US digital strike team chief acknowledges ‘tall order’

Mikey Dickerson, who is leading the new government’s new tech strike force, acknowledges that shifting government tech projects away from old methods and incumbent tech companies is no easy task.

In an interview with The New York Times published over the weekend, Dickerson called his task “a tall order.”

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“There are a lot of calcified relationships with a lot of contractors,” he said.

Last week, the White House announced the formation of a new tech strike team — dubbed the “U.S. Digital Service” — to help government agencies improve their tech operations.

The team will be led by Dickerson, a former Google engineer and the person the White House brought in last year to fix HealthCare.gov, the site created to implement the Affordable Care Act.

Dickerson told The New York Times that his team currently consists of “a handful” of people but that he hopes to grow that number to “20 or 30.”

He said he plans to change the way government contracting works, including “discouraging government contracts that are multibillion-dollar and take years to deliver.”

“HealthCare.gov would have been difficult to roll out piecemeal, but if you, a contractor, have to deliver some smaller thing in four to six weeks while the system is being constructed, you’ll act differently,” he said.

Dickerson touched on the differences between Silicon Valley companies and companies that are traditionally contracted for government tech projects, including the way services interact with users, use off-the-shelf products and “have a different approach about how to build things.”

“The contracting companies with experience building government systems came from an older style of corporate technology, with PCs communicating with computer servers,” he said.

“Web-oriented, mobile-oriented companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have a different approach about how to build things,” including testing out different options “to see if something is working and adjust the whole site.”

For now, he said the strike force is “gathering information.”

“I want to go to the highest-impact areas that can show the success of this approach, possibly things that aren’t in the press much,” he said.