On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Matt Cutts, the acting administrator of the U.S. Digital Service, talks about how his team is trying to modernize government agencies and make services like Medicare and veterans’ benefits more user-friendly.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor at large at Recode. You may know me as the person who does tech support for Donald Trump, but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media podcast network.
Today in the red chair is Matt Cutts, the acting administrator of the U.S. Digital Service. He’s part of the executive branch that describes itself as the tech startup working to deliver better services to the American people. Matt previously worked at Google for 17 years, where I knew him, where he led the team that fought against spam. Matt, welcome to Recode Decode.
Matt Cutts: Thank you so much for having me.
So you need to clear some things up. I just was talking to you before this. I want to understand what “acting” means and where we are, because you came to ... Explain your history. First you were at Google and then we’ll get into that, so ...
Sure. I was at Google for a long time and then June of ...
So 17 years, you got there right at the start.
A month short of 17 years. I got the job offer in 1999, started January of 2000. And it was really interesting to see a bunch of people become departments, which is sort of unusual to see a startup grow that way.
Right. Where had you been before that?
I was actually in grad school before that, working on my PhD. In fact, wrote them and I was ... I wrote to Google, like jobs @ Google, and I was like, “How much do you all pay?”
Yeah, and they were like, “Well, we don’t discuss that unless you’re a job candidate.” I’m like, “Oh, okay,” and I went back to my PhD. And like three or four days later, they wrote and they’re like, “Well, would you like to be a job candidate?”
Yeah. It was small enough they still cared about, you know, each individual person.
Anyone that wrote, pretty much.
That’s right. So it’s been a long time as head of Google’s web spam team, so trying to protect Google’s search results.
And why did you start with that? That was what your PhD was on?
No. My PhD was computer graphics-related stuff, but got started in that because I wrote Safe Search, which is the first version of Google’s family filter. So I had been at Google for about two or three months and somebody — my manager, actually — walked up to my cubicle and said, “Hey Matt, how do you feel about pornography?” I was like, “Well that depends. Why do you want to know?” And she said, “We need to sell a family-safe version of Google.”
And so the first project I worked on was really that. And it was because I had worked on Safe Search that I saw a spammer who was able to rank highly for a search they weren’t able to rank. So for years at Google, it was a little bit lonely to say, “Hey, Larry, Sergey, it’s possible to spam Google,” because back then, people didn’t really think that was even possible.
So the work on Family Filter and Safe Search led to being head of Google’s web spam team.
So explain what that was, head of ... Because it’s an enormous job.
It is, just because Google gets billions of queries a day. So the beauty of it is you had this fantastic team of engineers, and also people who could manually remove spam from Google search results, and so you’d have a new monthly index, because at that point Google only updated once a month, you’d scrub it as clean as you could, and then you’d put it out for the world to see and you’d see what they complained about. And so coming up with the algorithms ...
Explain what scrubbing means so people can ...
Oh, so you know, for example, you might run a bunch of queries before the rest of the world could see it and say, “Okay, who are the sites that don’t seem to be good actors in this?” Are they getting spammy back links, are they signing guest books, all this kind of stuff. And so trying to find the techniques that the bad guys, the black hats, would use to rank highly, get ahead of that.
And it’s pretty interesting, if you look at on LinkedIn, the category search engine optimization has something like two million people that list that, SEO, as a skill. But search engine optimization was not really a well-known thing back then. So our team of engineers and spam-fighters just tried to keep people who were cheating from ranking highly.
And the reason being is it creates a crappy results.
That’s exactly right. We trusted our editorial judgment and editorial, you know ... You could argue about how to define that better than someone who’d just figured out how to cheat. They shouldn’t rank highly.
Right, absolutely. And it also ruined the experience of Google, because the whole ... It should be results that you were getting for the results you wanted, essentially.
Right. If you type in “prostate cancer” and you got, you know, pornography or you got debt consolidation, you would stop using that search engine. So it was a competitive advantage to be able to reduce spam.
Right, which people don’t realize. It was fascinating that you got the result you got. It was such a simple idea, but it was difficult to do. So you ran this spam team for those 17 years, for the entire 17 years? No?
I started it ... Well, I actually spent a year in the ads group, but started in quality in Google in about 2001, and started the spam group up about 2004 and ran it until I stepped away and took a leave of absence in about 2015 or so.
Right. And so how did you get to the U.S. Digital Service? So this was to do this?
Well, it’s kind of funny. My wife had said, “Why don’t we do four or five years in California with this crazy Google thing?” and I was like, “Okay, that sounds good.” And then after 15 years or so, she was like, “Wait a second. Weren’t we gonna have some fun?” So I said, “You know, you’re right. You were very nice to be willing to move to California. Why don’t we go anywhere you want to go next?” And I thought she might say New York or Seattle or London, and she said Omaha, Nebraska, because that’s where her family lives, because they’re Air Force.
So we spent about a year in Omaha, Nebraska, and after a year of Omaha summers and winters, I was like, “You know what? I’m gonna try this thing in D.C. for a few months.” So I signed up for a three-month tour and that was almost exactly two years ago.
Right. And so the tour was to do what? Explain the tours. It’s tech people come to government ... And this is during the Obama administration, correct?
I started during the Obama administration. But the idea that the U.S. Digital Service does is people come for a limited tour of duty; you know, six months, a year, up to two years, and then you can renew for up to two more years. But the idea is, you want to get people who are fresh out of industry, they really understand industry best practices, and then you don’t want them to go and get their incentives misaligned or to situate themselves in government forever. So the idea is they come, they work as hard as they can, they push things forward as much as they can, and then they rotate out and they hand the baton on to somebody else. And it’s a system that’s worked very well.
I know it started ... Give the background of how ...
Sure. The famous beginnings for the U.S. Digital Service was healthcare.gov. So everybody remembers when that website fell over, caught on fire, shrapnel went everywhere. And some of the things that helped were SRE, site reliability engineering, practices that were widespread in industry; things like how do you monitor that your website is up, how do you do cause analysis? And so the process of doing that and iterating on that. And by the way, that was before my time.
That was a Googler who came in.
Mikey Dickerson and a whole bunch of other really dedicated people. But the fact that they were able to get that website back up really kinda demonstrated that you might have a signature policy proposal, but unless you had ...
People who are working on it currently. Absolutely.
That’s exactly right.
It was so interesting. I was on one of those talk shows, I think it was this morning, whatever, the weekly ... The Sunday one. And I said, “You know, it’s really astonishing that that didn’t work. I mean, Tinder works, does matches every day, millions of matches ... More than millions, tens of millions of matches every day.” And they said, “Are you comparing the government to Tinder?” And I go, “No, Tinder works and they know how to run a scalable site.” I said, “It’s not unlike ... It’s a matching system.” So it’s, you know ... I mean, I’m not as technical, but I’m like, “I’m pretty certain Tinder works and the government doesn’t, so I’m going with Tinder to run healthcare.gov.”
Well, and it’s super interesting that you ... I will say, there are a ton of really dedicated civil servants who are ready to do the right thing and are not always able to do it for various reasons. But bringing in some of these industry best practices, user-centered design, technology, really can make a difference in turning around some systems.
Absolutely. And so what were you working on first?
I got a call ... I started at the Pentagon for six months and I got a call from Chris Lynch, who’s the head of the Defense Digital Service, and he said, “Hey Matt.”
And they’ve been fast-forward on a lot of this stuff, the Defense Department in particular.
Yeah. They’ve been doing some great stuff.
Among the different cabinets.
Absolutely. And the chain of command is also good because if the secretary says we’re doing this, everybody falls in line immediately.
But Chris Lynch called me and he said, “Hey Matt, if you start a week early, we’re going out to Afghanistan. Would you like to join us?” And I walked out of the study in Omaha, where I was, to where my wife was in the living room, and I said, “Let me say that back to you. If I start one week early, I can go to Afghanistan?” And my wife was like immediate thumbs up, you know, ready to go for it.
So I started looking at the kinds of things that soldiers are running into down range, the sorts of real problems that they have. And the team at the Defense Digital Service does everything from flying in to bases outside of St. Louis, Missouri, to revive databases to trying to help service members and their families whenever they’re moving across the country. So there’s a wide variety of technical problems that need to be solved.
Right, absolutely. And you did that for a short ... For how long of a stint?
So it was coming up on December of 2016, and after the election happened, they said, “The administrator of the U.S. Digital Service is currently a presidential appointee position.” And so they said, “Mikey Dickerson” — the first administrator — “needs to resign on Inauguration Day, so we need someone who will keep the U.S. Digital Service running and performing good work.” And so they asked if I would be the director of engineering, who would then be next in line to take over after Mikey resigned.
Mm-hmm. And so now you’re acting; why are you “acting” administrator?
I’m acting because I have not been presidentially appointed.
And why not? You’re gonna try really hard not to answer too many political questions, but I don’t understand why that hasn’t been appointed. It’s two years later.
Well, from my point of view, we’re getting good work done so I’m really not that concerned about it. I’m happy to add “acting” in front of the title because, as long as good things are happening, that’s all that really matters.
All right, we’re gonna go into that, but I want to understand ... So you’re the acting administrator of the Digital Service. I want to understand how many people are involved in the program that is ongoing; it’s ongoing since the Obama administration. It hasn’t been impacted. There’s the same numbers and things like that.
That’s right. So we’re 175 people, which is about the same size that we were right towards the end of 2016.
All right. And they’re all scattered throughout the government, right? In every agency or ...
Not every agency. So the way that we work is we’re about half and half between ...
You’re like a SWAT team more than anything.
A little bit of a SWAT team, but also sticking around to not just put out fires but also help improve the fire code, in some cases.
So about half of us are in the Office of Management and Budget, which is in the executive office of the president, and about half are hired directly into agencies: Veterans’ Affairs, Department of Defense, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services. So we are in about six or seven different agencies, and then we also do shorter-term engagements.
All right, and everybody is in the midst of their difference things? They didn’t move necessarily; they keep getting renewed, correct, into the U.S. Digital Service?
Yeah. In fact, we’ve had over a hundred people start since the election. So over half of the people in the U.S. Digital Service have started after the election.
After the election. How do you recruit them? Because I’d imagine it is a more difficult task in this administration. Or not at all?
Well, we recruit them ... Just reminding everybody we’re here to help the American people, and that’s about the mission and the purpose and the impact that people can have. So what we see over and over again is we’ll ask somebody to come out for three, four, six months and they’ll end up staying for a year, a year and a half or two years because once you see the kinds of projects that you can work on, you’re like, “Okay, that’s more impactful than a dog-walking startup or a laundry startup.” So people tend to stay.
And your job is to recruit them into it, correct? You have more people trying to get in than you ... Because a lot of people felt like, when the administration shifted from Obama to Trump, that the Silicon Valley people wouldn’t want to come in.
It has always been a hard sell to get people to move across the country.
Because it’s largely from California, right? Or is it from across the country?
We have put a lot of work into trying to recruit from ...
From elsewhere. So for example, our next big round table is in Michigan and we’re going to Phoenix next week. So, you know, moving across the country, taking a drug test, possibly taking a pay cut if you’re a high-paid software engineer.
And also all the different filings.
Yeah, you have to do a lot of paperwork to join. This is all true. But once you get onboard, you’re able to help like doctors, and improve Medicare and make it more robust, and so that is a really rewarding thing to work on.
So now is it going to grow further than 175 or is it just in the budget ... It’s protected now?
We are really ... We have historically not been constrained by budget. We have been constrained by finding people who we can get in, who meet our hiring bar, who are highly qualified, who then can move to D.C. and tackle interesting problems.
And who do you report to? You report to who?
I report to Margaret Weichert, who’s the deputy director for management of the Office of Management and Budget.
I see. So you’re within that thing. But how ... Explain the difference, because a lot of people usually look to the CTO or the chief science officer. How do you interface with them? Because they’re also doing various initiatives.
Absolutely. So there’s ...
Let me just be clear, there isn’t one of either right now for two years. I’m sorry, I’m gonna ... You don’t have to insult the Trump administration, but the fact that they don’t have a chief science officer alone ... They should have one. CTO, that’s up to them because that was a new thing that the Obama administration did, but chief science officer to me seems critical.
Well, I’m a big fan of technology.
I’ve seen the ability ... My dad was a physics professor.
I like science. You can say that.
Science is cool.
That shouldn’t be a controversial thing to say.
Well, it is interesting. So there’s the Office of Science and Technology policy, which helped create the U.S. Digital Service.
It did, that’s why.
And has been a fantastic organization. But we are really within the Office of Management and Budget, so we’re a separate group. There are lots of different groups; there is one group called 18F ...
So 18F sits in the General Services Administration. They’re slightly different because they tend to be ... So 18F is ...
They are similar. 18F typically doesn’t require people to move to D.C. and they’re also cost recoverable. So for example, if a system goes down, U.S. Digital Service can fly in the next day to try to help get that system up. Sometimes it might take a little longer to do an inter-agency agreement or memorandum of understanding, that sort of thing. So there’s lots of different ways to serve the government right now and serve the American people through government.
So there’s that organization. What else would be ...
In addition to 18F, there’s the Technology Transformation Services. So that’s sort of a broader umbrella within the General Services Administration. There’s also the Presidential Innovation Fellows, or PIFs, so that’s more like a single person parachutes in and tackles a hard problem. And we’ve even seen ... There’s sort of a fellowship called Coding It Forward, which is ... Some people have joked that it’s like USTS Junior, which is people who are often, you know, in college or earlier in their career, and they’ll come in and do an internship as well.
And who in this administration is pushing this stuff? It’s Jared Kushner, correct, initially?
There is a lot of stuff happening with the Office of American Innovation and I think one of the interesting things in ...
Chris Liddell had led that, but now he’s deputy chief of staff.
That’s right, that’s right. Although he’s ...
He’s from Microsoft.
That’s right. And Chris still keeps an eye and talks regularly to people like the Federal CIO, Suzette Kent, who has fantastic instincts and has also been leaning in to change policy.
So the Office of American Innovation was sort of an umbrella group that brought together a lot of these different folks, although all of the efforts of each of these folks also continues independently.
And do you ... So you coordinate with just the Office of Management and Budget, correct?
That’s primarily where we sit, but we do have that dotted line with the White House if we need it in order to like, you know, urge someone to do something. But we have found that, while in the first years of the U.S. Digital Service the story was about trying to establish the group, one thing that we found is if we can be better partners and collaborators ...
Mm-hmm, with these agencies.
With the agencies. The longer we’ve been at agencies, in general the more need we see from those agencies and the more trust and credibility and willingness to work together.
All right, we’re gonna talk about that more with Matt Cutts. He’s the acting administrator of the U.S. Digital Service; yes people, there are still geeks in government, no matter what. And when we’re back, we’re gonna talk about what that means, of cooperating with the cabinet and what’s needed.
We’re here with Matt Cutts. He’s the acting administrator of the U.S. Digital Service. It’s a branch of government that is essentially the Geek Squad, right? Is that how you look at it?
Talk about that. Initially, it was started in the Obama administration. It has a 175 people spread throughout government and within the Office of Management and Budget. Explain what they’re doing, how you think about what they’re doing, because you talked about them getting people used to it. Each of these agencies also have their own technical staffs.
Most of them not very great. Not the people, but like slow to change in terms of ...
There’s great people in every branch of government and every agency.
Technical people. I’m talking about technical.
Well, and you do see technical people, but sometimes they might not be situated or empowered in order to be able to ...
“At the table,” it’s called.
They’re not at the table. They’re an afterthought.
The U.S. General Services does a wide spectrum of projects. Everything from a system has gone down, like the OPM breach that happened a few years ago, or a Visa processing system at the State Department or a database that helps people sign up for boot camp. We do do those fire fighting things, but we also do longer-term engagement.
For example, if you’re a veteran and you want to access your health care benefits, it can be really tricky to navigate over 500 different websites, over a thousand different toll-free numbers.
We made a website, it’s called vets.gov. It’s a single, one-stop shop where you can discover, apply, track and manage your benefits, everything from short-term engagements to ...
What happened to all the other sites? Just went away?
We have been actually working with a lot of those sites. We’re looking at whether it might be possible to merge some of the goodness from vets.gov onto VA.gov so it’s more broadly available, because that’s the first thing that everybody thinks of.
I was just searching for a social security thing. It was impossible. No answers. A lot of words.
Yeah. The amount of confusion and also bringing user-centered design and also plain language is a huge difference. Because it’s not just technology. Design makes a really big difference.
And making systems more usable and more understandable.
For example, VA, go ahead. Keep going with that.
Sure. I’ll give you one quick example. One is, if you were ... Suppose a veteran is trying to get her health care benefits. It turned out you need to have the right version of Internet Explorer, and it had to be Internet Explorer, and you had to have the right version of Adobe Acrobat. If you had the wrong version, it would say, “Sorry, you need to upgrade your version of Adobe Acrobat.”
Which is always my favorite.
Which is always your favorite thing to do, except, you actually needed to downgrade your version of Adobe Acrobat. As a result, only 8 percent of veterans were able to apply for health care online. When they filled out the paper version of that form, the average wait time is 137 days.
We deployed what I like to joke is a crazy revolutionary world-changing technology that we call a web form. It’s responsive, so it works on mobile phones. It’s accessible, so it works with screen readers. Fifty percent of veterans using this online form get their information, their yes-or-no verdict, back within 10 minutes. 137 days to 10 minutes. Just by putting up a web form. There’s lots of examples like that.
Everything from introducing bug bounties into the Pentagon to one really good change we had that launched last week, which is a policy change about continuous glucose monitoring. Just all kinds of things.
Mm-hmm. When you think about doing this, what’s the pushback from the government itself? Only because it’s an astonishing array of bad websites, bad accessibility ... I don’t joke, when Tinder works. Most people have very easy experiences with their consumer apps, and they’re easy to use. Most people can use them. You don’t need a level of tech education to be able to use Facebook or Instagram or anything. Any of these consumer things.
I know it’s such an easy comparison, but it’s not. If you’re able to use all these things easily, you should be able to use government services easily. What are the problems in getting these cabinets to make these changes? Or these agencies, I guess.
Yeah. It’s interesting, because if you take a look at the secretary of the VA versus maybe a nurse at a VA facility, there can be up to 17 layers between that nurse and the secretary.
On one hand, it’s very hard for information to make its way up. One thing we can do is we can go and talk to that nurse or talk to that soldier, and then be talking to the secretary of VA or Defense the next day. One superpower is just the ability to find the truth and tell the truth, is what we call it.
But it’s also interesting because sometimes just inertia comes into play. There are fantastic, dedicated, passionate civil servants who might not be able to get the right thing done because they just face a lot of different kinds of adversity. Coming in, hopefully with air cover, and being able to say, “Here is an independent view and here’s why,” this person who already was situated at an agency and had a great idea, should be empowered to make sure that that idea moves forward.
Yes, it’s true that it is sometimes hard to get things done in government, but that’s not because there aren’t great people. It’s often just maybe something has been tried before and it didn’t quite work.
I joke that one of the roles of the U.S. General Services is to absorb risk. It’s to take things that look risky, and then by implementing them show them how this isn’t that risky. It’s been done in industry for years and years and years.
Yeah. I want to talk about more of the challenges, because one of the things that should’ve been digitized is the Government Services, long ago. Is it just government? What is the actual challenges you face? Is it individual agencies, or different? Talk about one that works well. Who’s super open to these kind of changes?
One of the things that’s been really interesting is the VA. They have actually been leaning in in a lot of ways to try to make changes. Yet, at the same time, there is a lot of accumulated history. One of the challenges you face in government is simply around risk.
Nobody wants to be the person who is responsible for a system going horribly wrong and then having to testify in front of Congress. There’s a lot of mechanisms to try and take that risk and disperse it, manage it. Try to say, “We did everything that we could.” Yet, at the same time, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you get to better solutions. It just means that there’s no one to point to when the system goes down.
I remember talking to Mickey Dickerson about healthcare.gov, and he said, “Look, I was happy to be the scapegoat, the person that everybody could point to and say, ‘Oh, it didn’t work,’ because what did I have to lose?”
He just came in and he said, “I suggest we do this, I suggest we do that,” and over time was able to help get the site working again, along with a great team of people and several contractors who were helping as well in a war room.
Having someone who comes in and says, “Okay, here’s the technical reason why you should do something, and we are willing to absorb the risk and we’re willing to say this is the right thing to do from a technical perspective.” That can sometimes avoid re-litigating a lot of battles and get you to a better place.
What are the areas that when someone goes in to do something, one of the things is identifying problems, not just be putting out fires. The bigger problems. How does a digital service person go in? When you’re not doing the fire, but this broke. “Fix my iPhone,” kind of thing.
Sure. We do a thing called a discovery sprint. We’ll get a designer or use a researcher, an engineer, a product manager, maybe a bureaucracy hacker.
That’s a thing?
Yeah. We now call them Stratops. But one of their goals is to help people get around and navigate through bureaucracy and figure out how to get through red tape. Over time, as we have done well at, say, the Department of Defense, we will have a two- or three-star general show up and say, “You know what? I would love for you to kick the tires on this payroll system.” Or, “I would love for you to tell me what’s going wrong with this ground control system so that we can talk to satellites and have it be robust and reliable.” We’ll do a discovery sprint. We’ll take a couple weeks, we’ll fly in, we’ll talk to as many of the stakeholders as we can, we’ll get as much true ...
A little like McKinsey, but not that much like McKinsey. But we’re also inside. We’re federal employees, and so we have no dog in the fight. We are offering an independent view. Then we’ll hand that up as a discovery sprint report.
For example, if you’re a farmer and you want to hire seasonal workers, there’s this type of visa called H-2A. We came in and said, “Is there a way to improve how this process works?” We handed off a report, and sometimes you can see entire projects get kicked off just on the basis of those reports that say, “Oh, here’s something that makes no sense whatsoever. Can this be changed?”
That’s really gratifying to see.
In terms of where the power has to come from, does it have to come from the agency heads? How do you impose yourselves on them?
We have found a couple things. One is that if there is an urgent need, so something is on fire, then usually everybody’s willing to clear out all the obstacles.
Clear out, yeah.
That really helps.
“Come in here and fix this.”
Other than that, building trust and credibility over time helps a lot. Taking things the slow way. Having air support, executive support at the agency level, is definitely helpful. We have in the past occasionally used White House support as well, to say, “You might not like these people who are going to show up, but please listen to them.”
We’re willing to use whatever tools we need to to make the right things happen.
Yeah. I’m going to talk about in the next section, the last section, about what the biggest problems are, but I want to make sure people understand how that works. When you go into these things, if you’re seen as temporary, how do the people that exist there in technology look at you? Because you’re coming in and telling them they’re stupid, really.
No, we’re not.
We have found it’s very helpful if we collaborate and try to act as partners. One of the first instincts that somebody might have is, “Oh, is this an auditor?” One of our core values is “create momentum.”
Rather than just write a report, we have occasionally said, “Okay, this military recruiting system is not working the way that you’re like it to. What if we just leave an engineer behind and he can work on trying to get this system to talk to that system?” That helps to differentiate ourselves.
Right. You’re fixing a problem.
That’s right. In general, the more that we can be helpful, the more that we can say, “Here’s a problem we’re trying to help you solve together,” so it’s not an adversarial thing, in general, that is when it becomes more productive. That’s when we’re able to get better results.
Right. When that happens, what’s a disaster scenario? Because one of the things I do — I have talked to a lot of people in the government — is the unwillingness to change, and then they can wait you out, kind of thing.
Yeah. They absolutely can. We have found, as we do longer-term engagements, that sort of concern drops away because people are like, “Well, these folks working on vets.gov, they’re not going anywhere. They’re going to see it through.” Those concerns drop away.
You occasionally see somebody who’s like, “Okay, well, I can just wait you out.” But for the most part, if you’re getting good work done and trying to make sure the credit goes to the agency and the employees where the ideas are coming from, we have found pretty good collaboration.
Now, it is always possible that somebody will just radically disagree with you. We’ve had a couple reports. One I can think of, just in the last week, where we said, “Here’s what we think the best approach is,” and the agency’s like, “Hm, thanks very much. But no thank you.”
We’ve got enough stuff to work on. We don’t feel like we have to ...
Why would they say no? They just don’t agree with your approach?
They might disagree with the approach or the technical assessment that we came up with. That’s fine. Reasonable people can disagree, and I’m sure there’s been many times when the ...
As you were at Google. People say, “We’re going to go this way or that way.”
Yeah. Absolutely. But that’s okay. Because we have a lot of projects that we need to work on. We’re happy to drop off a report, say, “We think that the way you’re doing it is wrong.” If we were wrong, in a couple years we will show up and buy you a drink and say, “Great job.” If in a couple years something is still going wrong, then we’re happy to show up then and see if we can help at that point.
All right. We’re here with Matt Cutts. He’s the acting administrator of U.S. Digital Service. When we get back, I want to talk about the intractable problems of making government digital. Because I think government should be completely digital, but that’s just me. When we get back.
We’re here with Matt Cutts. He’s the acting administrator of the U.S. Digital Service, which sounds sexier than it is.
It’s plenty sexy.
It’s plenty sexy. Okay.
If you want to make the world better.
Yes. I agree with you. Talk about the intractable problems facing our government in terms of that ... sometimes state governments have their own issues, their own technology issues. What would you say are the biggest issues to preventing the digitization? Because I think everything should be the way we do it. Almost everything should be digitized in a much more ... it’s astonishing how slow it is. Is it just because government’s slow?
What do you think are the biggest problems you face, including around security, around ... Go through the gamut of them for me.
Absolutely. It’s pretty interesting because you do see issues, for example, in security. Bug bounties have been around since 1995. Netscape invented them and used them first. The federal government had never done a bug bounty before the U.S. Digital Service brought them into the Pentagon in 2016.
Astonishing. Right. This is finding ... doing a program where you pay people to find bugs for you.
That’s right. That’s exactly right. So an external security researcher finds a bug. You pay them money, and they get money and you get more secure.
It’s such a basic ...
Yeah. It’s kind of table stakes.
“Break into my house.”
Right. Here’s what I find most funny. I was at a conference and somebody said, “Hey, Matt, what do you think the government’s policy on blockchains should be?” I said, “Honestly, if we could just get rid of the paper I would be extremely ecstatic.”
Because a large quantity of this stuff that we see is, for example, H-1b visas. Millions of pieces of paper are shipped to places which then does a lottery and then ships all that paper back to the people who lost in the lottery. If you could just start with a preregistration phase that was digital ...
Over and over and over again, we see veterans’ records being paper, we see people who wanna sign up for the military being paper, we see people who wanna be certified as small businesses, paper. And so, we’re kind of used to seeing these pictures of supervisors’ offices with like stacks and stacks up to the ceiling, which are applications ...
Which are unsearchable.
Which are unsearchable. And frankly, some people think that they can do better by scanning or faxing stuff in and having an electronic version of that, and the fact is that it needs to be digital native from the beginning. That’s how it’s searchable. That’s how you can really check for errors and all those sorts of things.
There is so much good work to be done, high-impact work that can help a regular person get access to the government’s services that they need to have if we can just have more people come to USDS.gov/join, and fill in an application and throw a resume in the pile, just to continue the conversation about whether it might make sense for them to try an adventure, a limited tour of duty within government to see if it works for them.
Right, right. Absolutely. So, okay, so paper ... what else?
Paper’s one. Policies can take a while to change because it’s important to ask for comments, and the public needs to comment.
For example, we tried a new approach at Health and Human Services. So, there was a law called MACRA, and normally you would write the policy for a year, open it up for public comment, and then take one round of comments and then finalize the policy.
And we said, “Okay, take that time and divide it into one-fifth, and write and draft policy quickly.” And then we helped them prototype what would be the implications of that? Well, what would change if this were the policy for doctors? And then we got feedback. And then we did that policy again and again and again. And they were able to do five iterations instead of one in a year. And we talked to a civil servant at Health and Human Services who said, “I never wanna go back to the old way again.”
Just the fact that you can make policies in a better place ... this is one of the best policies I’ve ever been involved with crafting. And it’s not even technology. That’s just trying to bring agile practices from industry into government.
Right. All right, so that. What else?
If there were ways to change the risk equation. It’s interesting, because there’s a lot of people who are not as interested in solving the problem so much as, “How do we deal with risk?”
Mitigate. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Right. You don’t wanna be in front of the Congressional Committee. You don’t wanna be the one that, you know, “Nobody got fired for not picking IBM.” That old joke.
Yeah, exactly. And just to add onto the pile, one other problem that immediately comes to mind is just the fact that a lot of small businesses — and even large businesses — don’t know how to participate in the federal contracting ecosystem. So, one of the things that we’ve been working on is how do you improve procurement?
Good luck with that.
No, actually we’ve had good results. I’ll tell you a quick story.
So, one is just getting more businesses to try to participate. You know, you can have a next generation of contractors who are agile and nimble and move quickly and are able to deliver results quickly. But then you also need to help contracting officers in the federal government write better contracts. So, we’ve actually trained up two different classes, two cohorts, called contracting officers about the right way to write so it’s not just time and materials, it’s things like ... we’ll do story points and we can do them in two-week cycles.
And then we ended up encoding that into digital service certification. So, starting in 2022, if you’re a contracting officer who works on a digital service project of more than $7 million, you will need to have this additional certification that makes it more likely that instead of $100 million boondoggles, you’ll actually write something where you could have a small system and iterate quickly and deliver something pretty fast.
Right. And so, procurement. What else?
Procurement, getting more people in the ecosystem, risk. A lot of people just aren’t paying attention to some of these problems. And so, there’s the phrase, “The software’s eating the world,” and yet, people have not gotten around to trying to target government. And it’s not just the federal government. There’s stuff at the state level. There’s stuff at the city level. You see a lot of great work by nonprofits like Code for America, but it is not necessarily on everybody’s radar that there’s a ton of great work to do left.
Is there a great state or city that’s doing an amazing job where you look at it? Because a lot of these things ... your victories are things I assume you wanna show them. “Look what we did over here at VA, oh, FDA over there.” Whoever the agency you’re targeting. They might be like, “Oh, I want some of this.”
Yeah, and we do find case studies work really well, especially mayors, and this is getting outside the U.S. Digital Service, but mayors and town managers are super willing to crib from other folks.
So it’s not ...
It’s called iterating.
Yeah, exactly. “You’ve seen a good idea.”
So, it’s not so much that one particular city leads everybody else, but it is interesting to see, you know, if Oakland is doing something really savvy a lot of other people are willing to copy that. And we also do see a little bit of a trend where some folks who help with U.S. Digital Service have helped to stand up things like the Massachusetts Digital Service, the California Digital Service. Wouldn’t it be great to have a Colorado Digital Service?
And so, you do see this sort of movement where more people are realizing there’s a lot of great work to do in civic things.
In civic things. But is there one group of people that you can think of where you thought, “Wow, that was an interesting shift?”
So, it is interesting in California, for example. There’s things about clearing your court record. If you did something that was illegal but is no longer illegal, people were thinking, “Oh, okay. You can clear your record.” They have started to make that a little bit easier with things like just send somebody a text, and say, “Yes or no, would you like us to clear your record for you?” And you text back a Y, and then somebody can be like, “Okay, we will take care of the rest of it from here,” because it’s mostly automatable. That’s pretty inspiring because somebody’s life can get that much better if they can get the record expunged so they can start to do really good work.
Right. Sure. Absolutely. So, I wanna finish talking about how it’s operating in a politicized ... has it changed a lot from a political point of view? Does it feel like you’re insulated from that? Because one of the key things is, you know, science shouldn’t be political but it has become. It just has. You know what I mean? Government shouldn’t be this political but everywhere you go things that were not this political are now political.
I will say, the mission and the purpose of the U.S. Digital Services is exactly the same as it was before. We’re trying to do the most good for the most people who need it the most. And what’s really interesting is that there’s so much work to do that trying to make these systems work better is a nonpartisan issue. We see support from ...
It should be. I’m just saying, you know, people coming from Silicon Valley, “Oh, you’re liberal.” Like it just feels like there’s not a thing that hasn’t been infected by politics at this point.
Well, I will tell you we are able to get great work done. I know somebody might look at the headlines and be like, “Oh, it might seem counterintuitive to me sitting in Mountain View or Palo Alto to think about moving to D.C.” What I can tell you is pound for pound, dollar for dollar, we are able to do incredibly impactful and inspiring projects where people hear about it, and it affects them. It affects their lives.
So, if anybody’s looking for meaning or purpose or to try to make the world a better place, I would actually argue the technology industry with things like #metoo ... a lot of people are taking a step back and saying, “I joined because I wanted to make the world a better place. Is this company really the best place for me?”
And I would argue the things that we’re working on at the U.S. Digital Service are completely nonpartisan and are really helping a ton of people. Like, think about Medicare. That is 55 million Americans. And a startup just isn’t gonna be able to have that impact, at least in the beginning.
In terms of making a difference.
So, what is your pitch? I wanna hear your ... what is your pitch, then, if you’re gonna do that? Because, again, Washington feels swampier than ever, feels like, “Oh, no way will I come to this.”
I will say, what we found works very well if we’re able to get people to know we’re still here. We are still working on projects that matter. And we’re hiring. And then we can sit down in front of somebody and go through the projects and talk about, “You know what? You probably haven’t heard about this really interesting success that’s going to mean that doctors get better care.”
And when people hear about the projects that we’re working on, and we have report to Congress we recently put out on USDS.gov. And when people see the kinds of things that they’re ... like becoming a U.S. citizen is faster and easier because we helped digitize the system, the form called the N400.
When people realize, “Oh, you know what? I do know a veteran. I do know somebody who recently had an encounter with Medicare. I do know somebody who’s a student.” So, if you type in any university ... Yale University. Spelman College. We worked on something called the college scorecard that gives people a better idea about whether this is a good college or university to go to. And completely unbeknownst to us, last week, a large consumer search engine picked that up. And so if you go to your favorite search engine and type in Yale University, you’ll get information that was collated and combined and processed by the U.S. Digital Service.
So, you don’t have to go to a big company. If you go to a big company, you’re one of 70,000 employees. If you’re on the U.S. Digital Service, you’re part of this dedicated team of 175 people who can really make a big difference.
And so, if people wanna do this, again, and you don’t think you need the chief executive talking about this because I don’t think they’ve talked about ... Obama was that kind of an ad for “Come to D.C.,” and he was friendly, so you don’t think you need that?
We have not ... so, it’s interesting. I sometimes go to companies ...
Does Trump at least know you exist? Maybe now.
I think the work that we do is so good ...
All right. He doesn’t even know. All right.
That I’d be happy for him to know.
Either way, I will say ...
He’s gonna call you and tell you to fix his Twitter or something.
No. I will say that going to talk to companies like Microsoft or Adobe ...
He’s good at Twitter, by the way. Yeah, he’s ignoring me.
Has been really gratifying, but the thing that we have found is grassroots. So, when individuals find out about the U.S. Digital Service, that’s where they know that they can have an impact. And so, I’d encourage anybody who — even if you think you might have three to six months to try something new — just check out USDS.gov.
What kind of people do you need? What are you doing about blockchain, Matt?
We’re not doing any blockchains for now.
You’re not even close to blockchain. You guys have just figured out web forms.
I will take web forms and I will take converting paper ...
You need to get on the blockchain train, my friend.
But we are looking for designers. We’re looking for engineers.
It’s gonna eliminate government.
We’re looking for product managers. Typically, people who are a little more experienced in their career. Someone who can sit down with a Cabinet Secretary and say, “Your system isn’t gonna launch the way you thought it was going to,” but can also put their hands on the keyboard and do a thing.
Mm-hmm. I’m not joking about blockchain. You need to get on that one. But do you feel like government’s at least on some of the trends that are critical?
You know, I’m less worried about machine learning. I am less worried about artificial intelligence or blockchain. I am more worried about a veteran who calls the VA every single day at 9 a.m. We talked to him. His name is Charles, and he said, “The phone lines open up at 8 a.m.” So he waits for the phone lines to clear out, over an hour. And then he calls at 9 a.m. to figure out where he is on waiting for his disability claim appeal. And all we did was implement a progress bar so that he knows where he stands out of 100,000-plus veterans.
And so, even though he knows he might have a two or two-and-a-half-year-plus wait, just knowing where you stand in that queue makes you feel heard, respected and valued.
100 percent. I have to say, just this week I was dealing with the government and I was just like ... the lack of responsiveness when I can go on and have a terrible time on United, and someone tweets me right back and fixes it. It’s really, it’s a change. Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you have a responsive thing on the Twitter?
You know, if anybody wants to use customer service on Twitter to improve the government, come talk to us.
You should ... that would be a great thing. Like, “Oh, hi. We got your tweet. We’d like to ... we could do your farm subsidy.”
Would we sort it by cloud score?
You could do all kinds of ... listen, I have gotten so many things solved through Twitter. It’s crazy.
It’s totally true, and I have as well. And there is so much headroom to improve things in government right now.
Yeah. Amazon could run things better but oh wait, that’s a political football.
That’s a different story.
Post Office, like, whatever. Anyway ... Amazon would get you your benefits like immediately. And also like with a jar of mayonnaise or something like that. Anyway Matt, this is really good and you’ve been a good sport. But I do think that there are ... our leaders do have to embrace this kinda stuff because all it does is get in the way of a veteran, or it gets in the way of a mother who needs her food ... you know, her different things. Or a single mother ... it just gets in the way of everybody who relies on government, and everybody does rely on government whether they think they do or not.
It’s true. And I will just say it’s been so gratifying to see support on both sides of the aisle, as well as from tech companies. So, we have the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella showed up a couple weeks ago and just did a fireside chat.
Oh, that’s great.
You know, so people understand that this is important around the world.
He’s a good guy. Yeah, yeah. Who would you like to have visit? I’ll make them do it.
Oh my goodness. You know, if I could ... so, my former employer only allows people to take six months off to go do a good deed. If they would give 12 months off, that would be fantastic.
I’ll talk to Sundar. All right, I’ll talk to Sundar about it. Sundar, I’m giving you a call about this thing. Anyway, thank you so much for coming on, Matt. It was great talking to you. Or actually, Matt, where can people go?
Oh, just USDS.gov and if they want to figure out how they can apply, it’s USDS.gov/join, and I promise you it’s super simple. It takes a minute and a half with your browser auto-complete, and all you need is a resume. And you don’t ... there’s no obligation. You can just talk to our recruiters. They will tell you whether it might be a good fit or not.
There’s no carrier pigeons or paper.
We’re relatively modern in that regard.
We are trying to make the federal government hiring process better as we can.
Excellent. All right, thanks Matt.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.