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Learning from the US’s digital transformation successes

by Justin Hendry •
Free resource

Topics: Digital Transformation; Procurement.

With the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service often cited as the direct inspiration behind much of Australia’s digital transformation movement, the experience of key digital service delivery agencies in the United States often get less of a look in.

Much like the transformation that has been occurring in the UK and Australia, change in the US started with culture, according to 18F Deputy Executive Director Hillary Hartley.

“To transform government services, we have to transform entrenched and outdated practices, and the only lasting way to transform those practices is by actually shifting and transforming the culture of service delivery”, she said at the 2016 GovInnovate Summit in November.

The spark for this transformation in the US, according to Hartley, was the creation of the Presidential Innovation Fellowship (PIF) program in 2012, which pairs technologists and innovators from the private sector with civil servants in the US Government for 12-month periods.

“The PIF program brings the best and brightest of the tech industry into government for short tours of duty to work on projects that have the potential to save lives, save taxpayer money, fuel job creation and generally make the government a little bit better”.

While not the catalyst for Australia’s digital transformation journey – which was turbocharged with the creation of the then-Digital Transformation Office in 2015, the government’s 2016 pre-election Policy for Better and More Accessible Digital Services called for a similar program to be established to provide agencies with access to digital experts from the private sector “on three, six or 12 month secondments”. The government has also progressed with its Data Fellowship Programme, which is a separate project that aims to upskill public servants using a secondment approach.

Transformation efforts in the US have been spread out across four pillars of engagement: services, platforms, procurement, and training, according to Hartley. “Once you get in and you start realising that services are the tip of the iceberg, then you do need to think about platforms, you need to think about the government-wide perspective...”

However, instead of having a dedicated digital service agency like the UK’s GDS or Australia’s Digital Transformation Agency leading the transformation, the US has two: 18F and the United States Digital Service (USDS).

The USDS exists to prevent projects at risk of failure from failing, while 18F, which operates as a consultancy inside the General Services Administration and receives no direct funding from Congress, creates digital services and platforms using agile methods and open sources code for agencies.

Some of the new services that 18F has delivered, include:

  • myUSCIS – a service to help citizens navigate the US Citizenship and Immigration Service process;
  • College Scorecard – a website and API for the Department of Education to showcase and synthesize data;
  •, an open source application planning interface for the Federal Election Commission;
  • CALC – an online tool to search hour rates for professional services; and
  • – a Whole-of-Government dashboard revealing facts and trends relating to government website usage.

18F is also progressing with platforms to prevent duplication and deliver uniform interfaces. 18F is developing a static web publishing service, which is called the Federalist platform. The platform, which is currently in beta, provides “a suite of tools designed to make it faster and cheaper for government agencies to build websites that are secure, responsible, and accessible”, according to an 18F blog post.

It is also building a platform to enable development teams to focus on the process of releasing, monitoring and growing digital services, and eliminate the need to manage the infrastructure behind applications, similar to the DTA’s

18F has also begun building a shared authentication platform for accessing government services called

In terms of procurement, 18F launched a Request for Proposals (RFP) ghostwriting and review service for federal agencies in March 2015 to overcome issues that stem from a poorly written RFP, which have the potential to expose agencies to risks like overbidding and vendor lock-in, and result in contract modifications and cost and schedule overruns.

Hartley used the example of the State of California’s Child Welfare Case Management System to highlight how the service took what was a 1,500 page RFP that was seeking a single vendor to build the entire system, and helped avoid a waterfall disaster through the use of an agile procurement process and modular contracting to break the components of the project – the application program interface, user interface, data systems – into pieces.

“That 1,500 page RFP was broken out into two smaller RFPs. The first has a ten-page statement of work and then 60 pages of mandatory legalese. But the reason that that length matters, the reason that we highlight that, is because a 70-page RFP is much more friendly to non-traditional government vendors. We’re enabling a larger pool of vendors to submit a bid, which should help increase competition and improve the final product.”

18F has also created a contract vehicle called the Agile Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA), which like the DTA’s Digital Marketplace, helps the agency acquire development, design and full-stack teams for work on 18F projects. The Agile BPA restricts design (pool one) and development (pool two) work to small businesses, while full-stack work is unrestricted.

On a smaller scale, 18F has produced a Micro-purchase Marketplace for suppliers to bid on open-source work identified by the team. The experimental platform uses a reverse auction model where suppliers can bid down the price. Auctions start at $3,500 or less, however 18F has suggested that this will be raised to $25,000.

Furthermore, the supplier will only be paid if it meets the acceptance criteria and the code is shipped in 10 working days. If a supplier fails to meet the criteria, the next lowest bidder will get the same timeframe to ship the code necessary to satisfy the criteria.

While most projects on the marketplace have so far been limited to coding, 18F has indicated that the platform could “be applied to any kind of contribution to an open source project, including design, content, etc”.

As with the ghostwriting service, 18F also offers to “embed a fully-dedicated 18F team” within agencies to improve internal digital capacity and drive organisational change. Similarly, the USDS can be mobilised to rescue important projects that are on the verge of failure.

While the full breadth of work for Australia’s DTA is still undergoing refinement, the agency’s new Program Management Office will also assist projects that are going off track, according to Interim CEO Nerida O’Loughlin, who also spoke at GovInnovate.

The DTA released their first Digital Transformation Roadmap in December 2016, outlining plans for its newly expanded digital agenda over the next 18 months.

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