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Agencies to Get In-House Digital Teams and 4 Other Proposals in Obama’s IT Budget Blueprint

President Barack Obama's new $4 trillion budget plan is distributed by Senate Budget Committee staffer Eric Chalmers as it arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, early Monday, Feb. 2, 2015.

President Barack Obama's new $4 trillion budget plan is distributed by Senate Budget Committee staffer Eric Chalmers as it arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, early Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. // (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Story was updated 6 p.m.

Over the past six months, a small squad of innovators working out of the White House has helped rethink, retool and repair digital projects across government.

Now, agencies are set to get their own in-house teams of digital fixers.

The fiscal 2016 budget blueprint released Monday by the White House proposes spending $105 million, in part, to “scale and institutionalize” the still-new U.S. Digital Service by creating similar agency-level digital teams within the largest 25 federal agencies.

Spending on the new digital teams is just a tiny sliver of overall federal spending on information technology outlined in the administration’s budget request. Governmentwide IT spending is set to tick up by nearly 3 percent to $86.4 billion this year, according to the budget outline.

But the focus on recruiting top talent into government -- which includes staffing the new agency teams with “America’s best digital experts” -- is a key pillar of the Obama administration’s tech agenda for the coming year.

The new tech units will focus on revamping agencies’ citizen-facing services and implementing “cutting-edge digital and technology practices,” according to the budget.

The new funding equates to about 500 digital-service staffers, acting Chief Information Officer Lisa Schlosser told reporters during a White House conference call about the budget proposal.

"Agencies will have a variety of options as to how to bring those individuals on board using current hiring processes and flexibilities that are available now," Schlosser said.

The Obama administration created USDS last summer to help agencies navigate through complex digital initiatives and help fix problems before they ballooned into fiascos like HealthCare.gov.

Headed by former Google engineer Mikey Dickerson, who played a lead role in the health care site’s rescue, the small office has worked on projects ranging from ensuring a glitch-free relaunch of the Obamacare site this past fall to redesigning and modernizing the visa application system -- all while still largely in pilot mode.

The administration’s decision to expand the reach of the digital teams was fueled by unexpected demand from agencies, which Dickerson called “off the charts."

Administration officials also don’t think they’ll struggle to fill billets.

“Recruiting the best talent that the country has in the private sector was more successful than I expected it to be, to be perfectly honest,” Dickerson said during the conference call.

All major federal agencies -- except for the Defense Department -- will have digital service teams.

The Office of Management and Budget says the Digital Service will consult with agencies on hiring the new digital service staffers. However, more specific details -- such as whether prospective candidates can bypass the less-than-state-of-the-art USAJobs.gov to submit a resume -- still need to be firmed up.

"Now, how will these teams interact with the existing CIO teams and everybody else on the ground?” Dickerson said. “That's one reason that this budget proposal is not humongously specific about exactly how the implementation details will go is because that's going to need to be worked out on a case-by-case basis."

He added: "Obviously, the ideal that everyone wants to see happen here is that the new talent coming in is integrated, rowing in the same direction ... with the equally capable government employees that are already there."

The focus of the digital teams isn’t just to beautify agency websites. Revamping agencies’ digital offerings can mean big bucks in savings for agencies.

While USDS was still in pilot mode, the Department of Veterans Affairs became one of the first agencies to begin to stand up its own small digital services unit there.

A three-member team built the Veterans Employment Center -- which included job searches, resume builders and a skills translator -- in just three months’ time, finishing a year earlier than planned. The portal also delivered the capability of three different planned IT systems, allowing VA to cancel a $2.4 million contract, eliminate another $9 million procurement and save $3.3 million annually on another ongoing contract, according to details in the budget document.

All told, federal IT spending is set to increase by 2.7 percent compared to last year. Between 2001 and 2009, annual IT spending grew more than 7 percent a year. But since 2009, that’s slowed to about 1.5 percent, in part, because of greater efficiencies, the Obama administration said.

In addition to agency digital teams, new proposed IT funding also includes increased oversight of IT spending, reforms to tech procurement and improvements to agencies’ cybersecurity posture.

Among the specific proposals:

  • The administration wants to spend $14 billion to support cybersecurity efforts across government. This includes standing up a White House cyber-enforcement squad.
  • The budget outline also calls for removing hurdles that have traditionally shut out small and innovative startups from competing for government business. A pilot program, FBOpen, is a streamlined, less esoteric version of the government’s online database for contracting opportunities. In addition, the administration wants to raise the simplified acquisition threshold (under which agencies can conduct more rapid procurements) from $150,000 to $500,000. Finally, another pilot program allows agencies to set aside some contracting opportunities for small startups that offer cutting-edge technology.
  • Agile acquisition also got a big shout-out in the budget. By an increased focus on breaking up large IT projects into smaller pieces, agencies have been delivering functionality an average of 21 days faster since May 2013, according to details presented in the budget outline. Projects that adhere to agile-development concepts were nearly twice as likely to deliver on time than those that used the traditional “waterfall” development technique, according to the administration.
  • The administration also plans to start creating acquisition training courses based around the Digital Services Playbook and the IT-specific version of the Federal Acquisition Regulation, the TechFAR. The courses will focus on innovative acquisition practices. "It's moving from hundreds of pages of detailed requirements to things that are focused on outcomes and producing modular results that deliver progress along the way,” said OMB Deputy Director for Management Beth Cobert about the new training courses.

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