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Digital Services in the Trenches

The government is us; we are the government, you and I.” — President Theodore Roosevelt

It’s important to remember that the government is more than its elected officials. Thousands of civil servants across the country work at all levels of government, contributing time and talents to serve the public.

I first got involved in the field of civic technology after working as a front line worker at a field office at the Illinois Department of Employment Security during the Great Recession of 2008. The software I was using was from 1975. It wasn’t a real-time system, which means that anything that we did that day wouldn’t take until an overnight process. When we did get a new system, it just made my job more difficult. The new system was handed down from on high and not something I had any say in despite being the one who had to use it. (The right way to do this, of course, would have been user experience research, which is one of the focus areas of Defense Digital Service).

After I left the state, I began to learn everything I could about the technology side in order to do my own job better. After I received my Master’s in Public Administration, I started consulting with the Smart Chicago Collaborative before joining the Brigade Team at Code for America.

When it came time to leave Code for America, I wanted to do something that was more hands-on with more impact on projects. While I could have gone to a private sector company, there’s something about being in government that allows you to make an impact that you just don’t find in the private sector. Serving in the government means taking on some of the most challenging problems out there - particularly in times of crisis. Among the digital services, I felt drawn to the Defense Digital Services because of my experience as an Army infantryman.

At the Defense Digital Service, we focus on building products, improving digital services for the Department of Defense to support its mission of protecting national security. That means providing support for our service members whether helping to build products, leapfrogging the current state of technology, or working with service members to build around their needs.

What makes us different from most government IT or ‘innovation’ shops is that we have the private sector know-all and capabilities to hack bureaucracy. We start with a problem and then work diligently alongside users to find solutions that can scale. We aim to design things in a way that’s easy to use and often costs less. Some of that work is technical, some of it is bureaucratic, but it’s all important.

Our projects cover a range of critical needs: bolstering cybersecurity, making it easier for military families access to critical benefits, providing tools that better secure our national defense, and aiding the DOD’s rapid response to COVID-19.

One of DDS’s projects early on in the pandemic was MyStatus.mil, a symptom checking tool that helps with preliminary evaluation of individuals with concerns or symptoms consistent with COVID-19 cases before they seek medical care in an effort to limit unnecessary exposure and to prolong the supply of personal protective equipment at military hospitals. Defense leadership reasoned that if service members could determine crews symptoms early, they could limit exposing others to the virus. This tool lets service members anonymously self-assess the likelihood that they have contracted the virus based on a series of simple health-related questions (You can find the algorithm that powers it here.)

Just to be clear, we don’t hire just coders. Our team is diverse with a variety of skill sets. On the technical end, we have designers, product managers, bureaucracy hackers, and data scientists. Not to mention our operational staff, including attorneys, recruiters, and communications experts. It takes a lot of talent to make this work. If you want to have a cool government job that gives your career more meaning, we invite you to apply for a tour of duty at the Defense Digital Service.

-- Christopher Whitaker, DDS Digital Service Expert