TED2016

Haley Van Dyck: How a start-up in the White House is changing business as usual

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Haley Van Dyck is transforming the way America delivers critical services to everyday people. At the United States Digital Service, Van Dyck and her team are using lessons learned by Silicon Valley and the private sector to improve services for veterans, immigrants, the disabled and others, creating a more awesome government along the way. "We don't care about politics," she says. "We care about making government work better, because it's the only one we've got."

- Disrupter
Haley Van Dyck is building a startup at the White House and recruiting world-class technology talent to change how government works for the American people. Full bio

I'm here to talk to you today
00:12
about a story that we have all
been conditioned to believe
00:14
is not possible.
00:17
It's a story about a living,
breathing start-up
00:19
flourishing in an unlikely environment:
00:21
the United States government.
00:23
Now, this start-up is fundamentally
beginning to disrupt
00:25
the way government does
business from the inside out.
00:28
But before I get there,
let's start with the problem.
00:30
For me, the problem begins
with a number: 137.
00:33
137 is the average number of days
00:37
a veteran has to wait to have benefits
processed by the VA.
00:41
137 days.
00:44
Now, in order to file that application
in the first place,
00:46
she has to navigate
over 1,000 different websites
00:49
and over 900 different call-in numbers,
00:53
all owned and operated
by the United States government.
00:56
Now, we live in times
of incredible change.
00:59
The private sector is constantly changing
01:03
and improving itself all the time.
01:05
For that matter, it's removing
every single inconvenience in my life
01:07
that I could possibly think of.
01:10
I could be sitting on my couch
in my apartment,
01:12
and from my phone, I can order
a warm, gluten-free meal
01:15
that can arrive at my door
in less than 10 minutes.
01:18
But meanwhile, a working mother
who depends on food stamps
01:21
to support her family
01:25
has to complete an arduous,
complicated application
01:27
which she might not even
be able to do online.
01:30
And the inability of her to do that same
work from her couch means
01:33
that she might be having to take
days or hours off of work
01:37
that she can't spare.
01:40
And this growing dichotomy
01:42
between the beneficiaries
of the tech revolution
01:45
and those it's left behind
01:47
is one of the greatest
challenges of our time --
01:49
(Applause)
01:51
Because government's failure
to deliver digital services that work
01:57
is disproportionately impacting
the very people who need it most.
02:01
It's impacting the students
trying to go to college,
02:06
the single mothers
trying to get health care,
02:08
the veterans coming home from battle.
02:11
They can't get what they need
when they need it.
02:12
And for these Americans,
02:15
government is more than just
a presidential election every four years.
02:17
Government is a lifeline
that provides services they need
02:20
and depend on and deserve.
02:24
Which is, quite frankly,
02:26
why government needs to get
its shit together and catch up.
02:27
Just saying.
02:30
(Applause)
02:32
Now, this wasn't always a problem
I was passionate about.
02:35
When I joined President Obama's
campaign in 2008,
02:38
we brought the tech industry's
best practices into politics.
02:41
We earned more money,
02:44
we engaged more volunteers
02:46
and we earned more votes
than any political campaign in history.
02:48
We were a cutting-edge start-up
that changed the game of politics forever.
02:51
So when the President asked
a small group of us
02:55
to bring that very same disruption
directly into government,
02:57
I knew it wasn't going to be easy work,
03:00
but I was eager and showed up
ready to get to work.
03:02
Now, on my first day in DC,
03:06
my first day in government,
03:09
I walked into the office
and they handed me a laptop.
03:11
And the laptop was running Windows 98.
03:14
(Laughter)
03:17
I mean, three entire presidential
elections had come and gone
03:18
since the government had updated
the operating system on that computer.
03:22
Three elections!
03:25
Which is when we realized
03:27
this problem was a whole lot bigger
than we ever could have imagined.
03:29
Let me paint the picture for you.
03:33
The federal government is the largest
institution in the world.
03:36
It spends over 86 billion dollars
a year -- 86 billion --
03:39
on federal IT projects.
03:44
For context:
03:46
that is more than the entire
venture capital industry spends
03:47
annually -- on everything.
03:50
Now, the problem here
03:53
is that we the taxpayers
are not getting what we pay for,
03:55
because 94 percent of federal IT projects
03:59
are over budget or behind schedule.
04:03
94 percent!
04:05
For those of you keeping score,
04:06
yes, the number 94 is very close to 100.
04:08
(Laughter)
04:10
There's another problem:
04:12
40 percent of those never end up
seeing the light of day.
04:14
They are completely scrapped or abandoned.
04:18
Now, this is a very existentially
painful moment for any organization,
04:20
because it means as government
continues to operate
04:25
as it's programmed to do,
04:28
failure is nearly inevitable.
04:29
And when the status quo
is the riskiest option,
04:31
that means there is simply no other choice
04:34
than radical disruption.
04:36
So, what do we do about it?
04:39
How do we fix this?
04:42
Well, the irony of all of this
04:44
is that we actually don't have to look
any further than our backyard,
04:47
because right here in America
are the very ideas, the very people,
04:50
who have swept our world
into a radically different place
04:54
than it was two decades ago.
04:57
So what would it look like
04:59
if it was actually as easy to get
student loans or veterans' benefits
05:01
as it is to order cat food to my house?
05:04
What would it look like
05:08
if there was an easy pathway
for the very entrepreneurs and innovators
05:10
who have disrupted our tech sector
05:14
to come and disrupt their government?
05:16
Well, my friends,
here's where we get to talk
05:18
about some of the exciting
new formulas we've discovered
05:20
for creating change in government.
05:23
Enter the United States Digital Service.
05:25
The United States Digital Service
is a new network of start-ups,
05:28
a team of teams,
05:31
organizing themselves across government
to create radical change.
05:33
The mission of the United States
Digital Service is to help government
05:38
deliver world-class digital services
05:41
for students, immigrants,
children, the elderly -- everybody --
05:43
at dramatically lower costs.
05:48
We are essentially trying to build
a more awesome government,
05:51
for the people, by the people, today.
05:54
We don't care -- (Applause) Thank you.
05:57
(Applause)
05:58
Who doesn't want a more
awesome government, right?
06:01
We don't care about politics.
06:04
We care about making
government work better,
06:06
because it's the only one we've got.
06:09
(Applause)
06:11
Now, you can think of our team --
well, it's pretty funny --
06:13
you can think
of our team a little bit like
06:16
the Peace Corps meets DARPA
meets SEAL Team 6.
06:19
We're like the Peace Corps for nerds,
06:22
but instead of traveling to crazy,
interesting, far-off places,
06:23
you spend a lot of time indoors,
behind computers,
06:26
helping restore the fabric
of our democracy.
06:29
(Laughter)
06:31
Now, this team -- our playbook
for the United States Digital Service
06:33
is pretty simple.
06:38
The first play is we recruit
the very best talent
06:39
our country has to offer,
06:43
and recruit them for short tours
of duty inside government.
06:45
These are the very people who have helped
build the products and companies
06:48
that have made our tech sector amongst
the most innovative in the world.
06:51
Second, we pair these incredible
people from the tech core
06:55
with the dedicated civil servants
already inside government
06:58
on the ground creating change.
07:01
Third, we strategically deploy them
in a targeted formation
07:03
at the most mission-critical,
life-changing, important services
07:07
that government offers.
07:10
And finally, we give them
massive air cover,
07:12
from the leadership inside the agencies
07:14
all the way up to the President himself,
07:16
to transform these services
for the better.
07:19
Now, this team is beginning to disrupt
07:22
how government does business
from the inside out.
07:25
If you study classic
patterns of disruption,
07:28
one very common pattern is rather simple.
07:31
It's to take something that has become
routine and standard in one industry
07:34
and apply it to another
where it's a radical departure
07:37
from the status quo.
07:40
Think about what Airbnb took
that was normal from hospitality
07:41
and revolutionized my apartment.
07:44
The United States Digital Service
is doing exactly that.
07:47
We are taking what Silicon Valley
and the private sector has learned
07:50
through a ton of hard work
07:54
about how to build
planetary-scale digital services
07:55
that delight users at lower cost,
07:58
and we're applying that to government,
07:59
where it is a radical departure
from the status quo.
08:01
Now, the good news is:
08:04
it's starting to work.
08:07
We know this because we can
already see the results
08:09
from some of our early projects,
like the rescue effort of Healthcare.gov,
08:12
when that went off the rails.
08:15
Fixing Healthcare.gov was the first place
that we ran this play,
08:17
and today we are taking that same play
08:21
and scaling it across a large number
08:22
of government's most important
citizen-facing services.
08:24
Now, if I can take a moment
08:28
and brag about the team for a second --
08:31
it is the highest
concentration of badasses
08:33
I could have ever dreamed of.
08:35
We have top talent from Google,
Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and the likes,
08:38
all on staff today,
08:41
all choosing to join their government.
08:44
And what's incredible is,
08:47
everybody is as eager and kind
as they are intelligent.
08:48
And I might add, by the way,
over half of us are women.
08:52
(Applause)
08:56
The best way to understand this strategy
09:03
is actually to walk through
a couple of examples
09:05
of how it's working out in the wild.
09:07
I'm going to give you
two examples quickly.
09:09
The first one is about immigration.
09:11
This, my friends, is your typical
immigration application.
09:13
Yes, you guessed it --
09:17
it's almost entirely paper-based.
09:18
In the best case,
09:21
the application takes about six
to eight months to process.
09:22
It is physically shipped thousands
of miles -- thousands of miles! --
09:25
between no less than six
processing centers.
09:28
Now, little story:
09:32
about a decade ago,
09:33
the government thought
that if it brought this system online,
09:35
it could save taxpayer dollars
and provide a better service,
09:38
which was a great idea.
09:40
So, the typical government process began.
09:42
Six years and 1.2 billion dollars later,
09:45
no working product was delivered --
09:50
1.2 billion with a "B."
09:52
Now at this point, the agency responsible,
09:55
US Citizenship and Immigration Services,
09:57
could have kept pouring money
into the failing program.
09:59
Sadly, that's what often happens.
10:02
That's the status quo today.
10:04
But they didn't.
10:05
The dedicated civil servants
inside the agency
10:07
decided to stand up and call for change.
10:09
We deployed a small team
of just six people,
10:11
and what many people don't know is
10:14
that's the same size as the rescue
effort of Healthcare.gov --
10:16
just six people.
10:18
And that team jumped in, side-by-side,
10:20
to support the agency
in transitioning this project
10:22
into more modern business practices,
more modern development practices.
10:24
Now, in non-tech speak,
10:29
what that basically means
is taking big, multi-year projects
10:30
and breaking them up
into bite-sized chunks,
10:34
so that way we can reduce the risk
10:36
and actually start to see results
every couple of weeks,
10:38
instead of waiting
in a black box for years.
10:40
So within less than three months
of our team being on the ground,
10:43
we were already able to push
our first products to production.
10:46
The first one, this is the form I-90.
10:49
This is used to file
for your replacement green card.
10:52
Now, for immigrant visa holders,
10:56
a replacement green card is a big deal.
10:57
Your green card is your proof
of identification,
11:00
it's your work authorization,
11:02
it's the proof that you can
be here in this country.
11:04
So waiting six months while the government
processes the replacement
11:06
is not cool.
11:09
I'm excited to tell you that today,
11:11
you can now, for the first time,
file for a replacement green card
11:12
entirely online without anyone
touching a piece of paper.
11:16
It is faster, it is cheaper,
11:19
and it's a better user experience
for the applicant
11:21
and the government employees alike.
11:23
(Applause)
11:25
Another one, quickly.
11:32
Last fall, we just released
a brand-new practice civics test.
11:33
So as part of becoming a US citizen,
11:36
you have to pass a civics test.
11:39
For anyone who has taken this test,
it can be quite the stressful process.
11:41
So our team released a very easy,
simple-to-use tool in plain language
11:45
to help people prepare,
11:50
to help ease their nerves,
11:52
to help them feel more confident
11:54
in taking the next step
in pursuing their American dream.
11:56
Because all of this work,
all of this work on immigration,
11:59
is about taking complicated processes
and making them more human.
12:02
The other day, one of the dedicated
civil servants on the ground
12:07
said something incredibly profound.
12:10
She said that she's never been
this hopeful or optimistic
12:13
about a project in her entire
time in government.
12:16
And she's been doing this for 30 years.
12:19
That is exactly the kind of hope
and culture change
12:23
we are trying to create.
12:25
For my second example, I want to bring
it back to veterans for a second,
12:27
and what we are doing to build them a VA
12:30
that is worthy of their service
and their sacrifice.
12:32
I'm proud to say
that just a few months ago,
12:35
we released a brand-new beta
12:38
of a new website, Vets.gov.
12:40
Vets.gov is a simple, easy-to-use website
12:42
that brings all of the online services
a veteran needs into one place.
12:44
One website, not thousands.
12:48
The site is a work in progress,
but it's significant progress,
12:51
because it's designed
with the users who matter most:
12:55
the veterans themselves.
12:57
This might sound incredibly obvious,
because it should be,
12:59
but sadly, this isn't
normal for government.
13:02
Far too often, product decisions
are made by committees of stakeholders
13:04
who do their best to represent
the interests of the user,
13:08
but they're not necessarily
the users themselves.
13:10
So our team at the VA went out,
we looked at the data,
13:13
we talked to veterans themselves
13:15
and we started simple and small,
13:17
with the two most important services
that matter most to them:
13:18
education benefits
and disability benefits.
13:22
I'm proud to say that they are
live on the site today,
13:25
and as the team continues
to streamline more services,
13:28
they will be ported over here,
and the old sites, shut down.
13:30
(Applause)
13:33
To me, this is what change
looks like in 2016.
13:39
When you walk out of the Oval Office,
13:44
the first time I was ever
there, I noticed a quote
13:46
the President had embroidered on the rug.
13:48
It's the classic JFK quote.
13:50
It says, "No problem of human destiny
is beyond human beings."
13:52
It's true.
13:57
We have the tools to solve these problems.
13:59
We have the tools to come together
as a society, as a country,
14:02
and to fix this together.
14:05
Yes, it's hard.
14:07
It's particularly hard
when we have to fight,
14:09
when we have to refuse to succumb
to the belief that things won't change.
14:11
But in my experience,
14:16
it's often the hardest things
that are the most worth doing,
14:18
because if we don't do them,
14:21
who will?
14:23
This is on us,
14:24
all of us, together,
14:26
because government is not
an abstract institution or a concept.
14:28
Our government is us.
14:32
(Applause)
14:35
Today, it is no longer a question
14:40
of if change is possible.
14:42
The question is not, "Can we?"
14:45
The question is, "Will we?"
14:48
Will you?
14:50
Thank you.
14:52
(Applause)
14:53
Thank you.
14:56
(Applause)
14:58

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About the Speaker:

Haley Van Dyck - Disrupter
Haley Van Dyck is building a startup at the White House and recruiting world-class technology talent to change how government works for the American people.

Why you should listen

Haley Van Dyck helped found the US Digital Service in August 2014. As its Deputy Administrator, she's building a team of tech experts to improve the usefulness, user experience and reliability of America's most important digital services. The team is already making a difference on services that matter most to citizens, from healthcare to immigration to veterans' benefits. 

Since 2008, Van Dyck has helped craft President Obama's technology strategy, including the US Open Data Policy. Her work is helping infuse lean operating strategies and Silicon Valley expertise into the federal government.

More profile about the speaker
Haley Van Dyck | Speaker | TED.com