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Report: Digital Service Teams Sidestep CIOs, Lack Clear Performance Metrics

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The Obama administration’s much-hyped tech consultancy could be leaving agency chief information officers out of its decision-making process, and hasn’t been adequately tracking its own progress, a government watchdog finds.

With roughly 100 employees as of November, the White House’s U.S. Digital Service has advised agencies on projects including the Social Security Administration’s Disability Case Processing System and the State Department’s Consular Consolidated Database, the latter of which it helped stabilize during a multiweek outage last year.

Both USDS, which generally helps other agencies troubleshoot high-profile tech projects, and the General Services Administration’s 18F group, which helps customers with various digital tasks, are slated to be probed tomorrow during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. The two flagship tech teams have recently been the subjects of a review by the Government Accountability Office. 

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The GAO report, parts of which were first obtained and reported on by Nextgov last week, recommends USDS improve many of its internal management processes. For example, USDS has not completed quarterly reports on how its team prioritizes the government's most pressing IT projects, as Congress directed it to do.  

Formally created in 2014 after some of its founding members served on the White House’s HealthCare.gov rescue team, USDS recruits heavily from the private sector, drawing talent from tech companies such as Amazon and Twitter. The group spent about $4.7 million in the 2015 fiscal year and plans to spend about $14 million for the fiscal 2016 year, according to the GAO report.

The Office of Management and Budget has directed USDS to set up satellite teams in 25 other agencies. So far, nine agencies have their own, though three of those don’t have formal charters with USDS outlining their hiring and management protocol.

The remaining 16 are in various stages of planning, though eight said they won’t have teams by September because they weren’t granted funding, according to GAO.

Agency management was generally satisfied with USDS' services. The average customer satisfaction rating was 4.67, on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the most satisfied.

One respondent said USDS responded to an agency request “in a matter of hours, quickly developed an understanding of the agency’s IT system, and pushed to improve the system, even in areas beyond the scope of USDS’ responsibility,” according to GAO testimony to be delivered Friday by GAO Director of Information Technology Management Issues Dave Powner.

Clashes with FITARA

Despite general customer satisfaction, satellite teams need more direction about how to include the agency CIOs, the report found.

The White House USDS is led by one administrator and a deputy federal CIO, who reports directly to the federal CIO. USDS policy requires agencies’ digital service team leaders to report to the head or deputy head of an agency. The policy doesn’t describe a specific protocol for communication with the CIO, according to Powner’s testimony.

Only one of four agencies GAO examined had defined the role of the agency CIO. The Homeland Security Department's charter, signed by USDS, directs digital service members to report to the agency's deputy secretary, but also daily to the agency CIO.

This omission could hinder compliance with the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act or FITARA, passed in December 2014, which directs CIOs to participate more meaningfully in IT budget and decision-making discussions. 

The State Department’s CIO, for instance, said he had limited involvement with the digital service team, according to Powner’s testimony.

GAO recommended OMB update its policy to clearer define the relationship between CIOs and the digital service teams.

Missing Performance Metrics

Just one of four of USDS’ overall performance goals have clear benchmarks, GAO found.

As of 2015, the group had a handful of main goals to reach by December 2017, including:

  • Recruiting more than 200 digital service employees, revised down from an initial goal of 500; 
  • Measurably improving five to eight of the “most important services” in government; and
  • Growing both the quantity and quality of tech vendors selling to the government.

The recruitment one is easiest to measure -- USDS has hired 152 employees -- but the other goals are measured more informally, according to GAO. With regard to the “measurable improvement” of government services, USDS’ administrator has cited 1 million visitors to the Education Department’s College Scorecard, to which the digital service team contributed tech help. But the group still hasn’t documented those measures or other results, GAO found.

'What Will Do the Greatest Good...?'

Congress had directed USDS to report quarterly on how its activities help the 10 highest-priority tech projects in government, but the group still hasn’t done so, GAO found.

Though it has worked on some projects OMB included in a 2015 list of highest-priority tasks -- including HealthCare.gov and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Transformation effort -- it hasn’t formally documented how the list factors into its own prioritization of projects.

USDS’ broad criteria for projects include “what will do the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the greatest need,” how cost efficient the investment would be and what the potential is to reuse the solution across the government, according to the GAO report.

However, without more formal measures for choosing projects, “USDS has less assurance that it will apply resources to the IT projects with the greatest need of improvement,” GAO concluded.

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