How the U.S. Digital Service is transforming government IT

The United States Digital Service is doing great work bringing the skills and ethos of Silicon Valley to government IT. Here's why they shouldn't just be helping, they should be in charge.

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Credit: Amanda Walker

Mikey Dickerson for President! Sean O'Neil for Vice President!

I have no idea what their personal politics are, and frankly I don't much care. Mikey and Sean are key figures in the United States Digital Service, which is doing great work bringing the skills and ethos of Silicon Valley to government IT. But it's not enough for them to help transform the way specific governmental agencies leverage technology. Think of the impact if they—or someone with similar skills and goals—actually had the authority to make big things happen.

I'm thinking of this partly because we're knee-deep in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential elections, and partly because I can't stop thinking about presentations I've heard Mikey and Sean Dickerson make this year. Frankly, they were far more inspiring than any of the political speeches and debates I've seen in a long time. 

Mikey Dickerson

Mikey Dickerson was a Site Reliability Engineer at Google, and was instrumental in rescuing That experience ultimately led to him being tapped to be Administrator of the USDS. (Here's Mikey's own post about this "Improbable Public Interest Startup.") I heard him speak at the Velocity Conference in Santa Clara in May, and came away mightily impressed by not only his vision and commitment, but also his healthy portion of common-sense practicality about effecting change in large bureaucracies.

You can watch Mikey's entire 20-minute presentation below, but the most critical of the many telling points he made is that "'Bureaucracy' and 'politics' are just words that mean how people make decisions in large groups."

"Much as engineers and technical people hate those words, bureaucracy is literally… nothing more than what happens when you have big groups of people and they're trying to get something done or make a decision," Dickerson said.

Politics is similarly ubiquitous.

"If you say you work in an office with no office politics, that's like telling me you live in a place with no weather," he said. "The strongest possible true statement you could be making is that you live in a place where the weather is very predictable and doesn't affect your life very much." 

Lots of people have the technical chops—the key is that he understands the need to "make it possible for people who had been part of the problem in the past to change."

"You have to give them permission to come along and get on the bandwagon," he said. "If they get convinced there won't be any place for them in the new world, then [they will] dig in and resist what you're doing…. You have to be willing to make friends with people you might not have otherwise thought."

That combination of technical expertise and leadership skills would be useful in a president, right?

Sean O'Neil

A Presidential candidate needs a running mate, right? I had the opportunity to hear Sean O'Neil, senior director of Enterprise Architecture at Optum Technology and a site reliability engineer for, give a keynote address earlier this month at New Relic's FutureStack15 conference in San Francisco. (disclosure: I am an employee of New Relic.)

While Mikey took a big-picture approach in his talks, Sean spent more time in the technical trenches. For example, he went behind the scenes to explain what really went wrong with "The truth is, there was no one stupid thing that someone did … just a whole bunch of stuff you've probably run into before," all exacerbated by a bureaucratic culture and a lack of process.

"Everything was broken," he said. "Everything that could go wrong did go wrong."

In the end, fixing it required changing the culture of government IT. "Instead of being slaves to expensive off-the-shelf software," Sean said. "We didn't want to give any more money to Oracle after a while." That's why the team embraced open source and the cloud, and helped save money in the process.

The USDS is embedding technology inside agencies in order to "change the way the U.S. government interfaces with our citizens," Sean said. It's already working in areas like Immigration and Veterans Affairs.

I guess critics could raise legitimate questions about how well this fast-paced, Silicon Valley approach will scale across an organization as large as the U.S. government, and to serving goals besides profit. After all, much of that government red tape was originally put in place to help prevent fraud and abuse. But companies like Google and Amazon and Facebook are already dealing with some pretty large projects, and they sure seem a lot more efficient and productive than their government equivalents.

If people like Mikey and Sean can bring Silicon Valley-style innovation to the things that really make a difference to Americans, maybe they ought to be in charge. It'll never happen, of course (heck, I'd bet they wouldn't want to have anything to do with it), but for me, these folks represent something a lot more exciting than what I hear from the real political candidates. At the very least, maybe some of those candidates would pay more attention.

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