USDS budget cut forces focus on core capabilities

The White House tech team that was formed to save HealthCare.gov in 2014 is returning to its roots as a 911 squad for government tech.

USDS

The White House tech team that was formed to save HealthCare.gov in 2014 is returning to its roots as a 911 squad for government tech. That's the message coming out of a planned cut of about $6.75 million to the U.S. Digital Service funding level for fiscal year 2020 -- part of an overall $13.5 million reduction to the Information Technology Oversight and Reform budget sought by the administration.

A congressional report explained the USDS shift as "the partial transition … to a reimbursable model," but that doesn't tell the full story, according to Margaret Weichert, the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

"We're not trying to sell services. We are not a consulting model," Weichert told FCW in an interview. "We are a capability that should catalyze new behaviors that ultimately need to take root in the agencies themselves."

That means that USDS, home to a cadre of short-term hires from the tech world serving a maximum of four years, will still be there to put out fires at agencies with pressing problems. But agencies looking to onboard digital services specialists for the long term need to budget for that capability themselves.

"What we're trying to build out is that rapid-response capability that's highly technical and very agile and can be deployed literally overnight," Weichert said. "That is something that will always be needed, and we [want] to make sure we have the resources to do that and do that and do that as many places as is strategically necessary."

USDS budgets have been declining in recent years. The program was funded at $17 million in 2018, and that is set to dip to about $13 million in 2019 under a mix of continuing resolutions and appropriations according to budget documents. The White House requested $8 million for the program, but that could wind up getting reduced slightly in the final 2020 appropriations package, should one pass. Currently, USDS employs close to 180 people, encompassing those based at OMB as well as the Veterans Affairs Digital Service and the Defense Digital Service.

The reimbursable model described in the legislative report isn’t designed as a revenue stream, but more as a way to shift agency users from tapping USDS personnel to deploying their own. That in-between stage -- after the urgent need has been dealt with but before an agency creates its own digital service-- is what USDS is charging for.

"In the interim, if there's some transition resource needed, it would be reimbursable. But it is not the same as the fee-for-service consulting model that 18F has," Weichert said.

The hope is that by putting a price tag on some of USDS services, that will encourage agencies to develop their own native digital service teams, as the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have already done. That in turn will free up capacity so that more agencies can tap USDS personnel for their own needs.

"If all the resources that we have coming out of the White House are already deployed in places where USDS already knows how this works, we're not able to spread that knowledge and that richness around other agencies who might really benefit from that first exposure," Weichert said.

Weichert also believes that the shift will ultimately increase the headcount of digital service personnel across government, as agencies look to the pool of term hires at USDS for talent. She said agencies can grow organically in ways that USDS can't.

"The Executive Office of the President can't scale the same way an agency can scale," Weichert said. 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."

NEXT STORY: FCW Insider: June 17

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