A good sign from the new administration about USDS

Steve Kelman notes the strong indicators that the U.S. Digital Service -- and a commitment to digital government more broadly -- are now integral to the federal ecosystem.

low code development

It caught my eye last week that the Biden transition office had established as a review team dedicated to the U.S. Digital Service. As an organization of only 180 people in total, normally one would not have expected USDS to receive its own review team. That it did so is significant.

To be sure, the review team is modest in size, consisting of Matt Bailey, one of the founders of Code for DC (the local branch of Code for America), and Andrew Nacin, who himself worked for USDS for two years during the Obama administration. Additionally, there are five or so USDS veterans on other review teams – which itself shows some success by USDS in one of its larger goals of getting people coming out of the private sector to continue involvement with government after their stints at the agency.

The review team is a signal that USDS will continue and be nurtured.

USDS has been a surprising success story for the Trump administration. Founded during the Obama administration, it was an effort to help the government’s tech talent crisis by bringing in people from the private sector for time-limited “stints” in government working on digital projects. To some extent it got off to a rocky start, both because of a culture conflict between young digital natives and older feds, and because it saw itself as a sort of tiger team swooping into agencies from the outside telling them what to do.

I suspect most observers felt the Trump administration would just kill this delicate sapling. There was also worry that the administration would restore the fed-bashing, "waste, fraud and abuse" approach to government management many Republicans advocate. Luckily, this was not the approach Trump’s Deputy Director for Management, Margaret Weichart, adopted. And USDS was retained, headed by longtime Google software engineer Matt Cutts, who had originally planned to stay for three months but has ended up staying for the whole administration. Cutts instilled within USDS an effort, already begun by the end of the Obama administration, to be more cooperative with agencies, including coming in based on agency requests rather than decisions from above. USDS has now succeeded in becoming part of the federal IT ecosystem.

Let me take out my crystal ball and speculate how federal IT will develop over the next four years. The first observation is that it used to be that the IT community was centered on encouraging government to embrace IT, have the issue rise on the radar screen, to get IT more attention -- but that this is changing. That battle is now won, and the focus will be changing to doing IT better.

I think in particular that will appear in the form of a new emphasis, pushed by USDS, on modern digital practices such as agile software development and user-centered design. I predict this will also lead to a much-increased role for another phenomenon of the last four years, the non-traditional IT contractors who seek to serve the modern digital practice market. Just as USDS has become part of the federal ecosystem, so too have non-traditional contractors. (As I wrote in a blog a while back, who would have ever thought that a company named Oddball could become a presence in the federal marketplace.)

The challenge for the Digital Services Coalition, the advocacy group for non-traditional contractors, will be to maintain its identity and avoid being taken over by what one might call, paraphrasing conservative critics of moderate Republicans, DINO’s – firms that are Digital in Name Only. I look forward to blogging about the development of the non-traditional contractor space over the next four years.

The second prediction is that there will be still more demand for federal service among young technologists. The past four years have also seen the emergence of the civic tech movement, representing a growing interest in public service among young people. Code for America at the state and local level and Coding it Forward at the federal level have grown to satisfy that demand. We could well see a surge of young tech talent spending at least some time in government.

We need to think seriously about how to welcome them. Will agencies allow them to cast off the business suit uniform and allow them to take on meaningful work? USDS is dependent on appropriated funds, and that will slow the speed at which it can grow. But GSA’s 18F, which is funded by interagency agreements, has more room to expand if agencies want more of those services. I hope they are planning for increased capacity.

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