Happy birthday, USDS — a look back on 5 of the team’s defining moments

The White House's U.S. Digital Service celebrates its second birthday Thursday.

The White House’s U.S. Digital Service celebrates its second birthday Thursday. 

In that time, the team has grown from a tiny tech SWAT team built around the core groups of former private technologists who helped rebuild after its epic launch meltdown in 2013 to a 170-member-strong institution addressing some of the federal government’s biggest headaches involving digital technology. USDS had also launched smaller outposts at agencies across the government, like the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs, that are particularly flummoxed in delivering modern services and need a dedicated team to help lead a digital reinvention.  

While team has faced recent controversy around how USDS works with agency CIOs and questions whether it will be as effective after the transition to a new administration, the team has a laundry list of achievements to show for the last two years of work.


So, to celebrate USDS’ foray into its third year, we’ve compiled five of USDS’ biggest engagements and moments in the past two. 

The Digital Services Playbook

Released with USDS’ launch two years ago, the playbook serves as a governmentwide guide for agencies considering building or buying a new digital service. The playbook list 13 plays “drawn from successful practices from the private sector and government that, if followed together, will help government build effective digital services,” it explains. 

Since then, the Digital Services Playbook — along with its corresponding TechFAR handbook, which gives agencies a look at alternative types of acquisitions — has served as the gospel for digital teams across government, often cited as blueprint of how agencies should address their acquisitions and services developments to be more successful. 

[Read more: After, White House creates Digital Service team]


Hack the Pentagon

The only thing more impressive than the team’s ability to persuade DOD to allow a bug bounty called “Hack the Pentagon” is that it was the first of its kind in the federal government. Bug bounties are programs in which an organization, like a software company or in this case the Pentagon, pays independent cybersecurity researchers to find vulnerabilities on their systems. 

The Defense Digital Service team successfully operated a bug bounty engagement earlier this summer inviting 1,400 hackers to participate, 250 of whom found at least one vulnerability, though not all were eligible for a bounty because they were already reported or other reasons. In total, DOD remediated 138 vulnerabilities discovered by the white-hat hackers. And now DOD Secretary Ash Carter wants to make the model a fixture within the Pentagon.

“We’ve done more with this pilot than make our networks more secure for the short term,” Carter said during a June press conference. “We’ve built relationships of trust for the long term. We’ve provided a roadmap for other government departments and agencies to crowdsource their own security.”


[Read more: Pentagon expanding bug bounties after inaugural success]

Information and other resources for veterans to apply for their benefits are scattered across thousands of Department of Veterans Affairs websites. USDS partnered with the VA to launch last Veterans Day to consolidate those pages into one central portal. Though the project is still in development, the VA digital service team plans to continue rolling out new functions and features every week driven by customer feedback.

“Our process building will be one of constant refinement and improvement,” VA Secretary Bob McDonald said then. “Your feedback will guide and shape everything we do. That’s as it should be. This site isn’t about us — it’s about you.


Work on the Immigration Application Process

The Department of Homeland Security U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ digitization of its visa-granting process has been a costly and messy transformation, earning it a mention on the Government Accountability Office’s most recent biennial high-risk list. In particular, the agency’s five-year Electronic Immigration System project has run into all kinds of problems with its projected costs jumping by half-a-billion dollars since its launch.

USDS has since launched a team to join DHS and right the ship. In May 2015, USDS member Vivian Graubard explained how “[t]he scope of the project was too large and the timelines too long” and that “[i]t used a traditional waterfall methodology, which meant that the first product releases happened years after the project began; and the agency was heavily reliant on specific vendors. Years into the process, when the project was finally due to deliver results, it fell short of expectations.”   

Another USDS member Eric Hysen has since been appointed to lead a DHS digital service team and continue redeveloping ELIS. That team created MyUSCIS, a portal to streamline U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ offerings. And earlier this year, his team launched an online app, simplifying the process for the more than 700,000 people each year who choose to apply for American citizenship.

“While immigration reform is a deeply political issue, what shouldn’t be politically at all is that those … people deserve a system that is effective an efficient,” Hysen said then.


[Read more: DHS launching app for online citizenship]

College Scorecard

This tool, launched last September for the Education Department, allows students and families to look up data about colleges, including median and average debt rates, graduation rates, and salaries after graduating. USDS’ Lisa Gelobter led the tool’s design “with direct input from students, families, and their advisers to provide the clearest, most accessible, and reliable national data on college cost, graduation, debt, and post-college earnings.” 

On its first day, the site saw 500,000 visits and 1.2 million page views.

These are just a few of the memories USDS has made over the past two years. Learn more about the team’s projects in an impact report released this week by the White House. 

Billy Mitchell

Written by Billy Mitchell

Billy Mitchell is Senior Vice President and Executive Editor of Scoop News Group's editorial brands. He oversees operations, strategy and growth of SNG's award-winning tech publications, FedScoop, StateScoop, CyberScoop, EdScoop and DefenseScoop. After earning his degree at Virginia Tech and winning the school's Excellence in Print Journalism award, Billy received his master's degree from New York University in magazine writing.

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