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Obama’s IT Hiring Agenda: Slow but Steady Progress

Mikey Dickerson, the head of US Digital Service

Mikey Dickerson, the head of US Digital Service // Flickr user O'Reilly Conferences

Over the past year, more than 4,000 people have applied for open slots on the small White House tech team tasked with repairing off-course government IT projects.

When it comes to recruiting tech talent, those numbers don’t quite rival Silicon Valley stalwarts like Google – about 3 million hopefuls apply there each year – but they do appear to show the Obama administration’s efforts to attract top-flight talent are having an impact.

Specifics on the total number of coders, developers and software engineers ultimately hired by the U.S. Digital Service since putting out the help wanted sign last January, however, remain a bit harder to come by.

At a Yahoo! tech event in November, Mikey Dickerson, the head of the digital team, said his unit employs about 80 to 90 people.

But when asked by Nextgov on Wednesday for more specifics on USDS staffing, an Office of Management and Budget spokesman said only the federal “digital service” coalition – which also includes a sister effort at the General Services Administration and the Presidential Innovation Fellows – numbers around 300 staffers.

President Barack Obama created the digital team in August 2014 as part of a long-term response to the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov and the dearth of tech talent in the federal government.

The latest numbers on digital service hiring are included in a new update posted to Performance.gov assessing progress on the Obama administration’s “smarter IT delivery” tech agenda.

So far, digital service experts have worked on 22 projects governmentwide, according to the update. That’s up from six projects at the beginning of last year.

Just this week, Obama tasked the team with its latest project, upgrading the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System as part of his executive actions on gun reform.

An administration effort to incubate digital service teams across all 24 largest agencies is still in the beginning stages.

So far, five agencies have digital teams: The departments of Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security and Defense as well as the Social Security Administration and GSA.

Last year’s budget blueprint included a provision to scale up digital teams governmentwide over the course of the year.

By the end of 2016, the administration promises “measurable impact” on at least five of the government’s “most important digital services,” according to the performance update.

In last year’s budget proposal, the Obama administration also called for expanding contracting opportunities for innovative companies. Measures proposed included raising the simplified acquisition threshold from $150,000 to $500,000 and more set-asides for small, innovative companies.

Still, the efforts to get fresh blood into D.C.’s traditional contracting scene don’t appear to have taken root just yet.

The percentage of new IT award dollars going to small businesses, according to the USASpending.gov online tracker, remained flat between 2014 and 2015 at 36 percent.

The performance update also provides a glimpse of what to look for in the year ahead.

The White House is working on an open source software policy that will make it easier for agencies to share custom software code that has already been developed for government use. The development of that policy was on track as of last month, according to the update.

In addition, OMB is preparing to issue new guidelines to agencies for optimizing data centers. Previous policies focused on reducing the government’s data center footprint. Last month, an OMB official said the policy would be released in the “near future.”

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