The Digital Service State of the Union

Lessons on impact at the federal level from Matt Cutts at Code for America Summit

This year marks the fifth birthdays of the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, the two leading government digital service delivery teams in the United States. Originally modeled after the work of the UK’s Government Digital Service, they serve as the central digital services of the federal government—and have inspired further national and local efforts in their wake. At this year’s Summit, Administrator of the USDS Matt Cutts took the mainstage to give a “state of the union” on what’s happening in digital service delivery on the federal level.

“Often, we get the question, is the U.S. Digital Service about firefighting, or is it about culture change? And the answer is both.”

Matt spoke about the different buckets USDS projects can fall into, and the different ways that USDS can drive meaningful impact. On the one hand, much of their work can be categorized as “firefighting”—approaching outdated or broken technology and finding new solutions that increase efficiency, save taxpayer money, and streamline government services. On the other, they are bringing about systemic change by rethinking the way government delivers services to its residents, and building the technology that best supports that delivery from the ground up.

USDS’s work goes beyond specific projects to a level of scale that has an impact across the entire federal government, such as changing procurement or hiring practices. This work is new, and there is no rulebook. But they are figuring out how to do it by sharing their learnings, leaning on each other, and gathering with others in the field at convenings like Summit. And while we are in uncharted territory, we should not succumb to imposter syndrome. Just showing up and doing the work is hugely important—for the people we serve, and for the next generation of this movement who will do it even better.

“You are somebody else’s imposter syndrome.”

To hear Matt’s presentation in full, watch the video or read the transcript below.


Everybody on the livestream, we had a little bit of a fire alarm at 2:00 am, which led to a bunch of civic technologists, at 2:30 am, debating the best way to get everybody back up to the room. Do you group by floor number, or do you go in a line, and first come first served? It was wonderful.

Okay, so I’m going to talk a little bit about some of the stuff that’s happening at the federal level, the U.S. Digital Service. And I’ve timed it, and to give a full accounting of all the stuff that’s happening, takes about an hour. And I do not have an hour, so I apologize to all the folks on our team that work with doctors and patients, small businesses, firefighters, asylum seekers, farmers; we’re not going to get to talk about all of that. Although if you come to the booth and say hello, they would have folks who would love to talk about that sort of thing.

But I do want to tell just a few stories. So often, we get the question, is the U.S. Digital Service about firefighting, or is it about culture change? And the answer is both. So I wanted to share an example of a firefight that we had recently. There’s a system that does background checks for the government. It was recently put on the Government Accountability Office’s high risk list because it hasn’t been going that well. So there’s a system, took six years to build, over a million lines of code in Java, and there’s one basic problem: It’s really slow. Like, click a button to download a document and then go make coffee kind of slow. And there’s one problem with that, which is you don’t need 200 cups of coffee per day. You only need maybe five, tops, and then you’ll still be jittering like this, right?

So we brought in a group of four or five folks with backgrounds ranging from Alkami to Facebook to Amazon. And we said, “Look, this is really slow. What can we do? How can we make things better?” And the team added application monitoring. And then they sort of said to themselves, “Okay, what else is going wrong?” And I won’t go into all the details about all the different ways that it was slow, but they did find a completely extra document management system; one that was not used. So the metaphor I like to use is, if you go to a filing cabinet and you open it up, and you pull out the file, and then you look inside and there’s another file folder inside of that file folder. And it turns out, you don’t need every single file to be nested twice within a file folder. So they ripped that part out. They made sure that big documents that were already compressed don’t have to be compressed.

And the net throughput changed from about a minute to download a document to two or three seconds. And so the net effect of that is, instead of doing about 12,000 background checks per week, they were able to do 24,000 background checks per week. And it settled down at about … Yes, yes. Good throughput! Halloo! Huzzah! And every after a few weeks, it settled down at 18,000 background checks per week.

Now, what does that mean? Well, they have about 1,000 people who are using this system on a daily basis. So that means you don’t need to hire an extra 500 people, because with a few weeks of productivity, you were able to get 500 peoples worth of productivity with just a little bit of improving code. That’s a huge difference. That makes tens of millions of dollars, no matter how you slice it. And those kinds of wins are the sorts of things that remind people: Yes, technology matters. It matters to be able to make this sort of thing work well.

But we’re not just about firefighting. I wanted to tell a story about something that we’ve been doing at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, or the VA. We started out, and we worked on a really cool website. It was called, and it let you refill prescriptions. It let you talk to your doctor. You could discover, apply, track, and manage all your benefits. But there was one problem. Even though the site worked very well, I talked to my aunt. My aunt deals with a lot of veterans. And even though we had a chance to talk to thousands of veterans and design with users instead of for them, which is one of our core values; I tried to explain, “Okay, go to this website. It’s called” And she got out her pencil, and she got out her pad, and she’s like, “Okay, I’m going to write this down. This sounds really useful. What’s the URL?” And I’m like, “” And she’s like, “Okay, V-E-T.” And I was like, “No! No, not, I don’t even know what that is. It could be a porn site. Don’t go to I’m a government employee. Did that not … ” Okay.

And I realized, as much as you can optimize and create momentum, which is another one of our core values, it’s really, really nice if you’re on that critical path where all veterans are going, And so as a result of being engaged with Veteran’s Affairs for years, as a result of talking to veterans, thousands of them; combat veterans in Oklahoma, all across the country, we had the opportunity to work with the VA and a fantastic set of contractors to help build out the new

Previously, the VA homepage was about the structure of the VA. Now, it’s about veterans. That’s the most important thing. Yeah!

And so if you look at the top 20 tasks that veterans want to do, they’re all there on the homepage. It makes a huge difference to not have to navigate … “All right, I need records. I don’t know which organization provides these records. Maybe I can just use some plain language kind of thing to find out where I should be.” So it’s the result of years of work. It’s the result of a lot of strategy. And the fantastic thing is that veterans love it. It really helps them get the services that they need.

The interesting thing, though, is we’ve had those kinds of engagements; all the way from firefighting to the sort of time where you’ve been able to develop stuff the way that it should be developed. But a lot of people say, “That’s great, but those are individual projects. How do you have more scale? How do you have an impact across the entire federal government?” And so one of the things that we’ve been working on is procurement. That is the secret about how to make things better in government, is if you can fix procurement.

And so a lot of folks might’ve had the chance to hear Tracy Walker talk about what we call the digital IT acquisition professional, DITAP. Everything has to have an acronym in government. But at least DITAP is pretty good. MIDAS is an acronym that exists in literally every government agency, but it’s always a different system. So DITAP will have trained 250 different acquisition professionals, contracting officers, to be able to write better contracts so that we’re less likely to have $100 million boondoggles whenever we’re trying to buy technology. It’s a contracting officer who helps you write the sort of contract that lets you do the first bug bounty in the federal government, hack the Pentagon. So that is one area where you can have a lot more impact and scale.

Something that we’ve also been looking at over the last year is fixing hiring. Does everybody have problems with hiring in their government entity? Is that … No? None? Everybody’s good? Okay, great. We have seen a lot of technologists, whether they be designers or product manager or engineers come in, and just run into a ton of paper cuts, including in the hiring process. So it turns out, in the government, there’s this myth that if somebody submits a resume that is 104 pages long, you have to read the whole resume. So we actually got this HR-delegated examiners HR bible. It’s basically like, “This is the canonical thing that you are allowed to say.” And you can say, “We are going to stop reading after two pages.” Huge difference for people who don’t want to read 100 pages of resume from every single candidate.

Something that we do whenever we hire in the U.S. Digital Service is we also say, “Look, let’s get the subject matter experts to review the resumes.” That’s not always the case in government. Sometimes, you have human resources folks who are not really completely familiar with the job, looking first to say whether somebody’s qualified. So we’re trying to bring some of those practices to say, “You know what? Let’s have the resume reviewed by the right person. Let’s have interviews happen with subject matter experts.” And as a result, you can get a higher quality of candidate and make things work a little bit better.

We have a saying, our Director of Design likes to say that, “You are somebody else’s impostor syndrome.” It is definitely the case that we don’t know how to make all of this work. Right? This is a new territory, as far as technology goes. None of us figure out exactly how to do it, but we figure out how to do it better by talking to each other, sharing our learnings, sometimes crying on each other’s shoulders, and also just coming to convenings like this. Because as our former Director of Engineering, Amanda Miklik, used to say, “This is a weird job. It’s really strange.” And so it’s also incredibly exciting to see the kinds of things happening not just at the U.S. Digital Service; there’s so much going on. Think about 18F. They are also celebrating their fifth anniversary this year. The Technology Transformation Service has done things like the U.S. web design system, that makes it easier to build webpages. We have a shared project called, that makes it easier to have a single sign-on. So if you apply for a job with the federal government, you are using that system that we built together with the Technology Transformation Service.

There’s a group called Tech Congress that’s trying to bring technical people into Congress, which we need a little bit more of! Yeah, get a what-what for that. There’s a group called Coding it Forward that’s trying to bring college students in so that they can participate in internships in the federal government. Yes! Let’s get folk hooked on that early. And that’s just at the federal level. We’ve had the Canadian Digital Service. There’s states; there’s so many states that are starting to build up this capacity. It’s happening at the municipal level, at the county level, at the city level. I got to meet the Recorder of Deeds for the city of St. Louis yesterday. All of these folks are waking up. And they’re showing up, and they are here, and it’s incredible.

I just want to take one minute to talk about the, “You are somebody else’s imposter syndrome.” I do something called 30-day challenges, where I’ll try something new for 30 days. And at one point, I decided to try a six-month challenge. I said, “Let’s run a marathon.” And I met some friends, and we got hooked. And we have been continuing to run marathons. In fact, at one point, we decided to do a triathlon. So I ran in this triathlon, and I am the world’s slowest runner. And I’m also the world’s slowest swimmer and the world’s slowest biker. So I ran in this triathlon, and I was 109 out of 111. I’m not kidding about being slow. Yes!

And I was feeling a little bit bad about that. I’m like, “There was one 80-year-old guy who just smoked me. He just went right by me.” Right? But the fact is, I was talking to a friend, and they said, “You know what? You still beat everybody who stayed on the couch that morning.” So for all of the people here today, for all of the people watching on the livestream, thank you so much for being here. You are the people who are showing up, who are doing the work, and most importantly, you are modeling for the next generation of people who are going to come and make things even better for people.

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