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A New Way to Look at Government*

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Craig Donovan
May 31, 2016

About a decade ago, there was a movement to create a national academy for government along the lines of the military academies—the United States Public Service Academy. It was designed to attract the best and the brightest of each year’s high school graduates into government and offer a highly visible symbol of good government and governmental leadership. The idea was not supported by President Obama and remained just a vision.

magnifying-glass-189254_640As a public administration professor, it has been hard to offer the students of the past few decades an example of how and where they could become a part of the answer to today’s problems. While many young people do enter government service, government itself has failed time and again to understand and reach out to the millennials.

One success story however, is the United States Digital Service. The U.S. Digital Service was launched in August 2014 with a staff of about a dozen people. It is “made up of our country’s brightest digital talent,” forming a team that is “charged with removing barriers to exceptional government service delivery and remaking the digital experiences that citizens and businesses have with their government,” according to Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel.

Their first challenge was to take on the less than stellar launch of the healthcare.gov website. Working as a small team, the U.S. Digital Service was able to bring their Silicon Valley tech touch to a federal online experience. Since then, they have worked on redesigning the online tools veterans use to interact with Veterans Affairs (VA), from a simple and easy-to-navigate website to an improved benefits claims experience. Launched in November 2015, vets.gov uses plain language that is intuitive and easy to use. One of its most popular products is the GI Bill Comparison Tool, which helps veterans easily navigate their benefits. Meanwhile, over at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the U.S. Digital Service is working to modernize the immigration process and improve how people learn about, apply for and receive benefits. More than 1.1 million people have taken the new practice civics test online already and 88 percent have passed. You can take the test yourself.

Haley Van Dyck, deputy administrator of the U.S. Digital Service, recently took the stage in a TED talk that has been viewed nearly 275,000 times. The U.S. Digital Service is headed by Mickey Dickerson, one of the folks brought on to repair the health.gov site. Dickerson was a former site reliability manager for Google for nearly eight years. It is not only what they are doing but how they are approaching the government experience that is new and exciting. Each hyper-networked team is made up of about six members using a mixed skill set model including talents such as a programmer, a user interface specialist and a procurement expert. The U.S. Digital Service is looking to grow to a team of 500-600 members in 2016-2017. Not as flashy as the TED talk, Mollie Ruskin gives a more nuts and bolts look at the Service.

The key to all of this is a new way to look at government and how to bring it into the 21st century, an approach being pioneered and championed by a new generation. The next challenge is how to expand this all to the federal government and to our state and local governments in particular. After decades of a status quo built on minimizing risk and doing the same old thing, we have a huge opportunity to revolutionize our government and draw in the young people who are our future.


Author: Dr. Craig J. P. Donovan is an award-winning faculty member and BA/MPA Director at Kean University. A lifetime member of ASPA, Dr. Donovan has served on the ASPA National Council. He has written many pieces for the popular press and was the vice president for policy and research for the nonprofit Public Policy Center of New Jersey. He is currently the International President of Pi Alpha Alpha, the global honor society for public administration.

*This article was originally published on the ASPA National Weblog.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to A New Way to Look at Government*

  1. John Pearson Reply

    June 5, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    I see President Obama says this about the Digital Service:
    …what we realized was that we could potentially build a SWAT team, a world-class technology office inside of the government that was helping agencies.

    A White House SWAT team is definitely something new. I would stress that the federal government has literally thousands of computer systems and thousands of IT professionals and contract professionals. Many of them are millennials. I don’t think they would agree that they are doing the “same old thing.” Agency IT staffs are straining under their workloads and many systems could be better if more money were expended. IT development is very, very expensive. Some people are more productive than others in any field. That may be the case with the SWAT team members.

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