The future of the US government’s startup-inspired Digital Service looks less bright under tech-averse Trump

President Barack Obama meets with the United States Digital Service (USDS) staff on Jan. 12, 2017
President Barack Obama meets with the United States Digital Service (USDS) staff on Jan. 12, 2017
Image: Official White House Photo/Lawrence Jackson
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The top digital officers working for US president Donald Trump say they want to retain the prized tech talent recruited into the government under Barack Obama. Most staffers and officials have said they plan to continue their non-partisan mission, but Trump’s federal hiring freeze and polarizing executive orders could decimate the ranks of the Silicon Valley-inspired teams.

The United States Digital Service (USDS), a rapid-response technology team founded in 2014, was created in the wake of the disastrous rollout of The government had paid contractors $500 million to build the website, which was the online portal to access health coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The site didn’t work when it launched. People weren’t able to sign up for health care, and the public perception of the ACA was immediately damaged.

Todd Park, the chief technology officer under Obama, brought in Google engineer Mikey Dickerson to supervise the failed website’s overhaul. Seeing how fast and effectively Dickerson and his team were able to repair the site, Park asked Dickerson to return to the White House and start a new nonpartisan unit: the USDS.

The idea was to bring in top talent from Silicon Valley, with a goal to ingrain into the federal government the fast-paced approach to software development that startups have embraced. The USDS and its counterpart, the Technology Transformation Service (TTS), quickly became the federal government’s go-to groups for modernizing outdated procedures and systems.

Because this influx of tech expertise is an Obama legacy, often referred to as the “Obama tech surge,” it was unclear whether the new administration would want to retain it, even though the USDS runs on a tiny budget of $30 million. But top Trump officials have thrown their support behind the USDS and 18f, the TTS’s product development incubator. In late January, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, praised them in a letter to Obama’s former CTO, Todd Park, reports Bloomberg.

“I have heard only great things about you and the program you have built,” he wrote to Park. “The continued dedication to modernizing Government Tech is a mission critical task and we look forward to working with the many talented, dedicated tech professionals in these offices.”

To eliminate any doubt about the Trump administration’s support, Garrett Lansing, the White House’s chief digital officer, announced on Twitter that the units’ role in the Trump’s administration was secure:

But the future of the two groups is still threatened by at least two factors: the federal hiring freeze and the divisive ideology of the Trump presidency. The hiring freeze, which halts all federal hiring except for “national security or public safety” personnel such as the military, was singed into effect by Trump the same day Lansing had made his encouraging announcement.

The USDS and TTS are uniquely vulnerable to the freeze because many staff are hired on two-year contracts that cannot be renewed without lifting the ban. Short-term contracts allow the USDS to hire talented software engineers from the private sector, allowing them the option to return after tours of duty in US agencies. The units must constantly recruit new workers to maintain their staffing levels, or risk being decimated by attrition. Under this turnover-by-design system, the only way to avoid such a downfall would be for the units to be granted a sweeping exemption to the ban–and it appears they may get one.

On Jan. 26, Lansing and Reed Cordish, the assistant to the president for intragovernmental and technology initiatives, held a town hall for TTS employees, in which they apparently offered further rhetorical support:

But according to sources quoted by Federal News Radio on Jan. 30, the support may go beyond rhetoric. According to the report, Lansing and Cordish said in the town hall that guidance will be issued  in a ”a few weeks” to protect 18F, the TTS’s product development incubator, as well as the USDS, from the hiring freeze. “They said it’s a done deal,” said one employee. We’ve spoken to several government sources who declined to comment on the matter.

As employees wait for word on the exemption, there’s still the matter of ideology. The USDS and TTS are nonpartisan groups, and there’s certainly no shortage of government tech projects that transcend party lines. The question, however, is whether the team that built a digital system for streamlining immigration processes would now be willing to, say, build a Muslim registry, an idea Trump floated during his campaign. And going forward, how many Silicon Valley elites will want to work for Trump?

So far, it appears that the importance of the tasks at hand are outweighing any possible qualms current employees may have with Trump’s policies. There hasn’t been a mass exodus, and the acting director of the USDS, former Google engineer Matt Cutts, agreed to take the position in late December, well after Trump was elected. Cutts is famous in the industry for his work on Google search and Gmail spam filtering, and if he’s officially appointed by Trump, his presence could be a big recruiting boon.

Of course, that all depends on the kind of work the new administration may have in mind for the tech teams. According to former and current USDS staffers, who asked to remain anonymous because they weren’t authorized to talk to the press, some current employees are already making plans to leave if asked to work on projects that conflict with their values. One former OSTP official under Obama echoed that sentiment, saying that new and current hires motivated by a desire to serve the American people may have to decide whether to resign if forced to violate their convictions.

What happens in the coming months will affect not just current employees but the department’s ability to recruit new ones, as well. Todd Park, the former US CTO, recently told Backchannel that applications to the USDS slowed after Trump’s election. USDS staffers told Quartz that some fear recruitment will flatline going forward, but also noted that new recruits were still arriving as of late January. And during the weekend after Trump’s inauguration, the USDS says applications were actually on the rise.

“Delivering better services to Americans is clearly a bipartisan endeavor,” said USDS spokesperson Janine Gianfredi in an email. “We saw a significant increase in applications over this past weekend.” Gianfredi couldn’t provide any more information or specific numbers.

Recruitment, of course, is not just affected by ideals but also the president’s ability to inspire engineers. Obama excelled in that role. His pitch was simple: Come to Washington, and fix the government to make people’s lives better. Kim Rachmeler, a former Amazon engineer who ran engineering at USDS, saw her work as “rebuilding the trust between a government and its citizens,” she told Backchannel. Obama gained accolades as the first “digital president” who made modernizing a creaking government technology infrastructure a priority for his presidency.

Trump’s record on technology is somewhat different. He prints out his emails and rarely opens his computer or surfs the web, preferring magazines and television), reports Politico. Aides say they have never received an email or text message from him, although he is a master of self-promotion on Twitter and Facebook. His public statements have also betrayed a possible lack of facility with modern technology.

“I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on,” he said recently. “We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind the security we need.”

In a report to Congress, the USDS claims numerous wins, such as speeding up veterans’ disability claims, streamlining immigrants’ green cards, securing citizens tax information, and running a bug bounty program–a competition to find and fix software glitches–for the Pentagon.

You can “point to a bunch of projects that have saved many tens of millions of dollars and have taken something that wasn’t working and replaced it at a fraction of the cost with either something that they built or something that they bought from the tech industry,” said Nick Sinai, former deputy CTO in the Obama Administration. Most agencies, says the Government Accountability Office (GAO), have been satisfied with the results (pdf).

It is still possible that the Trump administration will reverse its current promise to keep the USDS. Before the inauguration and the public endorsements from Kushner, Lansing, and Cordish, an anonymous source with knowledge of the transition told Federal News Radio that the new administration was considering reducing the size of the USDS from 200 to a few dozen.

Some Republicans have also targeted the group after the GAO assessed the USDS and 18f last summer. The GOP chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform IT Subcommittee Will Hurd (R-TX) questioned whether the ”startup approach” worked for the federal government, calling many of the projects too small-bore.

“When I look at the lists of successes … these aren’t the tectonic changes that we likely need in order to see our government get into the current century, let alone the next century,” Hurd said at the subcommittee meeting on June 10. Hurd’s spokesperson later qualified his criticism, saying Hurd was confident in the value of 18F and USDS if they are responding to agency CIO’s priorities, “and not minor pet projects.”

Of course, the clearest sign of whether the new administration will continue to support the USDS and TTS will be whether it allows them to get back to recruiting.