On January 18, 2022, the Biden administration launched COVIDTest.gov, the at-home test ordering service. The website was a single web page with sparse hyperlinks to the CDC’s website for information on COVID-19, and a single “order” link directed users to the USPS website to place their test kit order. The website was simple but effective and launched a day early. The site’s simplicity and smooth launch led to the success of COVIDTEST.gov, but it is imperative to review both the failures and successes of the federal government’s attempt to recalibrate its digital operations.
Healthcare.gov – What does the federal government know about launching a website?
The federal government started on October 1, 2013 Healthcare.gov, the federal online healthcare marketplace affiliated with the landmark Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) of 2010. The site immediately buckled under pressure, slowed down, and crashed for many users. Several of the new ones State Health Exchanges, which was launched on the same day, also stuttered. Healthcare.gov and the other state exchanges were technology projects overseen by the federal government and built by a team of technology contractors. Although officials initially downplayed the reports, citing high levels of interest in the marketplaces as a positive sign, it soon became clear that the sites had serious structural problems. A Government Accountability Office 2015 Report found many gaps in the management, oversight, and review processes of the Office of Management and Budget, Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services.
Several problems were identified at the moment of the crisis and its aftermath: Years of outsourcing of technological requirements had meant that the federal government could not avert or solve a crisis and lacked the expertise to proactively promote technological innovations. As a result, the Healthcare.gov crisis marked a major turning point in the relationship between technology and government. Technological capacities could no longer be outsourced and technology could no longer be just a tool to achieve political goals; both would now be integral parts of the federal government.
Responding to crises – Jump-starting technological innovation in government
That Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) was established in 2012 to attract top innovators to government before the Healthcare.gov crisis and later extended to 2017 after the crisis TALENT Actwhich solidified the federal government’s commitment to the development of a technically advanced government.
PIF’s model is a 12-month program that places grantees in a federal agency to address challenges faced by the agency. Previous PIF projects have involved working with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Implementing “smart government” technologies to increase the efficiency, responsiveness and success of government economic development in partner countries, setting up advanced data analytics to support the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) achieve their strategic goals and improve technology in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to improve service delivery and veteran experience. Through 2020, PIF had 62 grantees working with 25 federal agency partners. PIF represents a major shift in creating technological innovation within government rather than just commissioning technical expertise for individual projects and hoping innovation will occur.
The Healthcare.gov crisis of 2013 created insights into the state of digital services and the urgency to replicate the approach used in Healthcare.gov’s fixation with other critical government services. Two new teams were formed: 18F and the United States Digital Service (USDS) – similar in their expertise and approach, but different in their structure and operations. A group of PIFs worked with GSA officials to launch 18F in March 2014. 18F is the equivalent of an internal technology consultancy for the federal government, contracting with agencies and departments to fix technical problems, develop products, and improve how government serves the public through technology. 18F has worked with the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service digitize its approval process for public activities and worked with the US Treasury Department develop data standards that would be used in the implementation of the new Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA). Additionally, 18F serves a key role in the government’s tech-to-government pipeline, leveraging its technical expertise and position in the GSA to assist government entities with acquisition processes.
USDS was officially launched on August 11, 2014 with some founding employees who first worked behind the scenes to turn the Healthcare.gov project on its head and others who started before Healthcare.gov to increase the technological capabilities in the Obama administration to enhance. USDS describes itself as a diverse group of technologists working across the federal government to transform critical services. USDS works on a Tour of the service model similar to other programs, and staff opt for annual or biennial tours. Unlike PIF and 18F, USDS Receives Congressional Funding Rather than relying on revenue from interagency service agreements, USDS can launch projects quickly and adapt on the fly to changing specifications. One of USDS’ first projects was a Working with 18F and several federal departments to create the College Scorecard, which allowed prospective college students to compare colleges across multiple metrics, including student population, graduation rate, and student outcomes after graduation. Some of their greatest and most enduring achievements can be seen below HHS, VA and DoD. The achievements of the PIF, 18F, and USDS forever changed the technology capabilities and operations of government—from multifaceted projects like Healthcare.gov to projects like COVIDTest.gov and the College Scorecard, which helps students find the right college or the to find the right university.
Assessing the Promise – Tech-Forward Government in 2022 and Beyond
PIF, 18F and USDS have greatly enhanced the US government’s technological capabilities and manpower. 2016, Technology Transformation Services (TTS) under the General Services Administration (GSA) was created as the new home for 18F, PIF and the Office of Products and Programs (OPP). Rather than resting on these advances, the Trump and Biden administrations have pushed for more technological approaches. For example, in August 2021, the Biden administration founded the US Digital Corps, a new program under TTS. Instead of attracting mid- to late-career technologists, the US Digital Corps wants to offer a two-year fellowship to young technologists to work in government in hopes of attracting more young technologists into public service.
Each successive attempt to push government in a technologically advanced direction has led the federal government to the success of COVIDTest.gov, where government technology can ensure a core government function is being performed. PIF planted the seed for technological change, and the Healthcare.gov crisis provided additional impetus to scale up these efforts. New agencies such as 18F and USDS were formed to ensure profound and lasting changes in the federal government’s technical expertise and project execution. Other efforts, such as the US Digital Corps, have tried to attract younger technologists to government. The U.S. government has made significant progress in 10 years, but more progress is needed to close nascent skills gaps, build long-term capabilities in new areas such as data science and AI, and ensure new initiatives and programs converge into a cohesive government-wide effort and no silos of expertise.