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FCW : June 15, 2016
Differing definitions The group acknowledged that the embrace of digital services has varied so widely in part because the term can mean so many things. As one executive quipped, “Some people are just saying, ‘Oh, is that what I need to call my old pet project?’” Most of the participants agreed, however, that their efforts are funda- mentally a modernization exercise and, more important, one that truly seeks to determine what the user needs before diving into that modernization. The users might be citizens, govern- ment employees or some other cus- tomer entirely, but “it’s about finding out what they want, how they want it, when they want it and not making assumptions about that.” Under that broad umbrella, one participant noted, digital services can include agile user-centered design, talent development and even policy changes. “I don’t actually think it mat- ters whether we’re all defining it the same way,” he said. “There is a core, underlying thread, which is, ‘How can we make the work the government does more relatable to the people it is trying to serve?’” The group also addressed the charge that digital teams too often tackle the bright-and-shiny projects around the margins and steer clear of the big core systems that comprise so much of fed- eral IT. Several argued that the itera- tive approach is not an alternative to enterprise-level change but rather a path toward it. “You need to use the success of [those quick fixes], and you’ve got to plow that into getting the next project that gets closer to the core,” one exec- utive said. “That’s a lot of what we’re doing, just making fixes now that help but also [building] a case for even big- ger change.” Starting small and delivering continu- ously also bring humility to the process, another added. “I haven’t been in gov- ernment too long, but I’ve already seen way more giant modernization, trans- formation projects than I ever wanted to. I could almost universally say that if you’re calling something a big modern- ization program, it will probably fail.” A third participant went further: “Designing something now to be a [monolithic], huge system is actually guaranteed failure,” she said. She added that she and her team had far better results when they managed expectations and said, “Look, here’s our beta. We know it’s not right. Give us insight. Help us co-create it.” “It’s about setting an expectation that you can help us...make this better,” she added. “I just think there are different ways we can do things when we’re will- ing to give up control [and] understand that we actually gain influence by giving up control.” Another participant concurred and said, “It starts small. If you persist, it will ramp up.... Those big legacy systems, those are the final frontier.” Who owns the change? A central tenet for USDS is that every project must have a clear owner, but many in the group said that was easier said than done. Some struggled to get the proper colleagues engaged while others complained of the opposite problem. “One pain point we’ve experienced [is] that everyone wants to do digital transformation,” one participant said. “But then you’ve got the IT people, like the CIO, you’ve got public affairs, and then you’ve got the new data scientist teams. When you’re on the ground try- ing to develop and execute new ideas, that ends up stopping a lot of progress when you’ve got those three different groups of people going three different directions and no one owns it fully.” The Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act is helping to clarify technology spending, another participant said, but that’s only part of the equation. “We’re in a complicated situation.” Another explained how “hedging our bets” on governance and product ownership “instead of doing it the way I’d really like to do it” is causing problems. “We’re punting and saying, ‘I can assign people within my group. I can teach them. I can do the change man- agement for them,’” the executive said. “But I don’t think I’ll really be success- ful until I have product owners in other parts of the organization.” “The way I’m defining the product- owner role for my people is really put- ting them in tough situations,” he added. “They have to own stuff that they don’t really own and have to create relation- ships to support that.” The would-be partners in those rela- tionships aren’t always ready to recip- rocate. “There’s definitely some preach- ing to the converted, and everybody I work with on a day-to-day basis is all into the Digital Services Playbook,” one participant said. “But the budget people [say], ‘So what?’ That’s an inher- ent tension.” Another lamented the wariness he’s found among the acquisition team. “We’ve got career civil servants with many, many years of experience, and they just said, ‘This is illegal. We’re not going to do it. I won’t be your [contract- 22 June 15, 2016 FCW.COM The discussion was on the record but not for individual attribution. (See page 25 for a list of participants.) FCW Perspectives CHASEGUNTER 0615fcw_020-026.indd 22 5/25/16 1:32 PM
May 30, 2016
June 30, 2016