“From Inside Government: Bringing Data, Voices, & Focus to the Table”: Karin Underwood, Pooja Shaw, and Esther Sportello with U.S. Digital Service (Video + Transcript)

March 22, 2024

Building cross-functional relationships is important to any job, and who would have thunk that within government, building connections across the table (across agencies) to create more data sharing collaboration is one of the biggest opportunities for impact? Join us as we share how you can bring data, voices, and a focus on the end-user to the public sector, as well as the private sector.


In this ELEVATE session, three product managers from the U.S. Digital Service discuss their experiences and insights in working in government. Karin Underwood, Esther Sportello, and Pooja Shaw highlight the importance of finding champions for projects, getting the right voices in the room, and using data to drive strategy. They also address questions about working remotely, transitioning from the private sector to government, and the scope for non-tech government employees to influence equity practices. 

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Pooja Shaw ELEVATE quote high profile high visibility high urgency projects improve services priority across federal government

Transcript of ELEVATE Session:

Pooja Shaw: Before we dive into our talk, I wanted to just give a high level overview of what USDS is and very much look forward to answering questions about USDS towards the end when we get to our Q&A. Any luck? Can you see my screen or no? Okay, I’m just going to keep on going then. U.S. Digital Service, as Sukrutha mentioned, is an organization within the federal government. Many of us, including all three of us on the screen here, come from private sector backgrounds before deciding to join government.

We’re a team of cross-functional experts that use design and technology to deliver better government services to the American public and have an array of backgrounds ranging from designers, engineers, product managers like the three of us, data scientists, bureaucracy hackers, and we are really focused on doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the greatest need.

In that role, we work with agencies across the government delivering services to the American public on issues ranging from veterans to healthcare system, to our justice system, to farmers, to immigrants. And as we go through our talk, each of us is going to voice over an experience with a particular project that we’ve had in three themes. And as soon as I stop talking, I will pull the slides up so that this will make more sense., but the three themes we’re going to go through are: Finding Your Champion, and Karen is going to speak about some work she did with the Department of Justice in that.

Getting the right voices in the room, and I’ll speak to some work I did with the Administration for Children and Families on childcare. And using data to drive strategy, and Esther will speak to some work she’s done with the CDC in that front.

Again, we hope to keep our remarks so that we have time for questions at the end and look forward to answering any questions you have about USDS or what it’s like working in government. With that, I’ll hand it over to Karin to speak a little bit about a key theme that applies in all sectors, but especially true in government about finding your champion for a project.

Karin Underwood: Great. Thank you Pooja. And hello everyone. Nice to meet you all. My name is Karin Underwood and I’m a product manager at the U.S. Digital Service and very excited to be just with this community of women today.

I wanted to share a quick story about work that we’ve been doing with the U.S. Department of Justice. Myself and a team of USDSers have been working on a project called the National Law Enforcement Accountability Database that was really launched earlier last year to track law enforcement federal misconduct. And in this project when we came in, we realized that one thing that was really critical was the need for some senior leadership and some senior buy-in.

We needed to find stakeholders, like in many projects that you might’ve worked on, that really were bought into doing the project, rolling it out, and creating momentum and urgency to drive it forward within an aggressive six-month timeline. And so what we learned there was that finding your stakeholder, finding your champion. In this case, we work directly with the office of the Deputy Attorney General at the Department of Justice that was willing to really spearhead this effort.

Finding those people is what will carry the work on for the long term, and it is essential. And so, as you think about rolling out projects, doing product work, find that champion and you’ll be set on a path for success. And with that, I will pass it to Esther to speak a little bit about getting the right voices in the room. Pooja. Back to Pooja.

Pooja Shaw: You gave me time to get the slides kind of right so you can at least see the slide now. It’s not perfectly framed, but… Like Karen said, finding a champion, a theme that we find true across most of the work at USDS. Another one that I have found especially true in all sectors, and I’m sure we all find as product managers, we’re always working to get the right voices in the room, but it’s incredibly important in government in particular. I’ll speak a little bit about a project I did with an agency that supports childcare subsidies.

If you’re a low income family and you need childcare, there’s a federal benefit available to subsidize the childcare cost. But like many government forms, the application to receive this is often fairly intimidating and not as user-friendly as it could be. We brought in a small team from USDS to think about how we could improve that experience and reduce the burden on families. And so we naively went in and we’re like, “Oh, we need to just fix the form.” We brought in some designers and a product manager to think about how we could do that. And then as we started digging in, we realized, oh, the reason that these forms are often so complicated is because they’re rooted in policy and regulations and statute and the form is an artifact of how people are interpreting that policy.

We realized very quickly we need to have policy experts in the room as well as we’re seeking to do that work. And then we got one step further and realized, oh, every state, this is a state delivered program. So every state actually implements this slightly differently. We need to talk to the state implementation experts to understand why they’re choosing to implement their application and processes in a certain way. And then we soon realized, you know what? A lot of what’s driving state decisions is their compliance programs. We need to bring our compliance friends in from the federal government, and… You get the general idea, which is, what we thought would start off as a fairly straightforward, we need to redesign the form and that takes technologist skillset to do so.

We very quickly realized, needs to have a lot of stakeholders around the table ranging from policy to implementation to legal to compliance, in addition to our core technologist skillset to have the impact that we wanted. And there’s actually a writeup about this work on the USDS blog for any of you that are interested. But we were able to turn out some guidance in a model application to help states figure out how to best adapt it to their situation. And a number of states have adopted this to reduce burden on families that are applying for childcare subsidy, which we’ve been very happy about. With that, I will turn it over to Esther to talk a little bit about our third theme here of using data to drive strategy.

Esther Sportello: Awesome. Thanks so much, Pooja. Now we have a champion. We have all the voices in the room, and so now it’s time to let the data talk. Data is the cornerstone of informed decision making, and whether that’s qualitative or quantitative data, it’s really figuring out how to use the data that you have available to you or you have access to collect, to help tell your story in addition to the narrative that you’re crafting. Specifically on the project I’m working on with the USDS team, partnering with the CDC, we’re working to modernize the National Disease Surveillance system, which is a tool that is used by public health departments across our local, state and territorial jurisdictions to manage disease investigations. When it’s working well, you probably don’t even know it’s existing, which is the beauty of the whole thing. And the magnitude of this project is huge.

When thinking about this project or a project similar to this magnitude of scale, there’s often two pitfalls that teams are challenged by. And the first is analysis paralysis. You see our friend on the left, they have the inability to make a decision because there’s such an overwhelming amount of data, which sounds great, but you can’t find the signal across the noise and it becomes paralyzing and you can’t move forward. It’s pitfall one.

Pitfall two is on the other side of the spectrum, intuition based strategy, which I affectionately refer to as IBS, similar but different than irritable bowel syndrome. Similar in that it feels good when you’re starting with that intuition. You’re like, “Yeah, my gut feels like this is the right strategy and answer.” And then you get a few weeks or months down the road and you’re like, “Wait, how do we get here? This doesn’t really make sense.” And it’s all messy and you’re questioning some decisions you might’ve made earlier. All similar.

To avoid these two pitfalls, there’s really three strategies that I like to use and that we’ve been using on this project with the CDC. The first is to aggregate and synthesize existing data. We wanted to understand the landscape of the data that already existed because there’s years of data available. And so in this specific case, it took the form of support tickets and empathy interviews that we then clustered into themes to make sense of it. And then when we cut that data, we looked at different volume by condition, by state population, by a bunch of different factors so that we could see really what was the indicator of which direction we should head. And we use that information to form a hypothesis.

The great thing about hypothesis is we don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but we have an assumption based on the information that we’ve gathered, is that leads us into the second step, which is to define a research plan. And so what we did with that hypothesis in hand is, developed a robust research plan to validate the assumptions we had, taking the ones that were most laden with risk or had the most unknowns first, and try to debunk those, validate or invalidate them first.

And this involved creating a half day virtual workshop with people across the country from all those various levels, from state to territorial jurisdictions, with the goal of really quantifying the magnitude of the pain that they felt in each of those themes that we had clustered together. And so what that really enabled us to do is to take that qualitative data, a layer on some quantitative data, and that leads us to step number three, which is to gain buy-in and enthusiasm.

What we finally were able to do with the data that we’ve collected is create a roadmap that was prioritized based on the opportunity that we had understood from those two prior steps. And when challenges arose, which they always do, people are passionate about the problem they are interested in solving.

We were able to use this data, we were able to lean on this data to tell the story for us of why we believe that this problem should be solved now because it would be serving the greatest amount of people at this point in time. And so the journey to modernize our disease surveillance system has been challenging.

That’s because every decision we make carries an enormous amount of weight. And our commitment to using the data to guide the decision making has really been instrumental to keeping momentum and excitement and focus, honestly focus, as we navigate this complex set of priorities to gain clarity and purpose for the strategy to take us into the future.

To recap, the three things we did was aggregate and synthesize the data. We defined a research plan and then we gained enthusiasm by letting the data tell the story for us. With that, we hope that these few examples have illustrated how finding a champion, bringing the right voices to the table and using data to craft your strategy within government can set you up for success just like it does in the private sector. There’s really no difference in how you do that internal and external to the government. And so with that, I will turn it back to Karin for some closing remarks. And I think we’re going to open the floor for some Q&A.

Karin Underwood: Absolutely. I wanted to mention a few things that are here on this slide. We have some sessions around product management in public health on March 8th, mentor hour, and also a career fair kickoff introduction to the U.S. Digital Service, as well as a booth networking hour with the U.S. Digital Service, the U.S. Digital Corps, which is a younger earlier career program, and also the office of the CIO at the White House. So some very exciting opportunities.

I just want to say thank you so much for joining today. We love being part of this community. And if you haven’t looked at the U.S. Digital Service as a place to apply your tech skills and really bring your impact to all Americans, please look us up and consider what we would call a tour of duty. And with that, I want to open it up for Q&A. I see that a few questions have come in from the chat and I will moderate a little bit.

The first question I’ll take is just, I’ll go top to bottom. Reagan, I’ve always been interested in government work. I’m a passionate worker, but I worry I don’t have patience. How do you handle the slow moving nature of government and policy? And I know Pooja wears a lot of hats across the government, so I will turn this question to her.

Pooja Shaw: As we said, we all came from private sector backgrounds. I spent somewhere between 10 and 12 years in the private sector before joining USDS and I have done more work at a faster pace at USDS than I had at any point prior to joining the federal government. I think it’s definitely true. There’s definitely a lot of red tape, there are definitely a lot of hurdles to move through, but I think this idea that government is always slow moving is definitely not the case. Especially, roles vary, but for the type of work that the three of us have done at USDS, they’re often high profile, high visibility, high urgency projects to improve services that are our priority across the federal government.

I think with anything in the private sector, there are some roles that fit a certain stereotype, and within the government there are certain roles that fit a certain stereotype, but I wouldn’t necessarily assume that that will be the experience if you join government.

Esther Sportello: Plus one. Something I might add is, it’s just like any other product or I view it as any other product role where you’re setting goals and milestones. And really, I think, that adjustment period when you’re joining a new team is figuring out who are the key decision makers and what are going to be the biggest drags or what’s causing your velocity or speed to be slow and figure out how to accelerate them just like you would do on any other team.

Some strategies that you would use external to government are the same here with setting milestones and then being realistic about what can be delivered. That reduces the frustration because you’re setting realistic expectations for yourself, the project, and all your stakeholders who you’re working with.

Karin Underwood: Thank you so much. And I would just triple plus that. I think there’s times that things move fast and times that things move slow, but especially when you have important projects to work on, there can be some very fast movements.

Okay, next question. Maybe we can just touch briefly, are you all remote workers? Esther, I know you’re in LA. Could you talk about what it’s like to work remotely for USDS?

Esther Sportello: Yeah, absolutely. I was a part of a pilot program for remote work within the government. I’m based in Los Angeles. I am fully remote and some of my project teams do require me to travel. The CDC is based in Atlanta, and I make periodic trips there to be onsite with those individuals. That is my personal experience for my time here at the USDS.

Karin Underwood: Great. Okay. Next question. How does someone get into the tech side of government? I’ve been curious about it, but I’ve heard it’s hard to get into, like many government jobs are, so what are some advice about, any advice that this team has about how to branch into that space? And Esther, since you just responded, I’ll tee it to you to continue.

Esther Sportello: I think within the government, there is a tremendous amount of effort and work to bring technology to the forefront and hire tech talent or individuals who have that tech skillset into the mix in the fold.

USDS is one great avenue, right? We are like an internal consultancy within the executive office of the President. There are also the program at 18F, which is another organization within GSA. And Karin, I believe you were part of another program as well.

There are multiple avenues for technology to enter. Or if you would like to enter the tech side of government, there are multiple avenues to do so. [crosstalk] If you have anything to add to that.

Pooja Shaw: I was going to add two things, which is that a lot of agencies are also, we obviously sit within EOP, but a lot of agencies are also increasingly building up their tech capacity. And so I’m sure we can follow up, I don’t have the links handy, but I’m sure we can dig up how to easily find those across agencies because we’re definitely seeing that as well. And it is beneficial to all to have that capacity both living within organizations like USDS as well as within the agency. So just would continue to keep agency work in mind as well.

Esther Sportello: Oh my goodness. How could I have forgotten that? Shameless plug for the CDC. They are hiring. All skillsets. Please apply.

Karin Underwood: Yeah, I will shameless plug a project I’m working on at HRSA, which is hiring a digital services lead for the first time for their team. Yes, there are opportunities to look at there. Great. Okay, next question.

And I will keep an eye on the time. In terms of, let’s see… I want to shift my… In the PM process, how do you implement product discovery to get insights more quickly and make sure that you’re not in insights sequentially and not causing any delays. And I know that you’ve been doing a lot of product work, Esther, so I’ll hear what does this look like at USDS compared to maybe other places you’ve worked?

Esther Sportello: I think what I’m hearing the question ask is how do we get user, or maybe I’ll take it as, how do we get user feedback? And so, that I think is one thing that looks pretty different within the government than outside the government is how we engage with individuals a part of user research. We absolutely want to be human centered and do lead with a human centered practice, but there are some other requirements that we have to be compliant with, such as PR&A, making sure that we’re engaging users in an equitable way, in a way that isn’t creating burden for the American citizen as a part of the process.

It’s the approval process before you start your engagement that maybe a little, will look really different than in the private sector, but when it comes to doing usability interviews or empathy interviews or collecting data on usage, if it’s an application or a web form, all of that is really similar. The forms and web applications are tooled in similar ways to collect data so you can find insights just how you would normally do in the private sector. I don’t know, Karin, if you have anything different to add to that.

Karin Underwood: No, thank you for doing that. And I forgot to mention I was a presidential innovation fellow, so that’s another thing to look at, in terms of how to get tech into government. Thank you for teeing me up for that earlier.

No, I think it’s similar. It’s about building trust with the agencies that we’re working with to get the permission and making sure that we’re setting up these things in the right way. But very much, USDS runs discovery sprints. I was on a discovery sprint with Pooja last year and that is how we do some of our product discovery similar to the private sector.

One more question on this transition. What are some of the challenges you faced and similarities you experienced when transitioning from the private sector to government? And Pooja, I know you mentioned the wealth of your experience in the private sector and then entering into a government role. I will kick that to you.

Pooja Shaw: In general a lot is made of the difference between the private sector and government. My experience has been that if you came from a private sector startup where your experience has primarily been in working with a very small team of a handful of people, then moving into the bureaucracy and bigger nature of government will feel like a big adjustment.

However, for people that have joined USDS from places like Amazon and Google and other large bureaucracies, what you hear from them is, it doesn’t feel… Like a bureaucracy is a bureaucracy. It is a large organization, it has a lot of layers, you have to understand. If you do all the three things that we just talked about in our talk, but it’s not… A lot is similar between the public and the private sector.

Karin Underwood: Thanks Pooja. And I agree. I was talking to someone, a friend at J&J, the other day, and just talking about different… What political battles do you win and where do you have to not move your ideas forward? And it felt very similar. I agree with that difference. Great. And we have about five minutes left, so I’ll take one more question.

Is there a scope for non-tech government employees to influence how the government does equity and equity practices inside of the government? And Esther, I don’t know, if this is something you feel comfortable with, but do you want to get us started?

Esther Sportello: I can kick us off. Regardless of what your skillset is, I feel like there’s a place for you in the government, it’s just a matter of where and what that role is and what that looks like. There are just, like a private sector company, there are HR teams or there are operations teams. There are every kind of function that you need to run any sort of organization, exists here also. And probably 10 of them because you have it at the federal level and then you have it at each agency level as well.

I know I can speak specifically within USDS, we have a whole subcommittee dedicated to DEIB or diversity, inclusion, and equity and belonging. So there are folks fully dedicated to making sure that we’re focused on that as a team and culture and making sure that’s incorporated into our work. Those are the ones that I’m specifically familiar with. Pooja, are there others, other teams that you’ve worked with?

Pooja Shaw: I was just going to add one just because of the sheer scope and nature of the work that the government does, touching so many critical services that often you don’t even realize, you’re very uniquely positioned to use a equity focused lens in any room. It doesn’t have to be a technology room.

A very specific example that jumps to mind is, I was working with an agency on a project where we were launching a service that was going to be used by millions of people and we were prepared to launch it and usability tested it in English, but we hadn’t necessarily done the same thing for Spanish.

And someone, who was not on the technology team, was in the room and they were like, “Hey, you really should do all those same things in Spanish.” And it was like, “Wow, that is a hundred percent correct and that was an oversight and we should do that.” And so you don’t have to be a technologist or you can really be in any role and have that opportunity to raise those kinds of points.

Karin Underwood: Great. And I will just wrap by saying that one benefit of government is that you are thinking about how to not just deliver for some small segment of the population, but to really deliver for all Americans.

When we think about team USG, I feel like we think about how do we both use that same idea of who are we targeting, but also think about that equity lens. And when I was at the Office of Science and Technology Policy and I said the word equity pretty much every day in how we prioritized our work, how we thought about impact and how we really tried to do values driven work across the government and across federal agencies.

There’s lots of opportunity outside, but also lots of opportunity inside to really make sure that we’re here, not just to build good products, but really to think about those who could use them the most and prioritize that work. And it looks like we are at time. I see our minder back in the room.

With that, I just want to say thank you so much. Please visit some of our booths. It’s been an honor to speak with you all today. Take a look at the U.S. Digital Service and Girl Geek, thank you for having us. Thank you for letting us join today. It’s been an honor.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you for joining. Thank you so much. All right. Have a good rest of your day. Bye.

Karin Underwood: Yeah, take care everyone.

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