Despite talk of potential funding cuts at the federal level in 2016, White House Senior Adviser and former U.S. CTO Todd Park confirmed that plans are on track to staff the federal government’s U.S. Digital Services (USDS) and 18F with 500 employees by the end of 2016.
Park delivered the update on the two government teams at the Code for America Summit on Oct. 1, where he said hiring remains on schedule and that both groups are expected to be long-term fixtures available to assist federal agencies.
“We’re taking small cross-functional teams of these folks [engineers, designers and policy workers] and we’re injecting them into more, and more of the most important projects the U.S. government is working on,” Park said.
Under the White House and General Services Administration, members of the two groups — recruited from tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon and others — are tasked with embedding private-sector practices and technical expertise into the public sector. USDS provides project management support while 18F acts as an in-house development team that agencies can essentially hire to launch IT initiatives.
Last summer tech advocates feared for the two organizations after appropriators in the House of Representatives approved only one-third of the Obama administration’s requested $105 million in IT expenditures. The funds were intended to launch individual USDS teams in 25 agencies. Such worries continued to circulate in July when a Senate appropriations committee cut roughly three-fourths of the administration’s requested $20.2 million to fund 2016 White House IT work conducted by USDS.
Reacting to the pushback, some conjectured that the financial hold-up was due to partisan issues, while others speculated that the hesitancy stemmed from desires to see more definitive returns from projects.
In an interview with Government Technology, Park said the 2016 congressional funding issues — still to be finalized in Congress — have not impacted the White House’s goal to install the new tech recruits in agencies. Teams are already at work in some departments, such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Education, Department of Veteran Affairs and others. And considering the size and scope of each organization, Park said it’s not unthinkable for these agencies to include support of small USDS development teams in their annual budgets. Homeland Security, for example, has more than 240,000 employees alone.
It also is likely that the teams would pay for themselves through significant cost savings and drastic efficiency improvements. This year, according to Federal Times, the U.S. Department of Defense credited 18F for consulting that saved the agency more than $150 million in IT procurements. The experience even prompted the DoD to establish a cybersecurity version of USDS called Defense Digital Services, a team that adopts principles like agile development, user-centric design and other private-sector innovation strategies.
Apart from work at the DoD, USDS and 18F already boast numerous accolades. Some members have contributed to the rescue of Healthcare.gov, the mired health-care insurance marketplace that crashed in 2014, while other teams have untangled benefit claims for veterans; helped immigration application processing at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; and spearheaded transparency projects like OpenFOIA.gov, a site that simplifies Freedom of Information Act requests for citizens. This savvy tech support may have the potential to reform the many hurdles facing federal-level agencies.
By the federal government's own admission, many of its IT development projects are flawed or struggling to achieve results. The Government Accountability Office, for instance, reports that $80 billion is invested annually in IT, and despite this, failure is frequent, cost overruns common, and results wanting. As of May 2015, GAO officials conservatively estimated that 178 of the government's 738 major IT investments — or about 25 percent — were at risk. The sum is striking when coupled with the total price tag for these projects: $8.7 billion.
Park said the White House intends to assist in this by working to extend the presence of 18F and USDS far beyond Obama’s time in office.
“We have 220 people now [in 18F and USDS], we have 100 people coming, and if another couple hundred people show up by the end of 2016, then it’s our belief that we will achieve escape velocity,” Park said. “We’ll get to a place where not only will the slope of government tech continue to be positive, it will be actually a case where it will be virtually impossible to stop.”
Looking at logistics, since each team member serves between six months and four years, hiring the additional recruits would easily give the teams a runway into the next administration. However, what may be harder to establish long term is a White-House-supported USDS group. A new president may want to rebrand his or her own tech initiatives and associate the central team, consisting of about 58 staff, with the previous administration. If this was the case, it’s probable that the USDS would only exist within individual agencies.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.