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Kamala Harris Proposes State and Local Digital Service Teams

The Democratic senator wants state and local government to get smarter about how it uses technology, following in the footsteps of relatively recent federal outfits such as the U.S. Digital Service.

A new bill put forth by California Senator and 2020 presidential hopeful Kamala Harris would seek to make governments across the country smarter — albeit on a fairly small scale.

The Digital Service Act would provide $15 million in annual seed grants to state and local governments, allowing them to develop their own discrete digital services teams of technologists dedicated to modernizing service delivery and bolstering IT infrastructure. 

These teams would be modeled off of the U.S. Digital Service, a federal technology unit within the Executive Office of the President that works on initiatives to digitize and streamline government services.

Harris has called the USDS, which was created under the Obama administration, a "proven model for enabling smarter government." Under her legislation, the agency would see its annual funding quadrupled to $50 million.

How would the bill affect state and local governments? 

Mark Raymond, CIO for the state of Connecticut, said he appreciated the idea behind the bill.

“At the highest level, it’s a good idea — any focus on improving how governments utilize digital services is appreciated,” he said. 

However, the CIO said the fairly limited financial offer probably wouldn’t go far for most governments. 

“The relatively small amount of competitive dollars to state and local government has me wondering what the real impact is,” he said of the legislation. “If you think about the size of the country, [the question is] how do you leverage something like that in a sustainable way? If you’re getting a relatively little amount and it’s a limited duration, it’s hard to actually hire employees — at least in Connecticut — for that period of time without a sustainable funding model.

“Digital talent is expensive and getting someone on board can take a substantial amount of time,” he added. “We are just in a situation where it’s hard to bring employees on board knowing that at the end of that period of time we might not be able to sustain them.” 

The legislation has been endorsed by the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on tech policy. 

Maurice Turner, a senior technologist for the center, said that financially speaking, the bill is a jumping off point.

“I think it’s a great start,” he said. “Having a locality — which could be a city or a county or a state — have access to anywhere between $200,000 to $2.5 million provides enough funding to get the team assembled and to work on something that can be measured [in] a relatively short period of time.” 

Turner said that the legislation was more about proving that the model of the Digital Service works.

“That way the states and counties and local jurisdictions will see the value in having a relatively high return on their investment and then put more of their own money to grow the scope of the project,” he said.

The focus of the grants would be on accomplishing small projects, he added.

“This is not grant funding intended to, let’s say, build out an entirely new piece of infrastructure, or to take on a more ambitious, multi-year project. This is really about how can a small team work together relatively quickly in order to make a small and measurable difference,” Turner said.  

Kamala Harris has alternately been a friend and watchdog of the tech industry. Devising various legislative initiatives to limit the power of tech companies and protect consumer privacy, the senator has simultaneously accepted significant campaign contributions from prominent Silicon Valley organizations and figures.

Political action committees for companies like Facebook, Google and Intel, for instance, contributed financially to her most recent Senate run, reports Politico

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.