U.S. Digital Service Shares First Priorities Under Trump

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The tech team has new allies but many familiar projects.

An Obama-era technology troubleshooting team has continued under President Donald Trump, maintaining projects some experts suspected would be shuttered in the new administration. 

The U.S. Digital Service, a task force of professionals recruited from the private sector, was established to tackle some of the federal government's highest profile and highest risk technology challenges. It emerged out of the ad hoc team that salvaged the Healthcare.gov rollout in 2013. Four years later, the team is still operating with satellites in seven federal agencies including the Defense, Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services departments. 

In USDS' annual report to Congress, Acting Administrator Matt Cutts—the Google transplant responsible for Gmail's spam filter—outlined the team's current priorities, many of which were established under Obama. The team reports to the Office of Management and Budget's acting deputy director and is now part of the American Technology Council, a convocation of prominent business leaders that Trump taps for advice on federal problems. USDS also works with the White House Office of American Innovation, a new team led by Jared Kushner aiming to modernize government technology, according to Cutts. 

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Despite stark differences between the two administrations' broader priorities—some experts predicted Trump would keep the tech teams but assign them to new projects—USDS appears to be continuing the progress it made under Obama. 

For instance, Kushner has listed the VA's internal technology as one of the Office of American Innovation's top priorities, and USDS has been working on various VA projects for years, the report noted. A USDS team built and deployed a system that could process claims for disability compensation in 2016, and piloted a new tool that would let lawyers and judges review evidence from those claims in April. It also helped launch Vets.gov, an online portal consolidating the thousands of federal benefit sites for veterans, in 2015; in November USDS added a check claim status tool, applications for education benefits, and other new features. 

USDS is still collaborating with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to digitize the immigration paperwork processing system, the report said. 

Other recent projects include Login.gov, a two-factor authentication system that the General Services Administration and USDS spun out to be used by other agencies. As of May 2017, Customs and Border Protection is already using the system to manage log-ins to its own site while the Education Department, Social Security Administration and Railroad Retirement Board plan to implement it. 

USDS has also been trying to shore up the federal purchasing process, one of the Office of American Innovation's key missions. In 2016, the group designed an educational program that would train contracting officers to buy digital IT services. So far, about 54 professionals have taken that course. USDS is continuing to expand the program and made the training materials public in June, according to the report.