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White House Tech Consulting Team Fights for Funding

Congress has pulled the plug on funding for the White House's Silicon Valley tech squad, raising doubts about the organization's future.

For weeks the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has not answered questions about next year’s funding for the U.S. Digital Service (USDS). The silence may be connected to a controversy involving the USDS and a group of Silicon Valley technologists who are trying to overcome skepticism and partisan pushback from Congress.

On July 23, a Senate appropriations committee approved a spending bill that cuts roughly three-fourths of President Obama’s $20.2 million funding request for IT initiatives. Much of this funding was tied to the USDS operating budget. The setback was preceded by yet another in June, when appropriators in the House of Representatives whittled away the president’s request for $105 million to establish USDS branches within 25 major agencies, with each asking for $1 million to $10 million apiece.

In a statement on June 1, the White House and OMB responded to the House by calling the denial in funding a “failure” and “a missed opportunity to improve key agency services.”

The larger issue is whether the potential lapse in funding will derail a campaign by USDS to reform federal IT projects. Former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, who stepped down from his post at the end of 2014, had set an aggressive campaign to recruit more than 500 tech experts for the USDS by 2017. If funding is cut, those hiring plans will likely be on hold and diminish any kind of a comprehensive impact on U.S. IT spending, estimated at about $80 billion each year.

The reason for the growing opposition to USDS is difficult to pinpoint. Since Mikey Dickerson, the ex-Google exec and fixer, launched the department in August of last year, it has constantly drawn praise, both in the media and within the federal sector. Centerpieces of its work include a playbook for government CIOs, data coordination for the U.S. Ebola response and a revamp of the Veterans Affairs website and claims system. It also provides continual support to, the federal marketplace for health insurance, and contributes to transparency initiatives with 18F — a federal contractor for advanced technical services. More broadly, USDS is charged to consult on the nation’s 10 highest-priority IT investment projects.

At least publicly, all these efforts have drawn near-unanimous backing. Even the Senate appropriations committee that cut USDS funding said it “supports the formation of USDS and their role in collaborating with federal agencies.”

Tech advocates familiar with Capitol Hill suggest the problem may be found in the partisan politics of a Republican-controlled Senate and House, coupled with a disconnect between USDS and agency IT leadership.

Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition, an open data lobbying group in Washington, D.C., said USDS may be bearing the brunt of the administration’s tumultuous relationship with Congress. Whether issues relate to health-care reform or net neutrality, Republicans have long criticized the president on his use of executive authority.

The president is known for his own criticisms against Congressional Republicans, asserting inaction on pressing national problems like gun violence. The rift, Hollister said, may have potential side effects even when both sides agree on the same issues.

“Teams like the Office of Management and Budget’s U.S. Digital Service and General Services Administration’s 18F don’t fit into Congress’ established funding habits. [So] their future is going to be uncertain unless the White House mounts a charm offensive of a sort I’ve never seen this administration try,” Hollister said.

Steve O’Keeffe, founder of the government intelligence and IT network Meritalk, also attributed partisan politics to the problems with USDS funding. He has also addressed problems with 18F, which has tapped pools of Silicon Valley talent. O’Keeffe talked with federal IT executives and found them critical of the alleged tech talent, characterizing them to be “patronizing” and even “arrogant," while others questioned 18F’s overall effectiveness. O'Keefe quoted one official as saying, “If we didn’t have to follow the rules, we could all move a lot faster too."

To dispel rumor and criticism, USDS might benefit from better metrics that quantify how the group is saving tax dollars and where it’s effecting change. In its report, the Senate appropriations committee said that with the additional funding — about $5 million — it had allowed USDS  to provide quarterly updates with details on progress in addition to the criteria used to prioritize federal projects.

On the other side of the equation, if Congress wants a strong return on investment, it will require sustainable funding. Civic tech advocates who’ve rallied for the USDS and its work argue that the meaningful change the department brings to government IT easily outweigh possible losses.

Jennifer Pahlka, a former U.S. deputy chief technology officer and Code for America’s executive director, said the USDS was a win that could pay for itself in multiple ways and offers entrepreneurial approaches — such as iterative and user-centered design — to all levels of government.

“The United States Digital Service is an investment in bringing costs down and quality and effectiveness up for technology projects across federal agencies,” Pahlka said. “Their work also has a follow-on effect when state and local government adopts the USDS practices, like the CIO Playbook.”

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.