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USDS Is Sticking Around, But Will Trump Put His Own Spin On It?

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It’s unclear if President Donald Trump will replace many of the White House tech positions established under his predecessor, but at least one major Obama-led effort might be sticking around: the U.S. Digital Service.

“FYI: @USDS is here to stay in the new administration. Period.,” Gerrit Lansing, Trump’s pick for the White House chief digital officer, tweeted Monday, apparently quelling fears that the incoming administration would abolish that team.

USDS’ staff of short-term federal employees, populated largely by private sector recruits from companies such as Facebook and Google, evolved from a troubleshooting team brought on initially to fix the 2013 HealthCare.gov rollout. Today, USDS encompasses hundreds of staffers scattered throughout the government—not only at the flagship White House unit, but also at satellite groups in eight federal agencies including the Homeland Security Department.

The fate of 18F, another technology consultancy established during Obama’s term, remains uncertain. Lansing has met with Rob Cook, the head of the Technology Transformation Service, which houses 18F, according to a Jan. 9 internal staff email obtained by Nextgov.

Trump’s transition team was “completely supportive from the start” of federal technology projects, Cook wrote in that email, circulated to 18F staff. During a meeting, Reed Cordish, the Baltimore real-estate developer named Trump’s assistant to the president for intragovernmental and technology initiatives, said the incoming administration viewed government tech programs as “crucially important and nonpartisan priority,” Cook paraphrased. “[T]hey hope everyone will continue their service into the new administration.”

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has also expressed support for those programs. In an email to former White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, Kushner wrote that “continued dedication to modernizing government tech is a mission critical task and we look forward to working with the many talented, dedicated tech professionals” in offices including USDS, TTS, the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of the U.S. Chief Information Officer.

Nick Sinai, former U.S. deputy CTO within the Office of Science and Technology Policy and partner at Insight Venture Partners, told Nextgov the Trump administration might embrace USDS and 18F’s model of recruiting private sector talent, especially if they can help cut costs while improving services for citizens.

“You can write some policy about how procurement should be changed, but you need talented people—both new to government and who have been living inside government for some time—to make it a reality,” he said. “A Trump administration would see the value of bringing private sector people in for relatively short stints ... to serve their country.”

Still, he predicted the Trump administration might encourage USDS to pursue projects relevant to its political priorities. Under Obama, USDS projects have spanned in mission from digitizing the admissions process for refugees to standing up Vets.gov, intended to be an online portal for thousands of disparate veterans benefits.

“President Trump and his team may have some focus on other high-priority projects, but most of the projects [USDS has] been working on that help veterans, students ... active duty military, would seem to line up well with the new administration," Sinai said.

Sinai said he was “optimistic that many of the projects will continue.”

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