There’s a start-up in the White House basement and its mission is to “disrupt” government

Techies, for the people.
Techies, for the people.
Image: Bret Hartman / TED
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There’s an 18-month-old start-up in the White House’s basement, and it has a herculean mission: Untangle, rewire and redesign the government.

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Once known as “Obama’s stealth start-up,” the US Digital Service (USDS), is staffed by some of the country’s best designers, engineers, and product managers. Many are employees of tech giants like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter, who sign up for “short term tours of duty” to help fix government systems and services. Their tasks include finding ways to giving veterans quicker access to benefits, smoothing out the process for immigrants to apply for a replacement green card, and simplifying student loan paperwork.

Speaking at TED yesterday, Feb. 16, co-founder Haley Van Dyck joked, ”We’re like the Peace Corps for nerds.”

USDS emerged from the “spectacular and well-documented failure” of the Obama administration’s early health insurance portal In 2014, Van Dyck’s co-founder Mikey Dickerson, who is now the administrator of the USDS, spearheaded emergency efforts to repair the website. That rescue team of developers became USDS, as well as another public-facing government agency called 18F, as The Atlantic reports. There are now about 200 staffers total in both agencies and the government says that they plan to expand the agencies to 500 by the end of the year. More than half the volunteers happen to be women.

Van Dyck, who worked on president Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign app for iPhone, makes a strong case for bringing more start-up savvy into Washington: The US government currently spends $86 billion annually on federal IT projects, she says, but 94% of those projects are over budget or behind schedule, and 40% end up abandoned.

With many titans of the tech industry seated in the front rows of her audience, Van Dyck underscored the disparity in the US innovation landscape. While much of the world’s most revolutionary technology is produced in Silicon Valley, antiquated systems still run Washington, DC. “On my first day in DC [in 2014], they handed me a laptop that was running Windows 98. Three presidential elections have gone by since the government updated the operating system on my computer,” she said. “We realized that this problem was a whole lot bigger that we imagined.”

The USDS is also creating pathways for tech talents and entrepreneurs to come to the nation’s capital and partner with civil servants “to disrupt” government. ”We are essentially trying to make a more awesome government for the people, by the people, today,” Van Dyck said.

The USDS has already pulled some early victories. A six-person USDS unit has also helped create an online platform to replace the United States’ once-onerous paper-based immigration application process. Before they stepped in, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service had already spent $1.2 billion over 6 years to develop an online portal that never launched.

Last year, the USDS released a web design style guide to help government agencies fix hard-to-navigate websites.