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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

Is the U.S. Digital Service destined to fall short?

I’ve been reading some of the coverage of this week’s announcement by the White House of the U.S. Digital Service, and I’m trying to figure out if this is a big deal or not.

Sure, it had a White House launch and will live in the Office of Management and Budget. Mikey Dickerson will lead it. He’s a former Google exec who joined QSSI last October to help salvage Healthcare.gov.

The basic ideas behind the Digital Service [I’m going to resist its official acronym USDS as long as I can] are sound.

The service released a Digital Playbook with 13 plays [very clever marketing that the release of a playbook comes during the NFL training camp season]. The plays cover things like ensuring end-user needs are met during design and development. There also is an emphasis on testing and delivery, according to reporting by our sister publication FCW.com.

There’s a stripped down TechFAR that can help agencies using existing acquisition regulations to be agile in how they buy products and services.

But as I read the various stories, a little voice – a cynical voice – kept nagging at me in the back of my head. Some of the descriptions made me wonder if they are missing the point.

The Washington Post wrote, “The focus is going to be on helping agencies figure out where their weak points are and how to fix them.”

Really? Do you think any agency doesn’t already know their weak points? Ask any program or project manager why his or her job is so hard and you’ll hear plenty.

There also was a lot of praise for Dickerson, with various publications calling him a guru and a savior of Healthcare.gov.

I’m sure Dickerson’s a great guy and very smart, but the government needs more than a white knight.

Then I read Trey Hodgkins’ quote in FCW. The senior vice president of public sector for the Information Technology Alliance for Public Sector called the playbook and the TechFAR good tools, but that the documents really indicate just how much the FAR needs to be reformed.

That’s really the issue. The fundamentals of the system are broken, and playbooks and checklists only put makeup on the pig as they say.

But unfortunately, playbooks and checklists are all we can do in today’s political environment because reforming acquisition just isn’t a sexy issue unless you are bashing contractors as greedy or holding up agencies as incompetent.

In that kind of environment, it’s no wonder that agencies retreat to tried-and-true methods.

Maybe playbooks and checklists are the best we can do right now, but don’t expect them to bring much improvement to acquisitions aside from a fancy pilot project or two.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Aug 13, 2014 at 9:25 AM

Reader Comments

Mon, Aug 18, 2014 Stella Torriano

Sounds like another brilliant White House work around the agencies, which are already starved for strong IT talent. This will further devalue and denigrate the agencies, making them easy prey for the not-too-bright technology gurus (self-proclaimed) in OMB. Can anyone here (in the Nation's Capital) play this game? Since the contractors, judging by the quality of systems delivered, are not too good at it either, how will the government ever get by in IT???

Thu, Aug 14, 2014

Like you, I am currently trying to 'digest' my first read of the Playbook and figure out what I think about it. But my initial 'gut feel' is that it's a mom-and-apple-pie document. It is certainly correct, but departmental IT buyers who didn't understand these concepts before reading the playbook are not given enough detail/guidance for these "plays" to be useful. To extend the analogy, A guy sitting on his couch can't effectively run Peyton Manning's "Two-Man-Levels" play concept just because you show him X's and O's on a piece of paper. You need SKILLS and you need COACHING. Neither of which is in that document. Skills and Coaching drive the execution of the "play", and successful execution is kind-of the point, here. But I don't want to bash this, because it seems like a step in the right direction.

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