There are many thousands of dedicated technologists devoted to making the Federal government work better – the vast majority of them at individual agencies with specific mission sets that require them to stick mostly to their agency’s knitting.
But embedded within the Federal enterprise, there are a few groups of innovators that have the mission of spreading throughout the government the leading edges of technology vision, and the specialized expertise and resources required for agencies to make dramatic progress. One that readily comes to mind is the U.S. Digital Service, and another is the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS) organization.
The TTS website puts is succinctly, saying that the organization “exists to design and deliver a digital government with and for the American people.” Within that simple mission statement lies a beehive of technology programs – 18F, IT Modernization Centers of Excellence, Presidential Innovation Fellowship, United States Digital Corps, and TTS Solutions – to help the Federal enterprise get to the next level.
What’s next at TTS? To help answer that question, we are pleased to offer in-depth thinking from Ann Lewis, who signed on as TTS director in December, after serving as a senior tech advisor at the Small Business Administration and as chief technology officer at Next Street and MoveOn.org. Lewis, in one of her first interviews since returning to government, talks about major technology paths for TTS and the Federal enterprise – with most of them leading back citizen service.
MeriTalk: Ann, TTS has such a broad technology portfolio, what’s the top-down view on that lineup?
Lewis: There are a lot of projects and programs at TTS – at least 24 programs and many other initiatives within those – and these programs and products give agencies a variety of different kinds of tech services and support from consulting to cloud infrastructure. I think TTS can provide a lot of value when it creates pluggable, reusable building blocks that add critical features to agency programs in ways that are easy and cheap to adopt with immediate value to the public’s experience.
MeriTalk: What are a couple of those that you’d like the technology community know a little bit more about?
Lewis: I’ll share two examples of that we’re really excited about. First of all, we have a new team called the Public Benefits Studio. This group will collaborate with agencies to build shared technology tools and spread best practices that simplify the public experience of navigating Federal benefits programs.
So as a first bet, the studio’s exploring how we can close the gap in adopting plain-language, multi- channel notifications starting with SMS. This is something that you see is common practice in the private sector, but it’s something that’s not necessarily built into most government benefits programs. We’re calling this program U.S. Notify, and we want it to be an affordable, timely, and easy for agencies to implement multi-channel messaging platform.
It’s a plug and play way of layering on SMS functionality into an existing benefits program website so that applicants and Federal benefits holders can get notified when they need to take an action. The use case here is since many government program websites were built for email – or are built in such a way that if you want to find out the status of your application, or if you need to get notified, you need to take an action to move your application further along – typically users have to go and find that website, login with an additional set of credentials, figure out where to go, and check a status.
And because this is confusing sometimes and because it takes more steps than just one step, typically benefits programs find that delays caused by users not knowing they need to take an action can cause program churn. So by making it cheap and easy to layer on an SMS notification feature, we hope that we can help Federal benefits programs reduce the burden and cost of program churn by up to 20 percent.
MeriTalk: That’s a big savings target. What’s the second program example?
Lewis: A more established program that I really like is the U.S. Web Design System.
When any government program implementation team starts the process of building a new website that will be a part of a benefits program or any kind of government service program, the developers start by creating this scaffold that determines how all of the pages in that website look and feel. That’s called a design system.
TTS has created a Federal government web design system starting point and template, and it’s free and easy for agencies to use and adopt. This is a toolkit with common web components and patterns that agencies can use to design their websites that makes it easy to build accessible, inclusive, and mobile- friendly websites that deliver great user experiences and also comply with Federal policy.
What we see is more agencies have adopted this over the years. Agencies that start with this as a scaffold end up delivering Federal websites that look and feel more like each other, so that there’s a common sense of what a Federal government website looks like. The patterns that are embedded in the scaffold also encourage the developers working on the websites to prioritize customer experience and do things like make sure you test the website on mobile and web, and make sure that you’re aware of the language needs of your users.
Starting from a really strong smart scaffold drives real outcomes.
Today 94 agencies and 458 federal websites are using this code, there are 1.1 billion page views per month for sites using this code, and 28 percent of government-wide page views are powered using the system. So I think that this is a program that really has paid off and that we’re going to continue to invest in, and share the code and the templates among the community of digital professionals.
It’s free and easy to use for agencies to use, and it allows us to meet agencies where they are and reduce barriers when it comes to agency customer experience work.
MeriTalk: That 28 percent figure really pops out – and the fact that it’s free to agencies. I know that in some circumstances, TTS help comes at no charge to agencies, but in others there are more formal engagements. What is the case on that with the website help?
Lewis: For libraries and tools like this, we give them away as building blocks for agencies to use as needed. They also can consult with us if they want to bring in different kinds of specialized tech skills and functions to augment their own teams, and we have a couple of consulting organizations that do that kind of work.
We try to offer a basket of services that help agencies get to where they need to get to. The goal with libraries like the U.S. Web Design System is look across agencies and we see government programs building the same things over and over again, usually without realizing it and with good intentions. So when we can create reusable building blocks that agencies can start from, they can spend their valuable implementation time and dollars on things that need to be built, not things that already exist.
MeriTalk: For the SMS help you are spoke about, what would be the cost basis for agencies on that kind of help?
Lewis: We’re still developing a pricing plan. and this program is in beta right now. So, more information as it comes in.
MeriTalk: When I think of TTS, my next thoughts go to the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) and improving citizen service. How is TTS angling on that challenge?
Lewis: We’re very excited about the PMA, and its focus on customer experience.
Customer experience interventions and optimizations are a primary focus of lot of government tech work right now, including work happening at TTS. Everything from partnerships with agencies through 18F and the Centers of Excellence, to shared services like usa.gov and search.gov, is focused on this kind of work, as well as consultive work that we do with agencies on projects where they asked us to come in and provide additional adjunct technical capacity, where together we focus on identifying the places where Americans during important life experiences during critical moments of crisis and during times when they really need to get access to government benefits.
We try and figure out starting from where users are, what are they trying to get to, and what are the different paths the journeys they take through all of these agencies and program websites that create this huge diffuse ecosystem. And when we map those journeys across agencies and programs, we can understand how many steps does it take to get people where they need to go and how can we reduce those steps? How can we make those steps easier to do? How can we reduce burden incrementally and make asynchronous actions synchronous etc.
This is the work of customer experience optimization that is being amplified by the President’s Management Agenda. There are a million places where we can do this work together with agencies so that we cannot just understand how to fix problems that we identify, we can also understand the full set of problems that the public faces, and we can partner with agencies to more deeply understand user experience, so that agencies themselves can build the kinds of capacities to prevent building additional barriers in the future, all with the goal of increasing access of government programs.
MeriTalk: Your return to government service follows some impressive private sector work after you left the Small Business Administration. What are one or two things that you learned away from government that you are bring back in with you this time?
Lewis: In my 20 years in the tech world – at a variety of different companies, startups, nonprofits, consulting orgs – for me as a technology leader government is where the most rewarding and high impact tech work is. That’s a lesson that I’m learning again and again, the work that we do here is just incredible.
When I was a senior advisor for technology at the Small Business Administration, I had the opportunity of working on pandemic aid programs where we got to find ways of helping entrepreneurs and small businesses get access to economic recovery resources at a critical time, and I saw just how hard everyone works to within government to deliver these critical services and to serve the public.
One aspect that struck me at the time was that it’s really easy to feel the magnitude of both the opportunities and the challenges of government work. It really kind of felt like we were working against the clock and all of the programs at SBA. And when you’re in the trenches with the team, and everyone’s working around the clock to help vulnerable populations, it can sometimes feel like no matter how hard everyone works, the work is never enough, especially in times of crisis.
Outside of government, when I was working at a consulting company that serves similar populations of small businesses, I got a fresh perspective that was really helpful for me on the kinds of impact that the SBA had from just as a provider of loans with fair rates. I also saw that many other organizations had grown up around the services that SBA offers and together supported small business ecosystems.
From this I learned two things – one is that you can make a big difference being inside of government, and I encourage more technologists to consider government service. Secondly, an outside perspective is also helpful to stay grounded in the reality of what people need. It’s so important for government leaders to be aware of all the organizations that work alongside government services directly or indirectly, we’re a part of a larger ecosystem, and we all need to work together.
MeriTalk: Now that you are somewhat settled in at TTS, can you tell us about one or two challenges coming up?
Lewis: There are so many challenges. The first is system scaling – which sounds tech nerdy – but it’s critically important to how all government systems operate. When a government system has to operate at national scale, that means it has hundreds of millions of users, and the underlying systems that process user actions need to scale in a variety of ways to meet user demand – sometimes unexpected user demand as we saw at the SBA and many other places during the pandemic.
System scaling from a technical perspective requires careful hardware planning, software and system testing, budget and resource planning, often in very on-demand ways that sometimes don’t fit cleanly into government budgeting and resource management cycles. This is an ongoing challenge to figure out how do we scale up to meet the public’s needs, in ways that work for government?
Another big challenge in building government systems is meeting people where they are on whatever platforms they use, in whatever languages they speak, on whatever devices they want to be using. Government websites were mostly built for different use cases than what the public prefers and uses today. For example, more than half of people visit government websites on mobile phones, but many government websites weren’t built for mobile and haven’t been tested on mobile.
Many government websites only support a few languages that don’t match the languages spoken by the people who are trying to view their webpages. Many agencies don’t have support yet for localization work, which is a collection of practices that help websites be seamlessly adaptable to different language and contextual needs.
So what TTS can do is use tech industry best practices to help agencies understand the needs for better tools and provide pragmatic ways to help identify and bridge gaps and build the kinds of capacities that are needed. The ultimate goal here is to empower agencies to be able to do these things on their own and proactively address and understand challenges and opportunities.
One way that TTS is able to do this that I think is a really high potential area is through digital.gov communities of practice. These are spaces where technologists across government can connect and share best practices for skill areas like user experience, multilingual support, web analytics, etc.
And another example within the Centers of Excellence organization is when our experts in the innovation adoption practice area and AI Center brought about 300 folks from within government together to share guides and frameworks on journey-mapping for data science. 96 percent of attendees that it was a valuable experience. Since last, May the Center of Excellence team has held multiple events with over 1,000 participants spanning 135 unique government organizations.
I think that sharing best practices – in particular between industry and government innovators – really is some low hanging fruit that we can do more of.
MeriTalk: Can you talk a little bit about your path in technology? Have you always been more of a techie person, or was that aspect acquired along the way?
Lewis: I have met people from many backgrounds in technology, and everyone can grow a career in tech.
But for me personally, I’ve always been a big nerd – I’m a technologist through and through. As a kid, I always love building things. And I decided to major in computer science at Carnegie Mellon because I wanted to be able to build with logic and ideas. I know that sounds super dorky, but it is true.
I started my career at Amazon as a software engineer in the early 2000s, and during my 20-plus years in tech, I’ve had the opportunity to work in cloud architecture, full stack software development, distributed systems, scaling, cybersecurity and eventually technical leadership, which has been incredibly rewarding because I’m able to create the environments for hundreds or thousands of technologists to be able to thrive ideally.
Over the years, you see technologies come and go, and trends come and go, and the basic building blocks the technology world has available to build new things get more and more and more powerful. I find it rewarding that everyone in tech is always learning and then we’re able to build and deliver more and more powerful, impactful things.
But as I have seen these trends happen over the years, and the outsized impact the tech world has had on society, it became more and more important for me to be able to use my skills to have impact in ways that align with my values – and it sounds cliché – but make the world a better place. I really care about making technical systems in particular actually work for the people those systems serve or supposed to serve.
There are so many ways in the tech world where it’s easy to get that wrong, so I’ve tried to bring my technology background into my leadership style here at TTS. I’m not afraid of complexity. I like to understand how everything works and fits together, I like to create and scale systems, and leave them better than how I found them.
MeriTalk: How about a piece of advice for a person – not necessarily a techie – who is considering bringing their skills to government service?
Lewis: I would say we wholeheartedly welcome you, show up as you are, and your unique perspective and skills and experience will be valuable. There are lots of ways in which you can join government as a technologist, or in other kinds of roles. We absolutely need all the skills, experience and perspective and voices at the table as possible so that the things that we build and deliver to the public are reflective of the public’s needs.
We’re always looking for passionate and smart people, in particular in technology and supporting disciplines like operations, contracting, and outreach, who want to serve. TTS is a dynamic organization powered by its people. The power of insight brought from so many different walks of life and diversity of perspectives and experiences brings us closer to the public that we serve.
MeriTalk: Last question – is there anything you enjoy doing in your “real” life that has nothing to do with technology at all?
Lewis: I love hiking. I love biking. I’ve gotten one of those e-bikes that you see you around these days, and like to explore the D.C. area and different neighborhoods. I moved back to D.C. a couple years ago because I wanted to be closer to my aging parents and spend more time with my family, so I’ve been enjoying doing that more as well. My family still asks me every time I see them what exactly it is that I do again.