"Our underlying goal is to make better clients"
June 16, 2015 10:05 AM   Subscribe

Inside Obama's Stealth Startup Their mission: to reboot how government works.
posted by infini (67 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is fascinating.
posted by Wretch729 at 10:36 AM on June 16, 2015


I have a few friends working in DC now under these programs. It's an inspiring kind of service. Also impressive to hear their pride in the impact of their work. One friend worked on the healthcare.gov reboot and regularly talks about the tens of thousands of lives his CSS skills have saved because people are able to get insurance. Sure beats making a more viral kind of ad presentation.
posted by Nelson at 10:41 AM on June 16, 2015 [17 favorites]


"They set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to build a website because it was a big, important website. But compare that to Twitter, which took three rounds of funding before it got to about the same number of users as ­Healthcare.gov—8 million to 10 million users. In those three rounds of funding, the whole thing added up to about $60 million."

Interesting comparison, since during that time Twitter continually shit the bed anytime the load got above average.
posted by sideshow at 10:47 AM on June 16, 2015 [19 favorites]


My fascination with the vision, potential and scope of this project -- and all that it promises -- is matched only by my horror when I think of the absolute techno-Lovecraftian nightmare this would become under a Republican White House. Imagine this kind of resource in the hands of a Cheney or the Koch Brothers.
posted by Shepherd at 10:52 AM on June 16, 2015 [3 favorites]




That's called the NSA, Shepherd. Not all parts of the government are tech-incompetent. I'm delighted that we're building some new capability for the US government to provide useful online services to its citizens. You know, government's purpose.
posted by Nelson at 10:56 AM on June 16, 2015 [8 favorites]


This kind of resource would be taken away from these agencies under a Cheney or Koch type, as it has potential to make people appreciate those agencies more. Plus they already have departments with much bigger budgets and scarier technology.
posted by jason_steakums at 10:56 AM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


Quick! All the women to the front row!
posted by Dashy at 10:58 AM on June 16, 2015 [5 favorites]


Ugh. Am I the only fucking person left in this country that doesn't want to be a better "client" or "consumer"? I'm a citizen. I don't want to always be choosing everything I eat, every part of my insurance, every dollar my taxes go to. I want to elect competent, responsible people who ethically use the money they collect, and then check out into my own life. I want single payer healthcare that benefits everyone equally - or punishes them, which then is a propulsion for more change - not the indivudal according to their skills navigating 50 states with 50 shitty sites.

This is the division of labor we hope for in a representative democracy, not for government to be a slightly better version of Amazon*.

* This method (as the FC article shows) is the purview of the young, capitalist and involved. Its a great slow moving horror to see Obamacare's devastating effects on the old, the overworked, those with poorer comprehension or less-than-up-to-date computer technology.
posted by yonation at 11:00 AM on June 16, 2015 [33 favorites]


Estonians can file their taxes in five minutes

That's not even the half of it. They can fail-over their government to a back up server*:
There is also a flip-side to the fully digitized nature of the Republic of Estonia: having the bureaucratic machine of a country humming in the cloud increases the economic cost of a potential physical assault on the state. Rather than ceasing to operating in the event of an invasion, the government could boot up a backup replica of the digital state and host it in some other friendly European territory. Government officials would be quickly re-elected, important decisions made, documents issued, business and property records maintained, births and deaths registered, and even taxes filed by those citizens who still had access to the Internet.
However, it surely helped that they got to start implementing this from a clean slate in the 1990s.

* They have experience with that kind of thing.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 11:08 AM on June 16, 2015 [6 favorites]


She decides, reluctantly, that she’ll go take the meeting, which includes this guy named Mikey as well as this other guy named Todd, and turns out to be in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing. Then President Obama opens the door and surprises everyone, and over the course of 45 minutes gives the sales pitch to beat all sales pitches. They need to come work for him. They will need to take a pay cut, the president announces. But he doesn’t care what it takes—he will personally call their bosses, their spouses, their kids to convince them. The crowd laughs. But he gravely responds: I am completely serious. He needs them to overhaul the government’s digital infrastructure now. "What are you going to say to that?" asks Lisa.
dang.
posted by Theta States at 11:18 AM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Its a great slow moving horror to see Obamacare's devastating effects on the old, the overworked, those with poorer comprehension or less-than-up-to-date computer technology

As opposed to their inability to function under the prior regime of no health care at all, or impenetrable insurance companies always looking for a way to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions?

Yes, single payer would be better so it wouldn't matter so much that you understand the difference between deductibles and out-of-pocket costs, and silver/bronze level plans. It's really hard for even well-educated people to navigate the system.

But it's better than getting no care at all, for something like 15 million people. I'll take a bit of confusion in exchange for that.
posted by suelac at 11:18 AM on June 16, 2015 [25 favorites]


That photo does not have me brimming with confidence in their ability to generate anything more than resume fodder.
posted by yerfatma at 11:21 AM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


A friend of mine moved from Portland last year to work for this group — really cool to see them getting good press!
posted by OverlappingElvis at 11:22 AM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


But it's better than getting no care at all, for something like 15 million people. I'll take a bit of confusion in exchange for that.

Sadly, this is the Obama propaganda, but for many people coverage has gone down, premiums have skyrocketed, and doctors have been limited on what they can do. Naked Capitalism has been doing excellent coverage on this.

Not to mention one of the most horrible things of all, the "clawback" provisions which make sure to further impoverish the poorest of all who try to save, because of Obamacare.

I absolutely hate Obamacare - from the left. It was a Republican written, insurance-company blessed garbage healthcare law that not only has made things worse for much of the country (while yes, highlighting a few success stories [including some in my family!]) but has made it permanently impossible in the American view to have government-run single payer by poisoning the experience for everyone over the last two years, before CSS changes made it slightly better.
posted by yonation at 11:24 AM on June 16, 2015 [5 favorites]


The constitution does not permit the President to ignore the laws the congress has passed.

The constitution does permit the President to rewrite the CSS on government web pages to help usability.
posted by el io at 11:27 AM on June 16, 2015 [9 favorites]


Lets discuss the service delivery mechanism as opposed to the politics of the delivery. If what Wired says is true i.e. inspiration from gov.UK's design lab, then Policy Lab won't be far behind.
posted by infini at 11:30 AM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


There are bigger questions, too, such as whether a small number of technologists can actually bring about vast changes within the most massive, powerful, bureaucratic regime on earth

Meh. Once Bernie Sanders is President, won't be a problem.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:36 AM on June 16, 2015 [6 favorites]


politifact on higher premiums claims
A 2014 Kaiser survey found that nearly half (46 percent) of those who previously bought non-group insurance and switched to a subsidized, ACA-compliant plan said their current premium is lower than it was under their previous plan, while four in 10 (39 percent) say it is higher.

The rate at which those premiums changed is a question mark because of how each study measured whatever they measured, but the anonymous examples cited in the commercial sound extreme to some experts.
"While it would not be impossible for a consumer to experience a ‘30 percent increase’ in his ‘health care policy,’ that situation would unquestionably be an extreme outlier," said Greg Mellowe, director of health research and analysis at the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, a consumer health advocacy group. "The doubling of ‘medical costs’ would be even more extreme. Representing those consumers as typical Floridians would therefore be grossly misleading."
posted by sio42 at 11:39 AM on June 16, 2015 [9 favorites]


I've never understood why you can't just log into an IRS account to see all your information.

It's so weird. You can do all the stuff you need to do but you have to log in like 5 different places, can only get pdfs of some info. There's no portal (at least not that I can find which would be part of the problem) where you just log in and see all your irs stuff.
posted by sio42 at 11:41 AM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


Interesting comparison, since during that time Twitter continually shit the bed anytime the load got above average.

And now I'm imagining a governmental fail whale consisting of a donkey and and elephant hoisted aloft by flying assholesbewinged PACs
posted by romakimmy at 11:47 AM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


Meh. Once Bernie Sanders is President, won't be a problem.

I'm a BS fan myself, but the article is largely about how much support this effort is getting from Obama himself. Bernie wouldn't be able to do any better on this score (and potentially worse, given his campaign is untested in the tech department).
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:51 AM on June 16, 2015


This method (as the FC article shows) is the purview of the young, capitalist and involved. Its a great slow moving horror to see Obamacare's devastating effects on the old, the overworked, those with poorer comprehension or less-than-up-to-date computer technology.

Your anti-obamacare rant is a non sequitur and misses the entire point of the article.

If anything, these folks will be working to make sure government service websites work on wider range of computers than before, and for folks with a wider range of abilities and language competencies.
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:54 AM on June 16, 2015 [19 favorites]


My main concern with the so-called tech surge is that the efforts are mostly just chipping away at the edges. Having web forms that load quickly and don't crash is cool and all, but as the OPM hack has demonstrated, the scale of the federal government's IT challenges is much, much greater than healthcare.gov. Short of a true overhaul in the way federal IT contracts are awarded (a big if, given how entrenched the incumbents are), I doubt we'll see lasting change.
posted by Cash4Lead at 11:56 AM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


I didn't get very far into the article before I realized one of the people they were profiling might be in a position to actually make my life better. Checked the directory and yep, there it was. So what the heck, I emailed Weaver. Because too many things are broken at the ground level and those at the top usually don't hear about it.

(And yes he shows up in the VA directory as "Rogue Leader" - they weren't exaggerating)
posted by caution live frogs at 11:57 AM on June 16, 2015 [10 favorites]


I had a hard time reading the first few introductory paragraphs. I guess I am soured on the "super hero" "super intelligent" "lives in a damn RV in the parking lot because they have terrible work-life balance" story of "West Coast" programmers.

But after that stuff, I thought this was pretty neat.
"There’s an attitude in the entrepreneurial private sector where we don’t care what came before us: We’re going to disrupt it," Dickerson explains. "But we are not going to disrupt Social Security. That’s a big reason why it’s so hard to make these changes, because you can’t interrupt the flow of operations."
That is a really good example of some of the risks and obstacles a project like this entails. Much like the aviation industry, there a LIFE AND DEATH systems in place that need to be dealt with and happen to be really old but still DO THEIR PURPOSE. Change can be good, but sometimes we've gotta respect what's out there and working.

And this comment about the train wreck that didn't happen. Oh, the life of a programmer!
The paradox here is that when the tech teams succeed with a project like the I-90 form, or with any retooled government website, users likely won’t think much about it. It will be fast and intuitive. It will not crash when you use it. And you will then get on with your life. When I ask Dickerson what USDS’s biggest win has been since its start, he points to the open-enrollment season for Healthcare.gov, which went smoothly this year as compared to last year’s debacle. "That’s a big accomplishment," he says, "but we don’t have any coverage of it because there’s nothing to say. The train wreck didn’t happen. We’re proud of that."
posted by jillithd at 12:16 PM on June 16, 2015 [19 favorites]


Short of a true overhaul in the way federal IT contracts are awarded (a big if, given how entrenched the incumbents are), I doubt we'll see lasting change.

I agree. One of the most exciting parts of this effort is that I think the folks involved agree as well. The issue isn't just how contracts are awarded, though, but also whether folks in the agencies involved understand and value a different approach to software and service development. By providing a bunch of people and a lot of ways of interacting with them (from the contractor 18F model to new in-house tech teams) I see the possibility for folks to start seeing what a different path forward could look like.

If the procurement process is going to change I think it'll happen because folks inside agencies are able to articulate why a new method is better. This effort is a big step in that direction.
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:17 PM on June 16, 2015 [5 favorites]


So it's probably clear that I'm a big optimist on this stuff. A lot of that comes from watching this excellent talk by Mike Bracken of the UK's Government Digital Service. He's incredibly clear-headed about the challenges that we face when reshaping government (services). This is not the tech bro approach you may have feared for this stuff, and it's super inspiring.

A must-watch (or just listen, as I did on a long drive up from LA last year) if you're intrigued by these ideas, and especially if you're excited by the prospect of putting your tech-related skills to use in making real change in the world that doesn't follow the SV 'disrupt' mindset.
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:29 PM on June 16, 2015 [7 favorites]


Megan Smith was a member of the MIT swim team with me in the early-mid 80's, and we stayed in pretty close touch through her days at Apple. Even in 1985 it was clear she was destined for great things. A dynamic, optimistic personality and a creative go-getter with excellent follow-through, she could become POTUS, if country could accept a same-sex first couple.
posted by haiku warrior at 1:35 PM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Hey, I know someone in that photo! She's damned impressive. Obama could have done a lot worse. In fact he has, from time to time.
posted by Naberius at 1:37 PM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


As someone who moved away from DC last year to work for the USG in The Field (i.e., anywhere else), I totally miss my BlackBerry. Physical keyboards just make sense. Why people hate them I'll never know.
posted by psoas at 1:54 PM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


"* This method (as the FC article shows) is the purview of the young, capitalist and involved. Its a great slow moving horror to see Obamacare's devastating effects on the old, the overworked, those with poorer comprehension or less-than-up-to-date computer technology."

The online aspect was just one part of the Obamacare registration effort. Someone else already made the point that the whole reason we built the site was to improve access, but it's not like they were unaware that some potential users weren't likely to have access that way.

That's why they also had both phone and in-person registration. Outreach is hard - if not site, phone, and in-person, what's your solution?

While it's nice the media narrative has evolved to celebrate the people involved in the reboot, many of those same people were involved prior to the disastrous initial go-live, and they were saying the same things and giving the same warnings both before and after. Sometimes things don't get better until shit is actually hitting the fan.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 2:02 PM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Your anti-obamacare rant is a non sequitur and misses the entire point of the article.

Nonsense. Neoliberal technocrats are the subject of the article; to point out that the same neoliberal technocrats have recently brought us, under the same platform of revolutionary efficiency-based "reforms," the destruction of any chance at single-payer for the foreseeable future (and you could add things like the ongoing destruction of the public school system, etc.) is not missing the point, it's having basic historico-political perspective.
posted by RogerB at 2:10 PM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


kliuless: "-Estonians can file their taxes in five minutes"

Not to hah-hah, but so can us Chileans. It's awesome.
posted by signal at 2:11 PM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


If the procurement process is going to change I think it'll happen because folks inside agencies are able to articulate why a new method is better. This effort is a big step in that direction.

You're certainly right, but I don't see it happening. The government is so effing huge. Don't get me wrong, there are fixes to be made to the acquisition process, and you can get a lot of decent recommendations on how to fix how we allocate money, how we run competitions, and so on. But when it comes to "What do we need to make this website work?" the government is far too short on people with the knowledge to evaluate contractor claims.

We have multi-billion dollar IT acquisitions going on, and how many people doing the planning have any experience in industry? None. How many could even get an interview at kinds of places we're talking about? None (self included).

How many personal calls is Obama going to make?
posted by the christopher hundreds at 2:16 PM on June 16, 2015


But when it comes to "What do we need to make this website work?" the government is far too short on people with the knowledge to evaluate contractor claims.

They're shooting to hire 500 by the end of 2016. That's not all we need, but it's a good chunk. How else does this start if not here?
posted by wemayfreeze at 2:19 PM on June 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


The White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, enjoys walking meetings, so one morning he guides me through the corridors of the West Wing and out onto the South Lawn, where we spend 25 minutes doing brisk laps around a circular driveway flanked by green grass and blooming gardens.

Someone's been binge-watching too much West Wing.
posted by brundlefly at 2:31 PM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


I've never understood why you can't just log into an IRS account to see all your information.

It's so weird. You can do all the stuff you need to do but you have to log in like 5 different places, can only get pdfs of some info. There's no portal (at least not that I can find which would be part of the problem) where you just log in and see all your irs stuff.


Money might have something to do with it.
posted by qcubed at 2:32 PM on June 16, 2015 [7 favorites]


It's not even filing, though. I have some tax debt, and each month I pay it down through the worst DMV website you can imagine, where it's basically anonymous: plug in your SSN, the year you want to pay for, and your bank info. No confirmation, no sense of what your balance is or anything. I'm sure it's due to avoiding even the possibility of security issues, but jeez.
posted by rhizome at 2:41 PM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


Ugh, this story does not fill me with hope. I haven't finished the whole thing, so maybe I should just close this tab until I do, but for at least the first dozen paragraphs all they mention is 1) engineers; and 2) managers of engineers. THIS. IS. D-U-M. Nothing (yet) about product people, about people who are there to fit ideas into human-shaped applications. Technology is one thing, but engineers are terrible designers, by and large, and usability is the A#1 problem with peoples' interactions with government services. I really do see it as bureaucratic ergonomics, not "oh lets do something with apple watch."
posted by rhizome at 2:47 PM on June 16, 2015 [6 favorites]


I don't think engineers are terrible designers. I think it's that people don't function like an engineer would expect.
posted by qcubed at 3:03 PM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


For one thing, the people Park and Dickerson are luring here aren’t just software engineers; they’re data scientists, user-­experience gurus, product managers, and design savants.
posted by wemayfreeze at 3:10 PM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


qcubed: "I don't think engineers are terrible designers. I think it's that people don't function like an engineer would expect."

A distinction without a difference.
posted by rhizome at 3:34 PM on June 16, 2015 [7 favorites]


I dunno ... yay, I guess, but I found myself eye-rolling at all of the geocentricism. Yes, west coast techies, please show us how to use Amazon Web Services whose main data center is in Northern Virginia and who has an entire division dedicated to government sales!
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 3:37 PM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


What's a "design savant" in this context? Is it different than a golf buddy?
posted by rhizome at 3:44 PM on June 16, 2015


Ugh. Am I the only fucking person left in this country that doesn't want to be a better "client" or "consumer"? I'm a citizen. I don't want to always be choosing everything I eat, every part of my insurance, every dollar my taxes go to. I want to elect competent, responsible people who ethically use the money they collect, and then check out into my own life. I want single payer healthcare that benefits everyone equally - or punishes them, which then is a propulsion for more change - not the indivudal according to their skills navigating 50 states with 50 shitty sites.

Great comment. I want to receive a goddamn service in exchange for my taxes, not be 'empowered' to do all the work myself.
posted by zipadee at 4:08 PM on June 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


I dunno ... yay, I guess, but I found myself eye-rolling at all of the geocentricism. Yes, west coast techies, please show us how to use Amazon Web Services whose main data center is in Northern Virginia and who has an entire division dedicated to government sales!

If you're looking to staff up with people who have specialized skills and tend to cluster in a few notable places, why wouldn't you focus on recruiting in what is by far the biggest cluster area?
posted by psoas at 4:11 PM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


I know a few people at 18F and the USDS and while I enjoy a snarky thread as much as the next mefite, the cynicism some people are showing here is really misplaced. These aren't 22-year-olds with wild ideas – most of the people I've met are experienced mid-career professionals and many of them have worked in or with government before (e.g. people who used to bemoan the state of government data while working as journalists or at non-profits like Sunlight Labs are now working to make things like data.gov better and, with particular emphasis, more sustainable).

There are huge challenges to fixing government IT, particularly when the administration and Congress are at near-historic lows, but the people I've talked with have a very good idea of the problems and are focused on finding areas where they can make real improvements without boil-the-ocean level resources. One of the simplest examples is the HTTPS-everywhere initiative – not the biggest problem in .gov but a real one which has seen significant improvement at quite modest investment and where everything from the spec to sample server code has happened in the open. Someone on Google's Chrome team opening a Github issue to suggest further security improvements for a federal standard which ship the next day is a huge improvement over the status quo. Not everything is that straightforward but those easier successes will still help shift the cultural expectations in a direction everyone should welcome.
posted by adamsc at 4:28 PM on June 16, 2015 [9 favorites]


-Code for America! [with mefi's own CTO Michal Migurski :]
-The Department of Better Technology
-urban engines
-OpenGov[*]

also btw, re: FOSS egov/govtech...
Sidewalk Labs, a Start-Up Created by Google, Has Bold Aims to Improve City Living
The Silicon Valley giant is starting and funding an independent company dedicated to coming up with new technologies to improve urban life. The start-up, Sidewalk Labs, will be headed by Daniel L. Doctoroff, former deputy mayor of New York City for economic development and former chief executive of Bloomberg L.P. Mr. Doctoroff jointly conceived the idea for the company, which will be based in New York, with a team at Google, led by its chief executive, Larry Page.

The founders describe Sidewalk Labs as an “urban innovation company” that will pursue technologies to cut pollution, curb energy use, streamline transportation and reduce the cost of city living. To achieve that goal, Mr. Doctoroff said Sidewalk Labs planned to build technology itself, buy it and invest in partnerships.
posted by kliuless at 5:55 PM on June 16, 2015 [6 favorites]


Yes, I'm sure they're all nice people, and smart, but I don't think the cynicism is misplaced. I don't even think it's cynicism, but pessimism.
posted by rhizome at 6:08 PM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


The cynicism here isn't just misplaced, it's misinformed and sophomoric. And peppered with comments from people who didn't read the article enough to, say, see the part about product managers being part of the hiring process. Some pessimism may be warranted, particularly after 2016 when who knows who will be in the White House. But the work that's being done now with the tech wave seems like pure good to me.

The Republicans have made it a political position that the government cannot provide meaningful services. That the healthcare.gov fiasco was inevitable and therefore government should not attempt to offer healthcare services. That position is wrong. This tech wave is demonstrating that it is wrong. It won't completely succeed, but it sure beats not trying. Or worse, actively undermining folks who are trying by writing misinformed world-weary comments on a community weblog.
posted by Nelson at 6:17 PM on June 16, 2015 [18 favorites]


The cynicism here isn't just misplaced, it's misinformed and sophomoric. And peppered with comments from people who didn't read the article enough to, say, see the part about product managers being part of the hiring process.
My previous post was getting a bit unwieldy for a touchscreen but I really should have mentioned that the best part has been seeing a healthy focus on management and process all the way up to the executive level. Some of that is things like to changing the procurement system (note that this is driven by GSA, so they're in the right place), security approval process, etc. to make healthy IT practices become easy by default rather than something people have to fight to do. Some of it is things like training and consulting to help agency heads and other senior officials learn about modern IT practices such as open source, agile development, devops, the whole gamut of cloud technologies, etc. Finally, some of it is also things like flat-out refusing to take a project where someone refuses to use modern development practices — no government contractor in existence will walk rather than pretend that a waterfall project will be successful; the usual response is for the sales-guy to stop by the Mercedes dealer on the way home.

The fact that they're pushing to change the culture is actually what makes me optimistic about the longer-term results, far more so than specific technical wins. One of the biggest challenges which anyone working at a government agency has is getting permission to do something different; you'll need lots of approvals that you're not wasting taxpayer money or taking on greater risk and each person is going to be wondering whether saying yes will eventually result in making the news. The work going into making common practices, tools and services available in standard packages makes things easier for people across almost the entire federal government because it comes with the magic words “pre-approved”.

Sure, it'll still be easy to find projects which are slow to change but bit by bit this means that anyone who does want to make a change will have fewer procedural barriers blocking their path, which in turn starts changing the question those conservative managers are worried about from “Why did you try something new?” to “Why didn't you?”
posted by adamsc at 7:35 PM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'll just leave this here:


posted by yonation at 8:17 PM on June 16, 2015


Relatedly, in a deja vu kind of way: The government’s plan to regulate facial recognition tech is falling apart [WaPo]
Others go even further, blaming the Obama administration's ties with Silicon Valley. "The White House staff are veterans from Google and Facebook -- they see this sector as vital to the American economy and they used data mining techniques in elections, so it is no surprise that they are ambivalent about protecting privacy, to say the least," said Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Members of the administration disputed that description. "This process is being spearheaded by people who come out of the public interest community," said John Morris, associate administrator and director of Internet policy at the NTIA.

But, he agreed, there are few federal standards for how companies can collect information about consumers right now.
posted by Little Dawn at 9:59 PM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


The problem with complaints about the Affordable Care Act is that they so often are uniformed, regurgitated Fox-news soundbites that I screen out the valid complaints from more reliable sources.
posted by mecran01 at 10:11 PM on June 16, 2015


Sure, it'll still be easy to find projects which are slow to change but bit by bit this means that anyone who does want to make a change will have fewer procedural barriers blocking their path, which in turn starts changing the question those conservative managers are worried about from “Why did you try something new?” to “Why didn't you?”

The gov.uk site has reports of their progress in this particular area over the past year or so. The biggest thing is that they acknowledge that procurement methods must change if they're serious about incorporating more of this consumer product development style of thinking and processes.
posted by infini at 2:07 AM on June 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've never understood why you can't just log into an IRS account to see all your information.

You can here in the Netherlands. Well, for the Dutch equivalent of the IRS of course. This year I didn't even need to download a tax programme but just logged in with my DigiID, saw that my salary and pension statements from the various pension funds I've got were filled in, as were my personal data, state of savings accounts, mortgage etc, checked it with the data I had received myself from my employer and such, saw it was all good, ran through the process and found out I'd get a tax rebate all in under half an hour of mainly checking.

Had I completely trusted the government it would've been five minutes.

Downsides? DigiID security isn't the greatest and it has been hacked before, some worries about having all that centralised data available on me.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:06 AM on June 17, 2015


There are huge challenges to fixing government IT, particularly when the administration and Congress are at near-historic lows, but the people I've talked with have a very good idea of the problems and are focused on finding areas where they can make real improvements without boil-the-ocean level resources.

This. I've been working on the web for 20 years. A year ago I moved from the commercial side to a small government contractor. My project's client is the one in charge of healthcare.gov, although I don't work in that area.

The average taxpayer would be gobsmacked at--and should be outraged about--the amount of waste inherent in current government IT practices. A fellow contractor, a very large one, was awarded $600 million just to maintain some poorly constructed Oracle apps and make some new ones over the course of a 6-year contract. The new applications are merely workarounds for long-existing security and architecture problems; they aren't solving any real enterprise problems. They are slapping band-aids on top of a house of cards built on sand lying over a major earthquake fault.

That's $100 million per year, which includes deploying code changes a max of 3 times a year, configuring the UI from a WYSIWYG interface only (never touching template code without a contract mod meaning more $$$), and making UI changes based on their own opinions--and most of the devs have English as a second language. When they are asked to stand up any new implementation, it can't be done without open a dozen tickets with Oracle because they don't understand the architecture they have inherited. And the client is scared to swap out for a different product, because the client likes to do what it has always done and blame the contractors for giving them poor products and bad service.

We've gotten to this place where a federal agency will pay $600 million for objectively poor service and terrible products. The agency I work with doesn't have the skillset to know what architecture and user experience their products and processes should have (see also: Office of Personnel Management hack). And they keep turning to all the usual suspect behemoth contractors, who have no incentive to do any better than they've done since their clients tend not to know better. Agency staff tend to run mostly on fear: "Just don't get me called in front of Congress about this."

I was glad to see this article cite the UK's Government Digital Service as an example this administration intends to follow with 18F and similar initiatives. The key is not just the IT; the UK GDS hired a well known UX person to revamp not only the online tools, but also the offline processes. The entire user experience, in other words, from before awareness of the tool, to using the tool, to satisfaction and efficacy after using the tool. The US government is obviously much much bigger and then there's the whole federal/state thing that will make it harder to revamp "the way government works," but I'm encouraged. You should see what kind of hoops we have to jump through to conduct an actual usability test. It involves the Federal Register. That's some anti-innovative bullshit right there.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 7:04 AM on June 17, 2015 [10 favorites]


This seems relevant – again, not changing the world overnight but focusing on something where the current painful process keeps a lot of business directed to a small number of companies which are familiar with the system but are not leaders in the tech world:
18F wants to change what "government contractor" means with our new Agile BPA, out today: https://pages.18f.gov/ads-bpa/assets/ADS_RFQ_Final.pdf
Instead of a hojillion page form, companies need to submit working code in a public git repo.
18F's Agile BPA challenges companies that want to work us to build a working, open source prototype using data from https://open.fda.gov .
(See https://twitter.com/konklone/status/611169648902569984)
posted by adamsc at 7:52 AM on June 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


That $600 million contract is absolutely unsurprising. IMO a culture of vanity is a problem. Government agencies would rather "own" development of custom software rather than hire COTS that can be made to fit their needs. They justify it by saying the commercial world moves too quickly: a custom product will last longer. They forget that there's no such thing as set-and-forget software and the one-off product needs maintenance too.

They hear "custom software" and think of a tailored suit. I think of NIH syndrome, design antipatterns, and business logic that can't be changed.

I say it's vanity because the one thing they hate more than using commercial software is using software developed for a different agency.
posted by Monochrome at 10:23 AM on June 17, 2015


That $600 million contract is absolutely unsurprising. IMO a culture of vanity is a problem. Government agencies would rather "own" development of custom software rather than hire COTS that can be made to fit their needs.

That $600 million contract in my earlier comment is largely for minimal custom development on top of COTS products.

A bloviated COTS product stack owned by a company that likes to acquire products and put them all in one "suite" but then offer little or onerous integration between the products in the suite. But that's a different story.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 11:42 AM on June 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oops, my rant is misplaced.
posted by Monochrome at 2:35 PM on June 17, 2015


The White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, enjoys walking meetings, so one morning he guides me through the corridors of the West Wing and out onto the South Lawn, where we spend 25 minutes doing brisk laps around a circular driveway flanked by green grass and blooming gardens.
Someone's been binge-watching too much West Wing.


I've never watched any West Wing, so I might be missing the reference you're making; but I'll tell you, compared to working in the private sector, trying to get anything done while working for the federal government is a huge pain in the ass.

For example, my BFF is a career employee at FERC. He oversees regulatory compliance issues on multi-billion dollar energy projects. We went to Costco together, and he wanted to drop off the coffee he bought for the office coffee club at work afterwards, so I agreed to ride along.

So, first of all, if you have an office job at a federal agency or commission there is no free coffee. There are coffee collectives that band together out of necessity to pool resources to provide cubicle caffeine. Believe it or not, GS-14 employees have to drop off coffee at work on their own time just to have coffee every day. Political appointees join the coffee clubs but never pay, but they can't be cut off, or if you try to cut them off they pretend they never saw the email invoice for six months of coffee.

Anyhow, if there's a big meeting between the regulators and industry, guess what happens... If the meeting took place at FERC, there would be no coffee, no bagels, no bottled water, no lunch. It's essentially 100 guys in suits pretending to be productive while worrying about their blood sugar. Or, the meeting is hosted by industry "partners" at a nearby hotel conference room, and there is copious food and drink available to all. And business gets done all the same.

On top of that, they're housed in a building designed 60 years ago (as if management practices or US energy policy hasn't changed in the meanwhile) and the office environment hasn't been updated in 20 years. Seriously, my friend led me to the commissioner suites, and all I could think was that the carpet was way more rundown beyond a flea-bag motel. The walls needed paint, the furniture needed a refresh. I don't know anybody who works in the private sector who has to try to get shit done in the way that federal employees do.
posted by peeedro at 10:17 PM on June 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Anyhow, there are a lot of talented and dedicated civil servants who have to live with an office that is an unworkable shithole. I'm glad they can conduct business in mere creative circumstances.
posted by peeedro at 10:24 PM on June 17, 2015




U.S. House of Representatives Allows Use Of Open Source Software
Policies and standards are being discussed in the open on Github, the social software platform that hosts repositories of open source code. Now potentially interesting interactions between Congress and the executive branch -- like Virginia Democratic Rep. Jerry Connolly's change to the language in an IT reform bill the White House is working on implementing -- will move there as well.

This policy also provides a framework for the proposal Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) made at this year's Personal Democracy Forum about the House using open source software to build a better platform for participatory politics.

"So recently we’ve begun to think about a new project to create an open-source solution for constituent communications that anyone could add on to," she said. "What if we could tap into the energy of civic technologists like you? I would love to see a system that is open-source, with real time analytics, with social media and text messaging integrated in from the beginning -– and it’s our hope that we’ll be able to respond with quick personal responses and better casework tracking."

More speculatively, this could be a significant step toward a future in which the Internet might one day transform government, as NYU professor Clay Shirky explored in a 2012 TED talk.

If this rhetoric is expressed in code and collaboration over the coming years, President Abraham Lincoln's words may need to be adapted for the 21st century: software for the people, built with the people, released back to the people.
posted by kliuless at 10:52 AM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]




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