Agencies seek at least $75 million in digital service funding

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It's no secret that the federal government is on the lookout for a few good geeks. The fast-growing U.S. Digital Service, housed at the Office of Management and Budget, trying to induce private-sector techies to do a stint in government. Deputy CIO and Digital Services chief Mikey Dickerson pegged the overall spend on the new tech teams at about $105 million.

"The demand from the agencies is also more than we could ever satisfy. We have met with 22 of them and identified around 60 projects that need attention," Dickerson said in a March recruiting pitch at the SXSW conference in Austin.

Most of the CFO Act agencies have made budget requests to fund Digital Services teams. The Department of Defense is not establishing a digital team, and the congressional justification documents for the departments of Energy and Housing and Urban Development make no mention of the program. But otherwise, buy-in is solid up and down the line. Going through agency budgets, there are at least $75 million in digital services funding requests, even though some agencies that are fielding teams currently or plan them for fiscal 2016 didn't include dollar figures in their documents.

Most CFO Act agencies have made budget requests to fund Digital Services teams, at levels ranging from $1 million to $10 million or more.

Budget justification documents are uniformly long, drab recitations of spending priorities, with lots of charts and tables. The drafters of these documents across agencies appear to have borrowed some boilerplate text, presumably supplied by the OMB program office, that explain the need for Digital Service teams, and the potential gains in productivity and efficiency they can engender. One particular passage -- "The success rate of government digital services can be improved when the Department has digital service experts on staff with modern digital product design, software engineering and product management skills" -- can be found in more than a few of these dense documents. But some agencies have spelled out specific plans for their digital teams, and made budget requests that are outsized, at least when compared to their overall IT spends.

The Commerce Department, for example, is seeking $6.4 million for its Digital Service, with an eye to making its troves of data more standardized and interoperable. The agency envisions a common Commerce data system as "a key asset that will enable the Department to increase access to a more consumable version of the data it collects and produces."

The Health and Human Services Department is requesting $10 million for its Digital Services Team. The agency wants 30 full-timers, and is focusing on establishing a core team with strong management skills to guide the development of digital services across HHS. "The initial group will need core expertise in program management, program evaluation, procurement, data science, information architecture, and structured content," per the budget document. HHS leadership is taking advantage of the new program to promise tighter coordination between its CIO and CTO offices and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, which has broad authority over the department's public-facing websites.

The Department of the Treasury is planning a 41-person, $10 million Digital Services Team to focus on the usability of online government services across platforms and devices, better IT procurement, and the use of data to drive innovation.

The Department of Homeland Security is seeking $10 million for a 50-person Digital Service team that will bring commercial best practices like agile development and open source to bear on IT projects. The plan is for a decentralized team, with personnel located within DHS components.

The Small Business Administration is requesting $1 million for a Digital Service team to improve and develop the agency's SBA One portal, envisioned as a one-stop shop for access to loan, contracting, capital and other services.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has not released a dollar figure for the Digital Service team in its fiscal 2016 budget request, but the VA has by far the most mature program, and has already shown results on several projects. The department has budgeted for a 75-person team, the largest outside of the program office at OMB, and the price tag is surely far ahead of the other agency programs.

The Department of Transportation is seeking $9 million, the Department of Agriculture is seeking $7.6 million, the Justice Department wants $7.4 million, the Social Security Administration requested $4.6 million, the Department of the Interior wants $3 million, State/USAID are after $1.349 million, and the National Science Foundation wants $1 million. NASA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Office of Personnel Management each include a section in their budget request on digital services, but none mentions a specific dollar amount or a projected headcount.

The Obama administration has put in a request for $35.2 million for the Information Technology Oversight and Reform office at OMB, which includes the Digital Services program, as well as other government-wide IT and e-gov efforts. It's not clear precisely how much OMB will devote to the USDS, but the effort is budgeted for 87 full-timers in fiscal 2016. With OMB funding plus agency funding, the overall Digital Service effort climbs to more than $100 million.

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