Two years of USDS: Obama's tech push going strong

The U.S. Digital Service turns two this week, and although the program is not without its critics, it gets good grades for the innovative technology services it brings to government.

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The U.S. Digital Service has two years under its belt. And although the program is not without its critics, USDS has received good grades for innovating government services through technology.

President Barack Obama created USDS in the Office of Management and Budget on Aug. 11, 2014, with the goal of improving and simplifying the digital experience among citizens, businesses and the government. To commemorate the anniversary, the Obama administration issued an impact report on Aug. 9 to summarize the team's accomplishments.

"This work has reimagined how government services should be provided to the public," White House officials said in a statement.

USDS rebooted, is digitizing various immigration system application and review processes, and developed -- a single website that consolidates important resources for veterans.

The team also worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs to design a new digital application that makes it easier for veterans to apply for health care online. The previous process required veterans to complete a fillable PDF form using Internet Explorer even though 70 percent of the government's web traffic comes via Chrome, Safari and Firefox browsers.

Since the new application went live in July, 11,600 veterans have used it to apply for health care, the impact report states.

When USDS and 18F, a closely affiliated digital consulting shop that is part of the General Services Administration, were created two years ago, both were envisioned as digital SWAT teams and have since tackled dozens of digital service projects across government. However, the contracting community has expressed concern that the government startups compete against industry and have an unfair advantage.

At a June hearing on 18F and USDS held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, lawmakers expressed support for the digital teams as long as they keep agency CIOs apprised of what they are doing and don't exclude the private sector.

David Powner, director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office, was the lead author on a GAO report that called into question whether USDS had stepped beyond the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act's boundaries by getting involved in agencies' IT projects without CIOs' full knowledge. However, his report also showed high customer service marks for USDS.

"These groups, done right, make a lot of sense," Powner said at the hearing.