Wyden seeks funds for USDS, 18F to help states amid COVID-19

Senators push for USDS, 18F to ramp help to states struggling with legacy tech.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore) election night 2016 shutterstock image photo credit: Diego G Diaz

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and 15 Democratic colleagues are asking congressional leadership to appropriate more funds for federal technology innovators to help states whose legacy IT systems are fracturing under the demand created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unemployment benefits systems in New York, New Jersey, Florida and elsewhere are cracking under a record number of claims. New Jersey's governor even put out a call for COBOL programmers to come and help maintain legacy IT systems.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed state and local government benefits systems due to unprecedented numbers of applications and outdated systems," Wyden wrote in an April 22 letter. "More than 22 million Americans have filed unemployment claims in the past four weeks alone."

Wyden wants the next COVID-19 rescue package passed by Congress to include help for struggling states, with a $50 million emergency appropriation for the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) and $25 million to the Federal Citizen Services Fund to support the Technology Transformation Services (TTS).

Additionally, Wyden is looking to cut red tape that currently binds federal-state agreements, requiring months of negotiations before federal agencies can share resources.

Wyden also wants TTS’ 18F to take a role in advising states on purchasing cloud services and permit state and local governments purchase services created by the federal government.

Ramping up USDS could be a heavy lift. The central USDS capacity has been decreasing rather than increasing over the past few years, as the White House and technology policy managers at the Office of Management and Budget look to push digital service capabilities out to federal agencies.

USDS was funded at $17 million in 2018 and dipped to $13 million in 2019 and $7 million in 2020, as the agency shifted in part to a reimbursable model to encourage agencies to develop native digital services. The Trump administration requested $7 million for USDS for fiscal year 2021.

Margaret Weichert, then deputy director for management at OMB, told FCW last June that a central program didn't make sense and that the real growth in digital services should be at the agency level.

"By definition a model that is utterly reliant on the White House funding pool is going to be limited. Rather than ignore that reality, we're actually refocusing on what is the core set of capabilities that come from the White House," she said.

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