Piers Dillon-Scott


The 'US Digital Service,' the American Government's UX & Service Design department

Can the White House's new Service Design and UX agency, The U.S. Digital Service, change how Americans interact with their government?

In the past two weeks the Obama Administration has gone all in on service design and UX. The White House has poached one of Google’s brightest engineers, established the government’s first UX and service design department, and issued the country’s first service design ‘playbook’.

The reason for this flurry of activity was the failed launch and protracted fix of Obama’s Healthcare.gov site. The US government had spent $400 million dollars on the rollout of the site and related services, yet only about 1% of users managed to successfully register. The rollout was a catastrophe, (you know things have gone badly when Saturday Night Live is mocking your service’s user experience) so the Administration scrambled to gather a group of tech-industry experts.

Mikey Dickerson was one of those experts. At the time he was a Site-Reliability Engineer - he helped Google stay online - and thanks to him, and other experts from Oracle and RedHat, Healthcare.gov got back on its feet within six weeks.

But that’s only the preamble. This August Dickerson left Google to become the first administrator of the newly created U.S. Digital Service. With a modest budget of $3 million this year, this department has been tasked with cutting through the government’s red tape, so digital services can be delivered to citizens without fault.

According to the White House, “the Digital Service will be a small team made up of our country’s brightest digital talent that will work with agencies to remove barriers to exceptional service delivery and help remake the digital experience that people and businesses have with their government.”

Dickerson says his first task is to review how government services are currently provided by contractors, and then move towards a more agile approach with greater oversight. Speaking to The New York Times, Dickerson says,

“We’ll break that up by discouraging government contracts that are multibillion-dollar and take years to deliver. HealthCare.gov would have been difficult to roll out piecemeal, but if you, a contractor, have to deliver some smaller thing in four to six weeks while the system is being constructed, you’ll act differently.”

In the end, it’s about trust, “I’m hoping for the user’s experience of government to be different. It’s a part of developing modern technology services. People tend to trust places like Amazon because they show your order, they let you know about delivery times. Government should be able to do things like that.”

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Illustration: Patrick Cusack

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