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USDR Leaders Reflect on State of Government Digital Services

The group, which was formed as a volunteer response to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, is celebrating its second anniversary today, as it continues to expand the scope and focus of its work.

It is, perhaps, an understatement to say that March — specifically the middle of March — has been consequential the past couple of years.

In 2020, of course, it saw the start of the U.S. shutdown due to COVID-19. Within the same week, a group of volunteer technologists came together to form the United States Digital Response (USDR). And then during the same time in 2021, the federal government passed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), sending billions of dollars in relief funding to state, local and tribal governments. There is very much a crisis, response and long-term impact narrative trajectory to these anniversaries — all centered on this same time of the year.

Gov Tech recently took the occasion to speak with USDR leadership — specifically USDR CEO Jessica Cole and Director of Public Digital Tina Walha — to discuss the group’s second anniversary, look at where the group is and where its work is going, as well as where it has been.

To get a sense of the group’s rapid growth and accomplishments, one can first check the numbers. In just two years, the USDR has worked with more than 230 partners across the country at all levels of government. More than 7,000 people have volunteered to lend skilled technical time as pro bono technologists to government through the USDR, and more than 300 individual public servants have asked for its assistance, working on projects that are attempting to accomplish something innovative or new.

“Over the past two years, there’s no greater reason for optimism than the people who are looking to help,” Cole said. “We just want to make sure that everyone continues to feel like this is an urgent moment, that they don’t stop acting with the urgency that they had over the last two years, and that we really follow through on the opportunity in front of us.”

This all speaks to the nature of a lot of the work that the USDR has done, as well as its leaders’ hopes for its future. Most of the group’s projects have started as crisis response and demand-driven efforts that meet a moment, before then pivoting to a secondary role that fosters lasting improvements for the future.

One of the prime examples of this has to do with USDR’s work around grant-finding and helping lower levels of government make the most of the federal support coming down through ARPA and other recent legislation. ARPA alone sent $350 billion of funding to government, which then requires public agencies to not only decide how to spend that money but also to spend it in ways that satisfy accountability rules and other government requirements. It’s all a very heavy logistical lift.

While working with a dozen government partners on requests related to ARPA, USDR helped build tools they could use in the service of the task, including a Grant Identification Tool. This was essentially a portal to identify federal grant opportunities, coordinate applications internally and get the money to the places it was intended to help in communities. USDR’s other work in this area has included an Emergency Rental Assistance Portal in Memphis, Tenn., small business loan eligibility tools, and more.

“We want to see that funding go equitably to places that have need, and that includes states and tribal nations who are often left out on that front,” Cole said. “We want to make sure it reaches people who need it at the times that they need it.”

The equity component is a major motivation. Without centralized, easy-to-use tools, the funding is at risk of going disproportionately to government organizations who are already resource-rich, since they would be better able to do the work of applying for, receiving and responsibly distributing the money.

In the past — certainly before the event of the pandemic and subsequent creation of the USDR — government has had a tendency to move slowly on embracing new technologies, or even with working with similarly minded groups on taking the risks needed to innovate with this work. Walha says that this has now changed. During the crisis, many governments were forced to act quickly to address immediate pressing needs. The often-successful projects that resulted from this have made it easier for the speed of innovation to continue forward.

“Many of these strong relationships from the early days of the pandemic are continuing to bear fruit,” Walha said.

Private-sector partners who helped during the crisis have also now seen government agencies taking risks and accomplishing new things with tech, which is a great motivation for them to continue collaborating with the public sector. This is especially helpful when government and the groups it works with in communities are able to convey the actual needs on the ground.

This will all continue to be important moving forward, USDR’s leaders said, as the pandemic has also emphasized how important it is for government digital services to be equitable, designed in a way that enables usage by 100 percent of the community. To truly accomplish this, government will need to continue to invest in digital infrastructure — including broadband networks — just as it would in physical infrastructure like roads or trains or bridges.

For the future, this also means building inclusively by creating portals, applications and other access points in multiple languages. It’s all part of future-proofing government in a way that works and lasts, which two years later, has now become central to USDR's work and mission.

“There are no more excuses for us to have key infrastructure that isn't working for the people that we serve,” Cole said. “[USDR is] here so government agencies that are ready to start can start to experiment and iterate. They don’t have to get it perfect right out of the gate, but we do want to see more people in this country recognize that digital delivery of government matters; that it is core to what our country is going to look like 10, 20 or 30 years from now.”
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.