WASHINGTON — Not long before WIRED magazine announced that its November issue would feature President Obama as its guest editor, the commander in chief suggested his next endeavor might orbit the world of venture capital, another signal that the president’s enthusiasm for technology will outlast his time in the Oval Office. Less clear, however, is what the future has in store for some of the president’s signature technology initiatives.
The US Digital Service (USDS) — launched after the disastrous flop and subsequent revival of the healthcare.gov website — is described by the president as a world-class, technological “SWAT team,” built to attract elite engineers and designers from the private sector and put them to work on some of the most troubled government websites and systems. In fact, the creation of USDS in 2014 is part of a trio of projects to revitalize the government’s outdated IT. The presidential innovation fellows program, which recruits gifted technologists to “tours of duty” within federal agencies, and 18F, an in-house developer and digital consultancy for the government are part of an effort to modernize the way citizens interact with public services.
But even as Obama’s newfangled technology corp draws in hundreds of exceptionally talented people with the mission and allure of public service, the priorities of the next president will shape how these initiatives live or languish.
Rep. Suzan Delbene, a technology entrepreneur before serving in public office, has proposed legislation to extend USDS for the next 10 years, but her bill is unlikely to pass during the lame duck session, leaving USDS’s fate in the hands of the next administration. As an executive branch initiative, it’s possible that USDS would end with the next president, but DelBene’s office told BuzzFeed News they are cautiously optimistic it will continue. No Republicans are sponsoring the bill.
Hillary Clinton has pledged to make these digital services a permanent fixture of the executive branch. And she supports Obama’s plan to extend USDS into other federal agencies, each with their own dedicated tech team. Donald Trump, on the other hand, hasn’t made the same commitment. The Trump campaign did not respond to several requests for comment.
The White House has worked to ensure the longevity of these programs. In May, the administration created the Technology Transformation Service, a new sub-agency to house 18F and the innovation fellowship, hoping to propel their progress. Through a special hiring designation, successful USDS applicants are pulled into the government faster than standard federal employees; USDS staff are also non-political appointees, whose jobs are untethered to Obama’s time in office. What’s more, much of the work they do is linked to projects that will continue through 2017.
A major aspect of Obama’s tech initiatives is embedding technologists from Silicon Valley and the startup ecosystem into federal agencies for short-term work, tackling projects alongside civil servants. Through the expedited hiring process, experts are detailed to agencies like Homeland Security, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the IRS to help build lasting computing solutions within the government. While many technologists return to the corporate world where they command staggering salaries, coveted stock options, and a small kingdom of perks, the administration hopes to establish a tradition of service, however temporary, within Silicon Valley and the nation’s tech hubs. And in a more tangible sense, the programs act as a pipeline, driving the tech-savvy into Washington.
In a statement Jamal Brown, the press secretary for the White House Office of Management and Budget, told BuzzFeed News that the creation of programs like 18F and the presidential innovation fellowship will institutionalize the gains the government has made to keep up with technology’s onward rush.
“[W]aves of tech talent – from engineers, designers, product managers, and more – have answered the President’s call to service and joined the U.S. Digital Service’s efforts to transform our most important public-facing digital services, and will continue to do so over the coming years,” he said.
By 2017, the Obama administration aims to vastly expand the USDS model, hiring 500 technologists through short-term appointments, and establishing “high-impact” digital service teams within 25 government agencies. Under the plan, USDS will continue to act as a recruitment center, helping agencies prop up their own elite tech squads. To cover the cost of the expansion, the president requested $105 million in his budget proposal last year.
Beyond Obama’s moves to institutionalize the influx of tech experts and overhaul the way bureaucrats manage and present data, several technologists close to the White House point to the work they have accomplished, and continue to improve upon, as compelling reasons to keep the tech initiatives up and running.
“By being an essential tool for innovation to almost every agency in the federal government, these programs are making themselves highly indispensable,” Jacqueline Kazil, a former fellow and 18F cofounder, who now serves as the head of the Presidential Innovation Fellows Foundation, told BuzzFeed News. 18F projects include a service that helps aspiring Americans navigate the immigration process, a searchable database for students to compare the colleges they’re eyeing, and a revamped federal website to better share campaign finance data with the public.
Kazil, like several other former fellows, believes the promise of achieving social impact will keep technologists coming, despite president Obama’s departure. “The presidency has a symbolic power and glamour that helps to bring people to government that wouldn’t necessarily come, but in the end technologists are motivated by a desire to solve impactful problems,” she said.
Jason Shen, a former fellow, contrasted the lofty promise of civic service to the idea of working for the food delivery and laundry startups that have proliferated in Silicon Valley. “There’s this sense that we are going to work on a real problem,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Shen thinks the urgency and excitement to transform government IT will endure, in part because the tech initiatives have garnered their own prestige and political cache, beyond the sitting president and the prospect of a Clinton or Trump White House. “Obviously Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are very different candidates, but I think these programs like USDS, 18F and the [presidential fellows] have taken on a life of their own,” he said. “They have their own brands now.”
Alison Rowland, another 18F cofounder and former fellow told BuzzFeed News, “I’ve had colleagues who say that the president is ultimately my boss. But I don’t get the sense that the end of Obama’s presidency is going to mean people stop being dedicated to the idea of improving how government tech works.”
According to the White House, a bundle of recent IT projects, including the work done by USDS, has saved taxpayers $3.5 billion. But on Capitol Hill, Obama’s tech initiatives are not free from criticism.
18F is required to have a plan in place to recover all its costs from the agencies that benefit from its services. But during an oversight hearing in Congress this summer, the Government Accountability Office presented a report indicating that 18F is losing money, and that it won’t stop losing money until 2019. The yearly losses were projected to peak in 2016, at just under $15 million. Proponents of 18F have argued, however, that even government startups need time and money to grow, and that relatively speaking, 18F’s temporary operating loss is an inconsequential fleck compared to the nearly $90 billion the government doled out for IT this year.
“I support making digital services simple, effective, and easier to use for the American people, the stated goal of 18F,” Rep. William Hurd, who led the oversight hearing this summer, told BuzzFeed News. “The question is whether they can achieve that.” He added, “They must continue to move towards cost effective use of tax dollars, as well as transparency and effective measurement standards.”
The same GAO report also raised an issue with the way USDS collaborates with the chief information officers of federal agencies. “I’m concerned by reports that USDS teams may parachute into an agency, fix whatever they perceive was the problem, and then leave — without the full buy-in and involvement of the agency’s CIO,” Rep. Hurd said at the time, during the same hearing. The head of USDS, Mikey Dickerson, acknowledged the issues raised by the GAO report, and said his organization would better define their partnerships with federal CIOs.
Dan Tangherlini, the former chief of the General Services Administration, the agency where 18F and the fellowship are housed, told BuzzFeed News that even amid these concerns, the American people benefit with these programs in action. “Was the world better before USDS and 18F?” he said. “Do we think the world would be better without them? I think the answer to that is self evident.”
Unlike the staple of policy disputes that cleave along party lines, Tangherlini sees the mission to revamp Washington’s digital infrastructure as nonpartisan, an urgent effort to play catch-up as technology alters nearly everything society touches. While he acknowledged that some tech experts might wait to see how the next administration sets its priorities, he suspects shrewd operators will take advantage of the transition.
“If you want to be really savvy, maybe you are thinking about moving in right now, because you’ll have a higher level of influence. You’re buying into the organization before the hockey stick,” he said, referring to a startup’s explosive growth. “You could be employee number four rather than employee number 40.”
Tangherlini, who is now the president of SeamlessDocs Federal, thinks the likelihood of a future president dismantling the tech programs is close to zero. Instead, as these initiatives move away from their debut years, their stature risks being diminished as the fanfare and vibrance surrounding their work flags over time, he said. For Tangherlini, the question becomes not who will be president, but what the next president will do to keep these programs thriving.
“Whoever wins, will they come in early on and say ‘I want to support modern, digital government, and I want to try to recruit the best people for those jobs,’” he asked. “That will be a big indicator whether they continue.”