still out on whether that’s possible. But streamlining federal digital efforts is a step in the right direction and could open doors for patient vendors ready to bring in fresh expertise to augment the government’s efforts.  

Charles Ellison is a senior analyst relations strategist for TEKsystems. He keeps close tabs on changes and public policy shaping the innovation space. He is also a former congressional staffer, senior aide to state and local elected officials and an expert advocacy strategist. You can reach him with questions and comments @twoARguys via Twitter.

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