Digital Gov

How the U.S. Digital Service thrives in the Trump era


While many of the modernization efforts from the Trump administration have come from new White House-based offices and the private sector, and some federal tech groups have seen turnover and declining numbers, the U. S. Digital Service is still kicking.

In its latest report to Congress the USDS highlighted a series of objectives and launches from 2017 across a range of government agencies.

Many of the stated goals of USDS mesh with White House modernization efforts -- specifically improving public-facing services, growing the use of common platforms, getting tech talent into government and rethinking procurement.

USDS got another nod from the White House when its administrator, Matt Cutts, got a seat on the American Technology Council. Cutts was also tapped by Office and Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to serve on the Technology Modernization Fund Board, the panel that directs where money from the centralized fund established by the Modernizing Government Technology Act will go.

The work outlined in the report takes place across six agencies — with one project at the General Services Administration and the Small Business Administration, and two each at the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services.

In partnership with GSA's 18F, USDS helped launch, the encrypted shared identity authentication platform that lets people use a single sign-on to securely access services from multiple agencies. In February, the USAJobs website transitioned to using, and the Social Security Administration, the Department of Education and the Railroad Retirement Board plan to integrate for their users.

Historically, small businesses looking to determine if they're eligible for government contracts have had to rely on paper and postal mailing, which was slow, could require thousands of sheets of paper for a single firm, and created a heavy burden on both private- and public-sector employees. To make this process faster and move it online, USDS teamed up with SBA to build the system for four agency programs.

At the Department of Defense, in addition to the Hack the Pentagon program, USDS relaunched a redesigned site, which provides logistics for shipments of service-members' personal belongings. That relaunch came in November, with the goal of making outdated — even non-functioning — digital services one less thing for moving military families to deal with.

Within DHS, USDS partnered with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services staff to address challenges with the Electronic Immigration System program. In October, the teams transitioned away from the 20-page form to an online application for those seeking to become a naturalized citizen. USDS also worked with Customs and Border Protection to redesign and move its Trusted Traveler Programs, aimed at making it easier for previously vetted travelers to enter the U.S., to the cloud.

The new launches from the digital service team at VA include a tool that allows veterans to appeal and track their claim status online, another that allows vets to save a form they're working on to return to it later, as well as an online statement of benefits. USDS is also working on streamlining VA's appeals processing, with the goal of cutting down on the backlog of appeals in VA's system.

At HHS, USDS helped bring together disparate data on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' Quality Payment Program website, and earlier in March, deployed Blue Button 2.0, an API to help doctors more easily access Medicare claims data.

The goal of these launches, said Rick Lee, product owner for the USDS team at SBA, is not just to improve the tech, but to "improve and modernize their business processes," even if it means rolling out a minimum viable product and enhancing releases from there.

Part of focusing on the user experience, added Reina Staley, chief of staff for the Defense Digital Service, requires going out and talking to the users themselves to know and resolve their pain points.

After some initial uncertainty about the future of the USDS at the outset of the Trump administration, the tech group has seen budget proposals bigger than the $16 million enacted in fiscal year 2017. The White House proposed $19 million for fiscal year 2018 and $17 million for fiscal year 2019.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter


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