USDS and 18F: Modernizing Government IT for the 21st Century

Michael Steinberg, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

It’s clear that in retrospect, the rollout of Healthcare.gov in 2014 was a technological disaster. Patients that logged on to shop for health insurance experienced a slow, inefficient, and glitchy website. Although contractors did much of the work designing and creating the website, a significant portion of the blame for the failure was attributed to poor government innovation and IT practices. Simply put, the government did not have the technological expertise, efficient processes, or organizational structures to create a website that could help consumers.

From this experience, the Obama Administration recognized that for government to keep up with technological changes in society, it needed to innovate and solve IT challenges quicker and more effectively. The President created two new institutions, the United States Digital Service (USDS) and 18F. The USDS is a small team of digital experts within the Executive Office of the President that troubleshoot and improve government websites while 18F is an office within the General Services Administration (GSA) that consults with agencies as they modernize software systems to aid constituents. These offices have been a crucial part of the Administration’s effort to recruit top tech talent to serve in government and create innovative tech solutions for government agencies.

What are the USDS and 18F?

In the Obama Administration’s initial press release announcing the creation of the USDS, the White House envisioned, “This small team of America’s best digital experts will work in collaboration with other government agencies to make websites more consumer friendly, to identify and fix problems, and to help upgrade the government’s technology infrastructure.” In addition to helping agencies directly, the USDS was charged with recruiting top tech talent, and so far, they have shown remarkable progress on this goal. The agency has hired almost 200 new digital experts in government, significantly reduced the time it takes to hire new talent, and developed a casual work environment where tech experts feel like their projects make a difference in the world.

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Also in 2014, a group of Presidential Innovation Fellows established 18F, which got its name from its location at 1800 F Street in Washington, DC. This group of software engineers collaborates with other federal agencies to fix technical problems, build innovative products, and improve how government serves the public through technology. Since its inception, 18F has worked with more than 50 offices and agencies on more than 200 projects including the Department of Education’s College Scorecard which helps students compare colleges and universities and the myUSCIS immigration application tool which guides immigrants through the naturalization process. These projects yielded easy to use apps and websites for constituents and customers looking for services.

Innovation in Government is Not Easy

The USDS and 18F initiatives do face criticism. Congress is by its nature risk adverse, and some members are skeptical of investing tax dollars into innovation organizations with uncertain success rates. Other members oppose these offices for political reasons. Partisan budget battles have impacted USDS and 18F, and particularly during the Obama Administration, the White House pushed the majority Republican Congress for greater investments in digital services.. Members also criticize these offices because private sector companies lobby to provide government digital services. Lastly, the reporting requirements and slow budgeting processes that have plagued innovation in other agencies also hinder the USDS and 18F and can sometimes make it difficult for both offices to prove a project’s return on investment.

18F recently came under fire from the GSA’s Inspectors General, which issued a report this February condemning security, compliance, and management practices in the organization. The IG concluded that 86 percent of software used by 18F did not go through the proper approval procedures for use within the GSA IT environment and $24.8 million worth of contracts were not properly reviewed. Based on this report, 18F is expected to reform its management and compliance processes.

USDS and 18F Moving Forward

Although there is debate over the procedures and the effectiveness of these organizations, the underlying problems they aim to fix still exist in government. Recruiting top tech talent, securing government IT systems, and improving digital services are important, bipartisan issues for agency leaders. Because government must modernize digital services quickly and continue to recruit talented innovators, the Trump administration should expand the work of the USDS and 18F. This looks promising given that Jared Kushner has been asked to head a “SWAT team” to improve government and infuse agencies with private sector practices. Since the USDS and 18F were formed to mimic Silicon Valley start-up practices, it is likely they will continue to bring technological and innovative successes of the private sector to government to benefit disenfranchised Americans such as rural voters and veterans.

For example, the USDS is working to create vets.gov, a one-stop portal for veterans to interact with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The website connects veterans to applications for healthcare, education, and disability benefits, as well as career resources, status of benefits, and information on memorial services. USDS included a playbook to ensure that when pages are added or connected, they use customer-centered principles that focus on how best to help veterans. Projects like the development of vets.gov should continue through the Trump administration and beyond because they show how government can make it easier to help the American people.

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Screenshot from Vets.gov

Government technology systems have lagged behind the private sector for decades, and as a result, our federal IT systems are unsecure, our procurement practices are inefficient, and constituents have suffered. The USDS and 18F are the solution; these organizations hire top tech talent, help agencies streamline and spread sound business practices, and innovate government digital services. By supporting and improving the USDS and 18F, the Trump administration can show their commitment to creating a 21st century government.

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