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How Diversity Is Helping the Pentagon Tackle Tough Problems

Walking into room 3A268 of the Pentagon, you almost forget that you’re in the nerve center of the country’s armed forces.

At the hub of military support, you don’t expect to see a Jif peanut butter jar perched on the ceiling light, a Porg plush toy on standby for emotional support and a bold, red “GET S— DONE” poster in all caps. Yes, this is still the life-saving, mission-critical work of government, but it’s hardly bureaucracy as usual.

Room 3A268 is one of two spaces in the Pentagon that houses the Defense Digital Service (DDS), endearingly known as the “SWAT team of nerds.” Here, designers, engineers, product managers and bureaucracy hackers have been working side-by-side with military personnel to design and implement innovative solutions in DoD since DDS’ 2015 launch.

Its projects include overhauling the outdated system that hundreds of thousands of service members rely on to manage permanent and temporary relocations. The team also launched the Pentagon’s first bug bounty program, which enlists leading security researchers and ethical hackers, who break into systems with consent, to help DoD identify and address thousands of security vulnerabilities in its software code.

In many ways, DDS is a microcosm of what government is trying to do in pockets at the federal, state and local levels: tap into the collective wisdom that comes from having diversity of thought, work experience, gender and background working together to solve tough problems.

Overall, government, as is the case with other industries, has long been constrained by narrow parameters around what is acceptable in terms of dress, speech and credentials. But what creative ideas and insights does the public sector miss out on as a result?

“There’s something to be said for the way a product turns out because of the diversity of backgrounds that people bring,” DDS Chief of Staff Katie Olson said during a recent sit-down with GovLoop. Olson shared how inclusiveness and diversity have shaped DDS projects and what the team is focused on in 2020.

One project, in particular, that has benefited from diverse and fresh ideas was the rebuilding of Move.mil, the informational website for service members’ moves. The DDS team revamped the backend system to manage those moves by developing a mobile-friendly web application called MilMove, which allows military personnel and their families to log their orders and plan for their upcoming moves.

To understand stakeholders’ pain points using the old system, DDS gathered service members and their spouses in a room to walk the team through their experiences and share what capabilities they wish they had at their disposal.

The team brought in an all-women user experience (UX) design shop called Sliced Bread out of Silicon Valley to help them take a user-centered approach to transformation. That meant engaging with and documenting how users responded to system improvements. Having that expertise and perspective on board was critical. “If we had entirely white, straight males working on Move.mil, would it be the same project?” Olson said. “Probably not.”

One of the mantras that DDS lives by is to design with users, not for users. “I think the perception sometimes with the digital service team is that we walk into the building and we say, ‘That’s broken,’ and we just start fixing it,” Olson said. “That’s not our approach.”

The team works closely with end users — from the secretary’s office down — to identify priority needs and challenges.

Another focus area that will be even more prominent in 2020 is thinking about scale and reusability early and often. The goal shouldn’t be to create one-off projects that work for a single office or group, Olson said, but instead DDS should address shared pain points. Because DDS works closely with all of the military services, it has the visibility to identify and scale projects that affect many users.

“One of the other pieces of it, which I think is important…[is] sometimes our projects do lead to policy changes,” Olson said.

For example, with the Move.mil project, initially spouses of service members were not permitted to log in to the system and coordinate moving plans. Only service members were authorized to log in.

Now, spouses are authorized to log in to book movers, coordinate insurance and complete other tasks.

What’s on the Docket for DDS?

Remember the bug county program mentioned earlier? DDS is now looking to extend that effort to satellites and explore how the military can thwart attacks against unmanned aircraft systems. The team is focused on capabilities to better detect drones, especially in restricted areas such as the National Capital Region.

DDS is also concerned about everyday challenges that feds face and abhor: particularly, the cumbersome background investigation form. It can be grueling for applicants trying to recall past residences, dates they’ve traveled outside the country and other tidbits of information that are readily available in other government systems but not top of mind for individuals filling out the form.

DDS is working to create a prepopulated SF-86 (Standard Form 86) with information about applicants that they could then verify, rather than having to recall years’ worth of personal information. Critical to the success of this project is firming up data sharing with different organizations that would provide the prepopulated data, Olson said.

Across the DDS portfolio, there’s a common thread of private sector professionals who come into government on term appointments to work with military personnel. In early January, DDS brought on five Marine Corps engineers to the team for 90-day tours of duty to – over the coming months – pilot a rapid new authority to operate (ATO) process for the Marines using cloud architecture. An ATO is a formal declaration that authorizes an IT system or product to operate on government networks. Normally, the events leading up to an ATO can take a year or more.

The goal is not only to help each of the four military services with their use of technology. By working across all of the different services, DDS is better able to see where there are similar needs, Olson said. That way they aren’t reinventing the wheel.

Fresh Talent Is a Feature, Not a Bug

Olson and her team are eyeing the next wave of diverse talent coming into DDS from across the country, including Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta and Chicago.

“I hear all the time when I’m at recruiting events that they don’t want to just make … the next refrigerator to phone app,” she said. “As cool as it is, and as much money as that might make them, they want to do something civic. They want to do something to give back.”

It’s no easy commitment to relocate for a term appointment. But DDS is expanding its reach through a satellite office that opened in November 2019 at the Georgia Cyber Center in Augusta, Georgia.

In line with the DDS affinity for all things Star Wars, the new site is called Tatooine, after the harsh desert world in the film. Olson said the new digs grew out of the DDS partnership with Army Cyber Command to redesign training for cyber soldiers.

In 2019, roughly 70 people, including active duty service personnel, rotated through DDS under a two-year term-limit tour of duty. Part of what made their experience unique is that they got to be involved in projects from start to finish.

It’s a great exercise in design thinking – being thoughtful about the problem they’re trying to solve, communicating it to stakeholders and managing a transition – Olson said. Those are all pieces of product development that engineers and designers might not get to touch, but at DDS they get the full experience of designing a prototype and products from start to finish, and handing it back to a stakeholder.

“They get to go back and bring that experience into their day-to-day life as well,” Olson said.

Photo Credit: Defense Digital Service

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