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Will Digital Service Funding Survive Congressional Penny Pinching?

Allison Herreid/Shutterstock.com

The White House’s U.S. Digital Service team, which is approaching its first birthday and has staffed up over the past year with top techies from Silicon Valley, is getting tight-fisted treatment from lawmakers in the spending bills being hashed out on Capitol Hill.

The Obama administration’s plan to embed similar digital tech teams at agencies across government has also run into congressional penny pinching, even as lawmakers say they support the teams’ role in turning around troubled government IT projects.  

The Senate appropriations committee last week approved an annual spending measure that would grant USDS just one-third of the new funding President Barack Obama requested to scale up the “stealth startup” team, which was recently featured in a Fast Company cover story.

The Senate Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill OK’d a $5 million increase for the Office of Management and Budget’s IT fund, which is currently operating with a $20 million budget.

The administration had sought an additional $15.2 million for next year to support the growth of the White House tech team and other governmentwide IT initiatives. The House appropriations committee, meanwhile, has recommended nixing new digital service funding.

The Senate committee didn’t specify why lawmakers decided not to fully fund the administration’s request, although annual caps on agency spending -- the result of a 2011 bipartisan budget deal, which the White House wants to renegotiate -- limit the amount of new spending.

The committee “supports the formation of USDS and their role in collaborating with federal agencies” on high-priority tech projects, according to the committee report on the spending bill. The $5 million in extra funding should be spent “to become more fully engaged on each one of these projects,” the report stated.

In addition, the Senate panel wants more details from OMB on how USDS selects the projects it works on as well as quarterly report to the appropriations committee on the status of these projects.

Some congressional staffers say they’re still not clear on the White House digital team’s mandate.

“They’ve been given a lot of power, and it remains unclear what they’re going to do with that... Basically, we just don’t know what they’re doing,” a knowledgeable Senate staffer told Government Executive magazine for a July magazine feature on the new tech team.

Limited Funding for Agency Teams

More broadly, the White House has proposed creating agency-level replicas of USDS at the 25 largest agencies at a cost of $105 million. That’s a proverbial drop in the bucket compared to the $80 billion spent on IT governmentwide.

But in many cases, Congress is showing little appetite to fund those teams, either.

In the appropriations bills passed by the House so far this year, lawmakers expressly denied digital service funding for teams at the departments of Commerce, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation. The funding requests ranged from $1 million at HUD to $10 million at HHS.  

The Department of Homeland Security sought $10 million in new funding to create a digital service team there. The House proposed halving that request and rejected the administration’s use of two-year funds to hire digital service employees.

“DHS must improve the time it takes to hire new staff,” the committee report states. “Providing two-year funds for Digital Service teams undermines that objective.”

The House and Senate committees haven’t provided much in the way of explanation for the lack of digital service funding.

While denying Transportation’s $9 million request for a digital team, the House appropriations committee said it couldn’t “afford to dedicate funding to a new digital services team,” citing budget constraints.

In a June statement of administration policy, the White House urged Congress to “fully fund” agency digital teams and said lack of additional funding for the White House team “represents a missed opportunity to further expand and institutionalize” USDS.

Still, agency funding for 2016 is far from a done deal.

The full House has approved all 12 annual spending bills. The Senate still has yet to take up a handful of them and the White House has issued veto threats on several of the spending measures.

An end-of-the-year, catchall budget deal is likely, experts say. And in such a scenario, full funding for digital teams could emerge unscathed. That’s what happened last year when Congress ultimately acquiesced to the administration’s $20 million funding request for the White House digital team.

Despite the uncertainty over next year’s funding, the White House is telling agencies that continuing funding for the teams into fiscal 2017 should remain a priority, according to budget guidance issued to agency heads earlier this spring.

(Image via Allison Herreid/ Shutterstock.com)

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