President Obama owes Mikey Dickerson two debts of gratitude.
The computer engineer was a crucial member of the team that fixed the federal HealthCare.gov website in six weeks when the $400 million health-insurance project failed almost as soon as it opened in October.
Dickerson, 35, also oversaw the computers and wrote software for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, including last-minute programs to figure out ad placement and plan “get-out-the-vote” campaigns in critical areas. It was a good fit, because Dickerson since 2006 had worked for Google on its computer systems, which are now among the world’s largest.
But earlier this month, Obama lured Dickerson away from Google. His new job at the White House will be to identify and fix other troubled government computer systems and websites. The engineer says he wants to change how citizens interact with the government. He recently talked about his new role in a conversation that has been condensed.
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Q: What is your new job about?
A: My adventure started with fixing HealthCare.gov. Last spring we started thinking about running the same plays we had used there, thinking maybe we’d get good results in other places if we tried the same approaches we used to fix that site.
Q: Judging from reports about the problems at HealthCare.gov, wasn’t a key factor the way government buys information technology, as much as any problem with the computers or software?
A: Having a multiyear project with no checks along the way and the promise of one big outcome is not a highly successful approach, in or outside government.
Q: Isn’t that typically how you have to devise a government system, which has to deliver complex information or payments to millions of people across the country starting on Day One?
A: It may take two years to do a government project, but you have to check in on it, find ways to see if there is a problem. HealthCare.gov had thousands of employees; the media said there were 55 companies involved. Fixing it, we started with five people and got to 20 to 30 before we were finished.
Q: How do you change the existing process?
A: We’ll break that up by 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.
Q: How different is government information technology from Silicon Valley information technology?
A: The contracting companies with experience building government systems came from an older style of corporate technology, with PCs communicating with computer servers. Web-oriented, mobile-oriented companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have a different approach about how to build things.
For instance, in designing a site, you can test on just a few online customers whether changing the word “submit,” which can sound harsh, to “go shopping” at the end of a form encourages people to keep going. Then you get the ability to see if something is working and adjust the whole site.
Q: Google and the other companies you mention have enormous insight into their customers and react quickly when consumer behavior changes. Are you saying the government and its systems contractors can do that?
A: One theme we’ve hit again and again is, when possible, use things that have already been invented. There are things that work in the private sector; there’s no reason we can’t use these in government, too. I’m hoping for the user’s experience of government to be different. People tend to trust places like Amazon because they show your order, they let you know about delivery times. Government should be able to do things like that.
Q: How many people are on your team?
A: Right now it’s a handful. We’re hoping to grow it to 20 or 30.
Q: I’m guessing that works out to a ratio of about 30-to-1: the number of lobbyists for existing contractors used to big-ticket, long-term contracts compared with your staff.
A: You’re welcome to point that out. You wouldn’t be the first. It’s a tall order; you don’t have to tell me the odds. There are a lot of calcified relationships with a lot of contractors. This is something that happens in the private sector, too.
We’ll be very leveraged, and we’ll have consulting relationships with other departments.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.
Q: Are you talking about national security and defense? They often have big projects and opaque budgets.
A: I don’t have much experience there.
Q: How else does government need to change the way it relates to citizens through information technology? You’ve already posted your goals on GitHub, a website usually associated with people building open-source software by commenting on one another’s work. With something like that, you’re encouraging citizens to rewrite your rules.
A: We’re encouraging open-source software and access to government data everywhere it is possible to do it. The government has a ton of data. Nonprofits need to see it; the states need to see it.
Q: Google has great food everywhere, celebrity lecturers and beach volleyball in the courtyard. How do you like your new life in Washington, D. C?
A: I still have a cafeteria, free soda and a bowling alley in my building. So I’m right at home.