Vol. 51, No. 5

In this edition

Amid all the bad news coming out of Washington, DC these days, there is a lot of good work being done by inspiring individuals who are quietly trying to make government work better for the American people.

Common Sense in the Wake of Disaster

The National Flood Insurance Program is no longer just a program for hurricane-prone areas. It is a program for the entire U.S., and it needs to be reformed.

Partisan Politics is Unhealthy for America

The continuation of failed efforts in Congress to avert the Obamacare health care crisis has put a spotlight on its unhealthiest habit: partisan gridlock.

What Would Michel Do?

In light of today’s gridlock and the need for Congress to reassert its authority, the late Republican Leader’s insights and approach to legislating are needed now more than ever.

To Modernize Congress, Strengthen its Ability to Deliberate

The long-term health of Congress depends on reforming the institution in a way that that strengthens, rather than bypasses, its deliberative features.

From Silicon Valley to Washington, DC

Last December, Matt Cutts officially quit Google to join the U.S. Digital Service. Today, he is helping to lead the effort to modernize the government.

Why Federal IT Systems need to be Brought Into the 21st Century

The federal government is one of the last bastions for information technology that was built in a bygone century – some of it approaching 50 years old.

Data-Driven Government

America’s governors and the states they run are using evidence-based techniques such as big data, business intelligence, cloud platforms and redictive analysis to solve public policy problems.

Reactions & Regulation in the Age of Computational Propaganda

Regulation against certain uses of disinformation tools, such as bots, would be a welcome development. Legislation targeting digital tools themselves, however, could be detrimental to the internet and free speech.

The EMP Threat Facing the United States

For those able to execute an unconstrained analysis of today’s threat environment, the single most urgent concern for America is what threatens her electric grid.

How Tax Reform can Boost Competitiveness

There is strong evidence that high corporate tax rates deter investment. This is especially worrisome because the United States has the highest tax rate among OECD countries.

Ripon Profile of Jenniffer González-Colón

The Congresswoman from Puerto Rico discusses the effort she is leading to rebuild the island terroritory in the wake of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.

From Silicon Valley to Washington, DC

Q&A with Matt Cutts

For the better part of the past 17 years, Matt Cutts worked in Silicon Valley as a software engineer for Google. A graduate of the University of North Carolina with a PhD in computer graphics, he joined the company just over a year after it was founded, in January of 2000. He eventually rose to become head of its Webspam team. As Google grew in influence, so did Cutts.

In 2006, the Wall Street Journal said Cutts “is to search results what Alan Greenspan was to interest rates.” A 2008 profile of him in Wired Magazine put his influence this way: “Among search geeks and online marketers, Matt Cutts is like an internet god … He’s enough of a corporate icon that he got his own cereal box on the Google campus and his obsessive fan base seems to grow all the time: Groupies can even make their own Matt Cutts paper doll.” Today, Cutts has over a half million followers on Twitter.

Given his reputation in Silicon Valley and stature online, it therefore came as something of a surprise when Cutts announced in July of 2016 that he was taking a leave of absence from Google to do a stint with the fledgling U.S. Digital Service in Washington, DC. It was even more of a surprise when he announced on December 31st that he had formally resigned his position with Google to become USDS’s director of engineering. He currently serves as Acting Administrator.

The USDS was created in 2014 in the wake of the HealthCare.gov fiasco to help bring the federal bureaucracy into the 21st century. According to a recent USDS report, over 200 individuals have been hired to help achieve this goal. These individuals range from Silicon Valley engineers from more than 50 top technology companies to professional “bureaucracy hackers” from within the government.

Working out of a 19th century brownstone just across from the White House, the USDS engineers and hackers now play a key role in the effort that Senior Presidential Advisor Jared Kushner is leading to modernize the federal government and deliver better value for the American taxpayer.

The Forum recently asked Cutts about this effort, the mission of the USDS, and why, at a time when the federal government is so unpopular, he decided to leave Silicon Valley for Washington, DC.


RF: Most Americans probably have not heard of the U.S. Digital Service. Could you talk for a moment about the mission of the organization?

MC: USDS’s mission is to deliver better services to the American people through technology and design. Every day millions of people turn to the government for important things like small business loans or searching for student financial aid. Unfortunately these interactions can be frustrating. So, we recruit top talent, then deploy these folks across government to improve outdated tools and systems and make citizen-facing services a better experience.

We recruit top talent, then deploy these folks across government to improve outdated tools and systems and make citizen-facing services a better experience.

Recently, USDS worked with Veterans Affairs to launch Vets.gov a simple, user-friendly site for veterans to access their benefits easily online. Prior to this, an estimated 70% of veterans attempting to apply for benefits were jammed by error messages.

Since the redesign, Vets.gov can now streamline the application process automatically within 10 minutes, and to date, there have been over 250,000 successful applications.

RF: You worked at Google prior to joining the USDS. Why did you leave a very successful career in Silicon Valley at a time when working for the government gets such a bad rap?

MC: When I joined, I only planned to stay for a few months. But after seeing the positive impact USDS had on improving American lives, I decided to extend my tour of duty. Many days were hard and frustrating, but having the opportunity to work on projects with this amazingly talented team outweighed any pay or free lunch considerations.

RF: Some might compare working at the USDS in 2017 to working at NASA in the 1960s. To the extent that NASA had two main goals back then – put a man in space, and then put a man on the moon – what are the main goals of the USDS today?

MC: We are proud of the perspective we bring to government. The USDS approach is to apply business strategies like user-centered design and modern software development practices to deliver technical solutions. But USDS will never be able to tackle all the technical and design problems facing government.

Luckily we are not alone in our efforts. Our partners at the Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer and the General Service Administration’s 18F are all committed to building an ecosystem of innovation focused on bringing industry best practices to government. As we work on solving specific challenges, we also know we’re helping to lead an effort in modernizing government.

RF: Do you need the digital equivalent of an Apollo mission to attract top talent? Or is the promise of public service enough to convince young people that their time would be better spent – and their country would be better served – working for the federal government? How do you attract top talent?

MC: On paper we can never compete with what Silicon Valley has to offer. But what we can offer is the opportunity to impact the lives of the American people in a variety of areas. If you were to ask the many engineers, designers and product managers who joined USDS, they’d tell you that their work is unbelievably important and they’re honored to be a part of it.

We’ve adopted values that resonate with individuals looking for meaningful and exciting work. We are a diverse and talented team made up of individuals devoted to the work and people we’re serving. And while there are challenges and roadblocks, people have the chance to become leaders and influence the future of government.

The work is hard but it’s definitely rewarding. It doesn’t hurt that the work often features really challenging issues as well. So it’s not just that the work is important or impactful; it’s also a challenge for people who like to solve big problems.

RF: Can you tell us about some of the main challenges the USDS is working on right now?

MC: Our work is focused on making government systems work better for the American people and we are doing this in a variety of ways. At the Department of Defense, USDS helped to launch the first “bug bounty” program in the history of the federal government. Bug bounties are a common private sector practice that invite security researchers to try to hack systems and report flaws in exchange for monetary rewards. The program was highly successful at a budget of $150,000, compared to the $1 million it would have cost for an outside firm to run a security audit.

At the Department of Defense, USDS helped to launch the first “bug bounty” program in the history of the federal government.

USDS also partnered with 18F to build a secure, common identity-platform called Login.gov. With many public-facing federal websites, users are required to create separate accounts for access. Login.gov was built to remedy that problem by allowing users to sign in to multiple government agencies by using one account. The Department of Homeland Security became the first agency to use Login.gov with the Trusted Traveler Program. Since its launch in April, there are over 500,000 Login.gov accounts with plans to complete more integrations in the future.

The crazy part is that’s just scratching the surface. We’re working with agency partners at Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense, and more.

RF: Talk for a moment about the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov in 2014. As you see it, how did that happen, and what are you doing to make sure something like that never happens again?

MC: USDS was created in the aftermath of Healthcare.gov so our mission and approach are a direct product of the lessons learned from that experience. Healthcare.gov was an example of what happens when government does not apply industry best practices.

Healthcare.gov was an example of what happens when government does not apply industry best practices.

In addition to engaging with agencies on technical projects, we also have procurement experts who train, assist, and advise on improving contracts and making the Federal government a better buyer. It has been encouraging to see many agencies adopt better practices like agile development, moving to the cloud, and better monitoring.

RF: What about the OPM data breach that occurred a year later – what is the U.S. Digital Service doing to keep Americans’ personal information secure from cyber-attacks?

MC: USDS does not specifically take on projects dealing with cyber security threats, though because of our technical talent, we have been brought on to advise on issues like the OPM data breach. However, the security of a system, particularly when it deals with the personal information of U.S. citizens, is always on our mind.

A significant risk facing government information security systems is the slow adoption of modern best practices. By changing the way projects are run – designing with users, using iterative practices – we greatly enhance the ability of systems to adapt to security threats and deploy security fixes quickly and effectively.

RF: Finally, a personal question – when you see your old colleagues in Silicon Valley and they ask how you like working for the government, what do you tell them?

MC: Like most jobs, some days can be frustrating. But at the end of the day, the opportunity we have at USDS impacts the lives of Americans every day, and potentially for years to come.

The work may be hard but it’s definitely rewarding. So if you’re looking for a new challenge, come join us!