What's next for government innovation groups?

Supporters are pressing for continuation of 18F and USDS, amid the uncertainty of tech policy in the coming Trump administration.

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The future of the technology innovation groups 18F and the U.S. Digital Service likely isn't high on the priority list of the incoming Trump administration, which has yet to talk transition with the Pentagon and has seen major turnover in its transition staff.

It's an open question whether those groups, which were established administratively to improve government technology and customer service after the disastrous launch of the HealthCare.gov website, have enough institutional buy-in and legislative support to survive.

Meanwhile, some of the fiercest advocates of the civic technology movement are preemptively making their case.

Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America and an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, said the movement was not subject to partisan winds.

"Government can work better, and there is a nonpartisan movement, made up of people inside and outside of government, that’s proven that over the past six years," Pahlka wrote in a blog post.

Dan Tangherlini, who led the General Services Administration when 18F was launched in 2014, sounded a similar note. "If you really do want to help veterans; enhance job opportunities; improve border security and immigration fairness; build infrastructure and reduce the cost of government service delivery, 18F and USDS represent the best chance to do it fast and well," he wrote in a Medium post.

Aaron Snow, 18F's co-founder and former executive director, has returned to GSA after a personal leave and is now serving as an adviser to new Technology Transformation Service Commissioner Rob Cook. And Noah Kunin, director of delivery architecture and infrastructure services at 18F, has announced that he intends to stay on.

"Politicians may (and will) disagree passionately on what government should do," Kunin wrote in a personal blog post. "But they all say that for whatever the government does, we should do it well."

However, the government contracting community and some congressional overseers and other watchdog groups have been critical of the innovation shops.

A report from GSA's Office of Inspector General concluded that 18F needed to do a better job of looking after its financial projections. A June report from the Government Accountability Office reported high levels of customer satisfaction among government users but cited a need to improve coordination among 18F and USDS workers and agency CIOs.

It is worth pointing out, however, that those oversight groups don't examine the one metric that supporters of 18F and USDS say is the most important: how much their expertise and agile practices contribute to savings over the cost of doing things the old way.

That point of view has attracted support from one powerful lawmaker. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) tweeted on Nov. 10 that "we need to modernize government -- programs like @18F and @USDS hold great potential for our country."

Still, the vendor community has serious reservations about the groups.

"There have been obviously numerous discussions on the Hill about the role of 18F," said Mike Hettinger, a former senior congressional staffer who now works on behalf of industry. "There remains industry concern about how it fits in the lanes of government and how it impacts commercial providers. It is probably a good time given the transition to take a look at 18F and how it fits and the role it should play going forward. I expect the Trump administration will do that."

In prepared testimony for a June hearing on Capitol Hill, Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president of the IT Alliance for Public Sector, said, "We have repeatedly been told that intervention by 18F and USDS is not a welcome experience, leaving agency and contractor personnel feeling that they have failed and without any sense of shared knowledge or experience after the team departs."

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told FCW on Nov. 14 that the groups have "done nothing to build political support for their efforts. In fact, they've done the opposite -- they've planted seeds of doubt on both sides."

Connolly added that he was "agnostic" about the groups, but in the current political climate, he believed they would make "an easy cut."

Yet according to David Eaves, a lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government who has helped train Presidential Innovation Fellows, the missions of 18F and USDS don't need to be revised or restated to appeal to a Republican administration.

"The value proposition -- to design services that people want to use and that save money -- feels to me pretty nonpartisan," Eaves told FCW.

Although officials might make moves to placate the vendor community by focusing 18F and USDS away from design and coding, there are larger questions about the role of technology in government and where innovation groups can make a difference.

"Whether tech is insourced or outsourced, the bigger question is: Is there sufficient competence within government that is constantly being refreshed to understand where technology is, where it is going and how we make strategic decisions going forward?" Eaves said.

If cuts are in store, 18F might present a more inviting target than USDS. The fast-growing and vocal 18F has been elevated to occupy a key spot in the newly created Technology Transformation Service at GSA. By contrast, USDS is split between a central pod housed at the Office of Management and Budget and outposts at most large agencies, where digital services specialists are embedded in CIO shops.

But time is a key challenge for both groups. Many 18F and USDS employees were hired for term contracts under special authority. Those typically two-year stints can be extended for two additional years, but they do not guarantee entrance into competitive civil service posts for those who want a long-term government career.

"Even if [the Trump administration] didn't have the stated goal of eliminating 18F and USDS, a hiring freeze could phase everyone out," Eaves said.

Many members of 18F and USDS are on a break from lucrative private-sector careers in Silicon Valley and other technology hubs. Those workers can always return to those careers if the Trump administration decides it doesn’t need their abilities or if they are turned off by the culture or policy direction of the new administration.

"Without leadership, direction and a sense of support, would you hang around?" Eaves asked.

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