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Even though healthcare.gov was initially called a public policy disaster, it ended up being one of the best things to happen to a government unable to keep up with evolving citizen expectations. Bill Eggers spoke with Tanya Ott on how government agencies must change their traditional culture to a digital, innovative one to continue to successfully deliver services.
What governments do is important! A lot of these are life-changing, life-altering, live-saving sorts of efforts, right? And I think it can be a lot more meaningful to a top technologist in what they can impact than developing yet another dating app.
TANYA OTT: Government is trying to find its way in the 21st-century digital world. There’ve been some very high-profile failures—and some real successes. We’ll take a look at them and talk about lessons learned.
I’m Tanya Ott, and this is the Press Room, Deloitte University Press’s podcast on the issues and ideas that matter to your business today. And our guide through the world of digital government is Bill Eggers. He’s worked in government in different capacities for years. He’s also worked in the think tank world. And now, he’s executive director of Deloitte’s Center for Government and Higher Education.
BILL EGGERS: If you think about it, we’re living in a world now where any song can be played instantly, any product on earth can arrive to your doorstep in 24 hours, and a ride is never five minutes from your phone. In that sort of world, it’s inconceivable to have the patience of waiting weeks or months for products of any kind. The bar has been raised. We’ve gotten spoiled in our assumptions, so suddenly and deeply that for anything to operate less fast, less intuitively, or efficiently than Amazon, Google, Uber, Facebook, Netflix, or Airbnb, it’s an instant death knell that companies just can’t escape. Now government cannot be immune to this massive change. In a constantly changing, evolving, adapting world, some parts of government are still living back in the 1990s. And that’s just unacceptable.
TANYA OTT: Governments all over the world are in the midst of a historic and often wrenching transformation as they abandon these old analog operating models in favor of their digital counterparts. Eggers tracks their progress in a new book called Delivering on Digital: The Innovators and Technologies that are Transforming Government. It’s basically designed as a guide to show governments how to get from here to there. I asked him to describe where many are starting.
BILL EGGERS: You can call it the Green Screen Syndrome. Many government entities continue to handle critical public business processes on computers that today’s IT elite probably wouldn’t even recognize. They’re large piles of plastic, steel, and wire that take up a lot of room and operate in pretty much unwieldy fashion. A friend of mine discovered this a few years ago when she arrived in a state government with a newly installed administration. She took over the state’s top IT job, and she was aghast at what she found. There were benefits systems almost a quarter of a century old, along with other creaky IT systems, including a state financial management system that every year processed in the neighborhood of $35 billion in payments—but it was at the risk of collapse. Now the situation is certainly not like this everywhere, but too often it is the reality.
TANYA OTT: It is kind of staggering at one level because we are so used to having everything now—not on a desktop, not even on a laptop, but on a tablet or a phone where everything is mobile, where we can order dinner and have it delivered easily with one or two clicks.
BILL EGGERS: Your expectations have gone up so dramatically, just in the past five years alone. And what’s going to happen is government keeps on falling farther and farther behind the private sector, and you’re going to see an expectations gap grow between what citizens are expecting versus what they’re actually seeing. We surveyed [more than] 1,200 government officials around the world on digital transformation, and close to 70 percent of them said that they thought they were far behind the private sector right now in terms of digital transformation and [were] very concerned about that.
TANYA OTT: I would imagine one of the things that keeps governments from updating their systems is that they’ve got a massive amount of money invested in what they already have. Many governments face continued budget issues, and trying to think about upgrading wholesale, from top to bottom digitally, is really challenging.
BILL EGGERS: There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of sunk costs into these old systems, and certainly a lot of the government IT budgets are spent maintaining and operating these systems. Yet, at the same time, the federal government does provide—certainly human services and unemployment insurance and many other areas—a fairly substantial amount of money to state governments and county governments for upgrading and modernizing their systems.
TANYA OTT: So there’s the technology, but there’s also the way that we think about using technology. There’s the hardware, and then there’s also sort of the brain space that folks are in. You write about, in 2011, on the heels of the financial crisis, the US government creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
BILL EGGERS: What’s called the CFPB, their mission was simple: to make markets work for consumer financial products and services, and make them work better for consumers, whether they’re choosing a credit card or applying for a mortgage. They have a profound customer focus, and, because of that, they understood early on that they needed to operate in a very customer-facing way. A government agency also has to answer the existential question in its early days of any startup, which is: If we want to succeed, what do we really, absolutely have to get right? For the CFPB, technology was one of the answers. At every level, from educating the public on personal finance to supervising banks, technology was seen as a driving force in this agency. But the other thing was design. Their whole culture was driven by design, and their technology team understood the importance of a great online experience for this very consumer-facing agency.
TANYA OTT: So they brought in a guy named Matthew Burton to help lead that effort. What was his background?
BILL EGGERS: Matthew came out of the intelligence space. When he was working in intelligence, what he was doing was really trying to bring them into the modern age. He was trying to get them to adapt to using open-source and collaborative tools. And he was part of this cadre of young Millennial technologists who had gravitated to Washington in the 2000s, and especially after 2008, because they wanted to make a difference and were passionate about open data, open-source code, and open problem-solving approaches. They were there to agitate for change. [Matthew] was a constant thorn in the side of the intelligence agencies, because he was constantly complaining about how they overtook IT projects. But over time, I think his ideas began to get some real recognition, and he started making a name for himself.
TANYA OTT: Explain to us why open source is so important.
BILL EGGERS: Open source simply refers to something that can be modified and shared because its design is accessible to everyone. Authors of open-source software make their source code available to others who would like to view that code, copy it, learn from it, or share it. There’s the notion of when you have millions of eyes on this software, that’s the best way to sort of get the bugs out. It ends up being cheaper to maintain over time, quicker to make changes, because, again, you’re kind of using the crowd effect, and you’re getting a lot more eyes on it than you could necessarily get with proprietary software.
TANYA OTT: What I thought was really interesting in this instance is that they actually embedded information within the source code about jobs that might be available in the company—like if you’re in here poking around in the source code, you might be someone who would be interested in working with us. So that was a really creative talent recruitment approach. I imagine that’s not a standard operating procedure for a government agency.
BILL EGGERS: No, they had to go about a number of different ways in terms of innovating to recruit the best talent—which was one of the things they were committed to do. They knew that they actually had to change how government went about recruiting for talent, because the way that governments work is they ask, how many years of experience do you have in this certain thing, and they want 15 years of experience. But some of these technologies are not even 15 years old. So they were trying to fit the square peg of their digital culture into the federal government’s round hole.
What they ended up doing is they had to change a lot of those processes to cut down the time to hire people, but then also to draw the best talent. Not only did they place their ads for open positions inside the source code of the website, but they recruited in the true sense of the word, hunting for specific skills where they could be found: portals like 37 Signals, Stack Overflow. They went to where the technologists actually are instead of asking them to come to USAJobs.gov, where they wouldn’t typically be looking for jobs.
TANYA OTT: Fish where the fish are.
BILL EGGERS: Exactly.
TANYA OTT: Anyone who’s ever worked for a government agency—and I am one of those people—knows that often it’s not easy to change the organizational climate, to push the boundaries, and to innovate. What were the challenges that the CFPB faced?
BILL EGGERS: One of the big challenges was certainly recruiting. But there are a number of other important lessons from how they were able to create this innovative culture where they were able to both recruit the best and the brightest into the agency, but [also] keep them and keep innovating. You know what they did first? They put these curious and creative people into an environment full of interesting problems, and they actually gave them the freedom to pursue their ideas. Really, really important.
Secondly, they were the first federal agency to create their own digital design shop and recruit designers. They would recruit designers who had worked in digital platforms in TV and movies and so forth. Their whole culture [was] kind of driven by design, which was interesting.
And third, they had to work hard to maintain their culture of innovation, so every other Friday at the agency what they have is something called Dev Team Hootenanny. That’s when web developers will share updates on their side projects and their ideas—things that they can devote 20 percent of their work hours [to], similar to how Google has that 20 percent.
[The dev team calls] it Nerd Show & Tell. But it’s just something they did to try to create that very innovative digital culture as opposed to a traditional government culture. So they didn’t ask these new people to come in and adapt to a traditional government culture. What they did is they adapted to them. They adapted that culture, and it was easier to do because they didn’t have a legacy culture, a legacy system to start off with.
TANYA OTT: I love that idea of a Nerd Team Show & Tell or a Hootenanny. That’s awesome.
BILL EGGERS: Absolutely.
TANYA OTT: So we can’t have a conversation about government and digital, particularly in the US, without talking about one of the most high-stakes digital efforts that’s happened here in the US, and that’s healthcare.gov. [It] obviously had some issues. You write about the guy who was brought in to make that work, Mikey Dickerson. Tell us about him.
BILL EGGERS: First of all, healthcare.gov was kind of a historic problem from a launch perspective. Many people of the time called it one of the biggest public policy disasters in decades. But, ironically, that problem that they had in the launch ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to digital government in America, because it focused the minds of a president of the United States, of his cabinet, of the chief of staff, of members of Congress on this world of digital, of websites and apps and so forth, that most politicians hadn’t thought a lot about before. They realized they could no longer say, the technologists will take care of this.
It ushered in a whole series of historic changes over the last few years, and one of them [was] bringing great technologists from all over the country to work on both first fixing healthcare.gov but also taking us to a new place. And one of those was Mikey Dickerson. He was brought in by Todd Park, who was the CTO, to fix healthcare.gov. He remembers getting a call from Park who was looking him up on Wikipedia as they spoke, and then a few conversations later he was on a plane to DC. Dickerson and his team were able to salvage healthcare.gov, and he called that “something more meaningful and important than anything he had ever accomplished” at his old job. That was a job he loved at Google. And he basically went back to his old job and tried to care about it, but he wasn’t successful. He wanted to come back to Washington and really try to take the US government to a whole different place in terms of digital transformation. He’s been there now a number of years, and they’ve had a lot of successes.
TANYA OTT: One of the quotes you have from Dickerson really sticks with me . . . A little bit of context: On this podcast, we recently featured a lengthy conversation with John Seely Brown (also known as JSB) and John Hagel, both from the Deloitte Center for the Edge. These are guys that have collectively spent more than a half a century in innovation and in Silicon Valley. The entire conversation I had with them was about disruption and how corporate executives can adjust the lens through which they see their industry in order to be able to better see major disruptions coming at them. Dickerson, though, comes to government from Google and tells you there’s a big difference between the entrepreneurial private sector where companies are always strategizing to disrupt their competitors and what you really can actually do in government—because you can’t just go around completely disrupting huge programs. What did he tell you about how he could reconcile these two cultures?
BILL EGGERS: Dickerson is really a unique leader. Like a lot of the best techies, he has this relentless drive to fix problems, improve performance. And he comes from an industry that holds as natural law the idea that everything will get twice as good every two years. You know Moore’s Law—that’s where he comes from. But at the same time, he knows that there’s a big difference between government and Google.
What he realized early on is that you can’t go into government with this attitude saying, you people are all stupid, get out of the way, and we’ll show you how it’s done. I can tell you from 27 years of working in government or around it that that doesn’t go over very well, and that does not lead to success. Instead, he brought a softer approach to the US digital service. So he’s patiently hacking technology and bureaucracy, and then he found a formula for success. But part of that formula was really he had a top-flight team. He had dozens of the best engineers and tech minds in the country that came in, and, with a companion organization of 18F, which is up to about 150 of these technologists and user experience designers, you had this cadre of people coming in now who thought the same way, and had a digital mind-set. With that number of people, you could really start to make a difference. Of course, they had allies at the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and other places that had become very digital over the last few decades. So I think those are some of the things that are important to do when you’re really trying to make change in government.
TANYA OTT: Here’s the question, though. As you’re talking about recruiting really highly talented, highly engaged people, government has a little bit harder row to hoe compared to the private sector because you can’t necessarily throw as much money at potential employees. There’s not necessarily as much flexibility on some of the levels that you can get in the private sector. So how does government look at recruiting people that can really push the envelope digitally within the sort of constraints of what government has always had?
BILL EGGERS: The first thing is mission: What governments do is important! A lot of these are life-changing, life-altering, live-saving sort of efforts, right? And I think it can be a lot more meaningful to a top technologist in what they can impact than developing yet another dating app. So that’s the thing that’s going to draw a lot of people. Technologists love challenges. They love big challenges. Governments have some of the biggest, most important challenges that exist, and they need a lot of help to get into the 21st century. So that ability to appeal to mission is going to be really important.
But then what you can’t do is bring people into government and then ask them to adapt to a very bureaucratic culture and not give them the latest and greatest technologies. What’s going to happen is you might get them in, but very soon they’re going to leave. They’re going to tell all of their friends, and you’re not going to be able to get people in again. So governments that are trying to do this need to adapt their culture to the digital mind-set, to how digital people like to work. They’re going to need access to the latest and greatest technology. It’s going to need to be less hierarchical. It’s going to need to be more open and user focused and everything.
There’s a whole stream of changes that need to occur, and as we see digital studios being set up within government, we’re seeing that more and more—that realization that this does need to happen. I think that’s going to be a big difference between success and failure in different agencies.
TANYA OTT: Bill Eggers’s new book is Delivering on Digital: The Innovators and Technologies that are transforming government. You can find excerpts from it on dupress.com.
While you’re there, check out that interview I mentioned with JSB and John Hagel about digital disruption. They talk a lot about how your company can see disruptions coming—so you don’t become Borders in an Amazon world.
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