Lawmakers see promise in 18F and USDS, despite a few warning signs

The digital services teams could do more to align with FITARA, but overseers displayed as much optimism as scrutiny following a GAO report on the teams' work.

So long as they ensure that agency CIOs know what they're up to, and they don't box out the private sector, federal digital services teams could be golden, IT leaders in the House of Representatives say.

At a June 10 House Oversight Committee hearing on the Office of Management and Budget-based U.S. Digital Service and the General Services Administration's 18F, the Obama administration's digital experts took the opportunity to explain how they fit in the federal IT system.

"We haven't done a very good job of communicating what 18F does," acknowledged Phaedra Chrousos, head of GSA's new Technology Transformation Service and former 18F associate administrator.

18F and USDS were both envisioned as "digital SWAT teams" when set up by the White House in 2014, and they have tackled dozens of digital service projects across government since.

"These groups, done right, make a lot of sense," said Dave Powner, the Government Accountability Office's director of IT management issues.

Powner was the lead on a GAO report that called out potential problems with 18F and USDS: The former is spending more than it recoups from agencies, and the latter may be stepping beyond the bounds of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act by swooping in on agencies' projects without the CIOs' full awareness.

But Powner's report also showed that customers gave the teams high satisfaction marks -- 4.38 points out of 5 for 18F, 4.67 points for USDS -- and his testimony was measured. The teams just need tweaks to stay on the right track, he said.

Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) voiced concerns that USDS might be violating the spirit of FITARA, and Connolly was visibly dissatisfied with some of the answers he received. "You have to do better than that," Connolly told USDS Administrator Mikey Dickerson at one point. 

Hurd was equally emphatic. "Under FITARA nothing of any significance related to IT should be happening at agencies without the involvement and sign off of agency CIOs," he said. "Period."

But GAO's take was that in most cases CIOs are well-informed when a digital service team comes into their agency.

"We just need to tighten it up a little more," said Powner

The contracting community has longstanding concerns about these groups, centered around whether their missions could squeeze out private sector vendors. Those issues got relatively little play at the hearing.

"Are they competing with the private sector or not?" Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president for the Information Technology Alliance for Public Sector, asked of 18F.

Speaking to FCW after the hearing, Hodgkins said, "They are in the position of defining what you buy, and then selling it to you. That's the conflict we're concerned about."

Hodgkins also said contractors aren't sure where to hawk their wares going forward.

"The concern from industry is that they've invested literally millions and millions of dollars to position their products and services on the vehicles like OASIS and the schedules in [the Federal Acquisition Service], and it's unclear to them, 'Do I need to figure out how to move over? Is the customer going to be going somewhere else and I need to figure out how to get my products and services there?'" Hodgkins said. "All those questions are unanswered."

David LeDuc, senior policy director with the Software & Information Industry Association, questioned whether 18F and USDS might be pushing agencies to build projects when commercial off-the-shelf  technology would serve them better.  LeDuc and Hodgkins both testified at the hearing, but lawmakers' questions were overwhelmingly directed to the three government witnesses.

When asked whether 18F was encouraging custom-built solutions rather than commercial off-the-shelf purchases, Chrousos told lawmakers that 18F often facilitates the purchase of COTS products. She pointed to GSA's Agile Blanket Purchase Agreement as 18F's best work.

And USDS'  Dickerson testified that 18F and USDS are not out to steal business from the private sector. "[S]killed contractors will continue to deliver the majority of the government's digital services, just as they do today," he said.

"I think these programs conceptually are great programs," said Hurd, one of many lawmakers giving 18F and USDS tentative thumbs up.

Industry was more guarded.

"They're part of the solution," Hodgkins allowed, "but they're not the whole solution."