Will term limits transform government's digital service groups?

Now at the four-year mark, Obama-era digital teams have spanned solidly across two administrations. But with the earliest hires hitting the end of their terms, what do their legacies and futures look like?

2015 group shot of 18Fers from an agency blog post

A 2015 group shot of 18Fers

Four years ago, the Obama administration launched 18F and United States Digital Service to pull private sector tech talent into government for short-term stints to help solve public-facing agency problems.

The programs launched in the aftermath of the failed HealthCare.gov rollout, which was fixed only through weeks of round-the-clock coding and testing by highly skilled teams staffed in part with quick hires from big-league technology firms including Google.

That effort served as a model for the idea of leveraging private sector tech talent on a short-term basis to solve the government's most pressing problems by adding techniques of user-centered design and agile software development to the government services portfolio.

The four-year mark is a milestone for the digital services shops because the first entrants are aging out of the program. Most were hired for two-year terms, with the ability to extend for a second two-year stint. On social media it's not uncommon to see 18Fers joke about their "incept dates" – a geeky reference to the four-year lifespan of the androids in the movie "Blade Runner."

Eric Mill, an engineer who joined 18F in 2014 and whose initial term would have ended in May, announced on Twitter that the General Services Administration offered to convert his position to a career role. But that's the exception rather than the rule. One GSA official told FCW that conversions like Mill's are more of a "one-off" than a harbinger of unilateral hiring of digital service folks whose terms have expired.

"It depends on the individual and the agency," the official said, adding the four-year mark doesn't represent "anything significant in terms of losing personnel."

The data appears to back this up. The Office of Personnel Management doesn't publish current data on hiring and separation for 18F, and the data they do have also includes 18F's onetime parent entity, the Technology Transformation Service. But info from June 2017, the most recent available, suggests a steady pipeline of new entrants, with 36 employees having a less than a year of service, 129 with 1-2 years and 26 in the 3-4 year range. (The Technology Transformation Service has since been folded into the 3,200-employee Federal Acquisition Service, making it hard to track trends from the raw personnel data.)

USDS, meanwhile, doesn't "have any mechanisms to convert" employees who reach the end of their term, said Sherkia Ekpo, that organization's director of talent management. But other agencies have occasionally moved to do so.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, for instance, has shown strong interest in bringing on digital service folks on past their initial terms. Lee Becker, chief of staff at VA's Veterans Experience Office, told FCW he'd be interested in bringing on more even more digital service staffers into career roles, adding that integrating them "has been a tremendous success." A high-profile example would be Charles Worthington, serving as deputy director of USDS and now as VA's CTO.

Generally speaking, though, Marcy Jacobs, executive director of digital service at the Department of Veterans Affairs, told FCW the agency "really [tries] to bring people to the digital service in a tour-of-duty model and get people back out to the private sector after their tour," with a few exceptions.

Nick Sinai, formerly White House chief technology officer, told FCW the biggest legacy of these groups "will be the people who have contributed for a few years, or gone on to continue in government."

"From a talent perspective," Ekpo said, one of USDS' greatest accomplishments has been proving that government can find, attract and retain high-demand talent.

"We've gotten several people to ask what the secret sauce is, and how do we lure talent from the private sector into the public sector," Ekpo said, pointing to uses of hiring flexibilities, focus on the work's impact and mission and the "flat organization structure… that's not typical in government."

The digital services teams have carved out a reputation for solving thorny governmental problems through tech, an area often referred to as one of the last bastions of bipartisan agreement, but their survival in the Trump administration wasn't always a given.

Two years in, 18F's financial management issues were profiled in a 2016 Government Accountability Office report, and the organizational structure hit some turbulence.

18F, along with the closely affiliated Presidential Innovation Fellows program (which also had its pricing model called into question), was reorganized under the Technology Transformation Service in 2016. A year later, GSA backtracked on that reorg, folding the tech shop into the Federal Acquisition Service.

Upon the change in administrations, the Trump campaign's little-defined tech platform, among other reasons, led to uncertainty about the future of the previous administration's hallmark programs.

However, the Trump White House has vocally supported the tech teams, requesting stable funding levels in each of its first three budget proposals. It's also added two new offices aimed at modernizing government through new business processes and tech: The Office of American Innovation and the American Technology Council.

USDS Administrator Matt Cutts, who joined government from Google, was tapped to serve on both the ATC as well as the panel that directs where money from the centralized fund established by the Modernizing Government Technology Act will go.

Still, questions remain about the ability of the tech teams to continue to attract new talent.

Compared to the previous administration, Ekpo said, "we do not have that flood or influx of applicants at the same rate" — meaning USDS, which boasts a current size of about 175, must do more active recruiting.

But even if agencies or individuals opt against such conversions, Sinai told FCW digital service members moving back to the private sector isn't something to be worried about. Rather, he said, it should be a point of pride.

"I think tours of duty are strong models for a number of reasons, and not just in tech," Sinai said. "I think they can help organizations become more dynamic and bring in more diversity and more experience sets and be more consistent with the [modern workforce]."

He also noted there are constructive "opportunities for companies to engage" folks who join 18F, USDS or the PIF program, given their past experiences in private sector or academia or from other parts of government.

"I think we'll see them continue to grow and flourish and be part of what it means to serve" in a variety of occupational roles, Sinai said.