Get Ready to Hear More About the Low-Profile US Digital Service

Beth Cobert, Deputy Director of Management, Office of Management and Budget.

Beth Cobert, Deputy Director of Management, Office of Management and Budget. Government Executive

Thanks to an infusion of new funding from Congress, the U.S. Digital Service is ready to scale up. These are the projects the team of innovators plan to tackle first.

The Office of Management and Budget says members of a new team of tech innovators working to straighten out digital projects in government have had their noses to the grindstone over the past few months.

Presumably, members of the U.S. Digital Service have even been too busy to set up a website of their own.

But all that’s about to change.

“We're now ready to start the scale-up phase,” said Beth Cobert, OMB’s deputy director for management, speaking this week at a Washington, D.C., event on how federal leaders view digital technology.

Nearly six months after its creation, the agency whose stock-in-trade is digital services still has no website, social media account or other discernible Web presence. USDS has not published an organizational chart or staff list and does not generally publicize the projects it works on.

“Like any good agile developer, they've been heads down over the past few months, working first on making real progress and delivering results,” Cobert said, by way of explanation.

Demand for the team’s services has been growing, she added. The team is currently working on a handful of projects “helping us tackle our highest-priority IT projects,” Cobert said.

Among them: working with developers to ensure a smooth second-year rollout of the Obamacare website; a project to help the Department of Veterans Affairs overhaul an antiquated scheduling system that mired the agency in controversy last spring; and a here-to-fore undisclosed project with the Department of Homeland Security to upgrade its digital capacities.

The Obama administration created the U.S. Digital Service, helmed by former Google engineer Mikey Dickerson, last August, to help fix agencies’ wayward IT projects. The office is currently staffed by about 20 team members, many of them Silicon Valley alumni.  

What’s driving the expansion now? In a word, cash.

In the massive spending bill approved by Congress last month, lawmakers included $20 million in new funding for IT oversight activities at OMB, a hefty chunk of it dedicated to USDS.

“With that funding in hand, we can now move to phase two of the scale-up,” Cobert said.

The goal of USDS isn’t just to patch up agency systems and head for the exits, she added. The team’s mission is broader: incubating a culture of innovative thinking and problem solving within agencies.

“It is explicitly part of their mission not just to make improvements in the IT projects but to help build the capabilities of the people that we're working with,” Cobert said.

For example, the office’s work with VA has revolved around helping the agency develop its own in-house cadre of digital-service experts.

At other agencies, USDS is educating agency management on how to spot top tech talent during the hiring process.

“I can't read a resume effectively and distinguish between the real skills that are there, but those people can,” Cobert said. “They understand what makes the best different from just OK -- and we are looking for the best."