What the hell is going on with the U.S. Digital Service?


President Donald Trump speaks to White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner. Kushner may be the USDS’s last, best hope.

On April 13, the U.S. Digital Service, a unique government office most famous for salvaging Healthcare.gov, put out the welcome mat.

It was a meaningful tweet for the agency responsible for pulling in the best and brightest digital minds to help improve the U.S. federal government’s technology practices and services.

It’s never a bad time to help build a more awesome government. Why not today? https://t.co/Grh9bQ2f0x

— U.S. Digital Service (@USDS) April 13, 2017

That work has included saving Obamacare from a fiery digital death, refashioning critical online veterans’ services, and converting onerous immigration paperwork into all-digital services.

Former President Barack Obama launched the U.S. Digital Service in 2014 after hiring Mike Dickerson away from Google to help fix the Healthcare.gov websites. Over the next few years and under Dickerson’s leadership, the USDS grew into a Washington D.C.-based, government-sponsored incubator for new ideas and tech solutions for the myriad problems found in the federal government’s increasingly outdated IT and services infrastructure.

The lure was that private sector workers could join for limited tours. They just had to temporarily relocate to Washington D.C. and accept the limits of the federal government employee pay scale. In time, it grew to over 200 employees.

The impression that the USDS is hiring again, though, is encouraging and somewhat surprising.

The Trump era

When President Donald J. Trump took office in January, there were immediate concerns about whether he’d support the USDS. Its members helped save Obama’s signature achievement, Obamacare, something Trump has sworn to dismantle.

The free-floating anxiety was so tangible that Trump’s Chief Digital Officer Gerrit Lansing felt the need to tweet the administration’s support for the USDS just days after the inauguration. He may have calmed some nerves, but as Quartz reported in early February, that signal of support was followed by a federal hiring freeze—since partially lifted in February—and a budget proposal that mentions the word “digital” once and “innovation” not at all.

For an organization that has operated quietly and effectively for almost three years, the last five months have been filled with less visible accomplishments and more uncertainty.

In late December of last year, the USDS netted a big fish. Google’s Matt Cutts, who had taken a temporary leave from his work at Google to join the USDS, decided to make the move permanent. Cutts joined the service as deputy administrator with the understanding that he would soon replace the former administrator, Mikey Dickerson, who was leaving in January. Dickerson’s been gone for months, but, at the time of this writing, Trump has not elevated Cutts.

There are other signs that progress at the USDS has stalled.

LinkedIn shows no listings for open positions at the department and a USDS site link for internships reveals that none are being offered.

On a positive note, USDS co-founder Haley van Dyck, who left the service in the waning days of the Obama presidency, apparently returned, according to Politico, something her LinkedIn Profile and Twitter accounts also appear to confirm.

However, Van Dyck’s last tweet is from January 23, retweeting Lansing’s promise that the new administration has the USDS’s back.

She’s been silent on the social media platform ever since. That seems odd considering Van Dyke’s penchant for speaking frankly. During a 2016 Ted talk on the USDS’s mission, she memorably said:

“…government is more than just a presidential election every four years; government is a lifeline that provides services they need and depend on and deserve, which is quite frankly why government needs to get its shit together and catch up. Just saying.”

Another USDS founding member, Erie Meyer, left the USDS on March 29 to join Code for America, a group that connects tech professionals with city governments. While she hasn’t commented on changes at the USDS, Meyer did Tweet:

Thrilled to join this team and to double down on making government work better for everyone. We’ve got lots to do. ❤❤❤ https://t.co/5TA5EnqSwj

— Erie (@Erie) March 29, 2017

The USDS, which usually promotes its work via Medium posts, hasn’t been particularly prolific on the platform. On March 15, the USDS added an illuminating “Myth Busting” post on how to avoid common pitfalls in creating universally accessible content. Prior to that, there was a January post introducing three new USDS team members.

I requested an interview with someone at the USDS to find out if and when the administration plans on appointing a new administrator and how the Trump White House views the role of the USDS.

I got this response from the USDS, one they attributed to Matt Cutts, which may indicate that he likes to refer to himself in the third person:

“USDS is led by Matt Cutts, who is the Acting USDS Administrator and Charles Worthington, the Acting USDS Deputy Administrator. Matt joined USDS last year, after many years as a distinguished engineer at Google. Charles Worthington helped found the U.S. Digital Service in 2014, and served as its Director of Product before taking on his new role."

"USDS continues its work in the new Administration, which has expressed its support for using modern design and technology best practices to improve government services. USDS is collaborating with the Office of American Innovation (OAI) on policies and plans to improve Government operations and services.”

If the OAI doesn’t sound familiar, that’s because it’s new. Trump signed an executive order establishing it on March 27. It’s headed by Senior Advisor to the President and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Image: usds.gov

USDS and OAI goals do appear to dovetail. The USDS wants to use bright, often private-sector minds to refashion federal government systems and the OAI wants to bring in government and private sector thought leaders to solve “intractable problems.”

Kushner, who rarely speaks publicly or grants interviews, has not commented on the USDS.

In addition to Cutts, I’ve contacted Van Dyke, Meyer and numerous other current and former members of the USDS for comments on the current state of the service under the Trump Administration. So far, none have agreed to an interview.

In the meantime, the fate the U.S. Digital Service hangs in the balance.

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