Time to turn the government’s tech startup into a grown up

The $200 million in American Rescue Plan funds made the U.S. Digital Service less accountable and more dysfunctional; Congress should take back the money, overh...

At the Code for America Summit in Washington, D.C. earlier in May, leaders from the U.S. Digital Service discussed the work they have done to advance President Joe Biden’s agenda. I imagine the audience of civic tech savants were regaled by many amazing tales of USDS successes helping America build back better.

However, there is one audience that has become increasingly distrustful of the USDS talking points and promises — Congress. I speak from my own experience working on the committee with primary oversight of the office and who, despite its best efforts, rarely received a straight answer from USDS leadership on a myriad of issues over the past two-and-a-half years.

One of the several things Congress got right in passing the American Rescue Plan (ARP) was the inclusion of funding for IT modernization. Importantly, the bill provided $1 billion to the Technology Modernization Fund to finance critical COVID-19 related technology projects and $150 million to the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Service. In addition, the legislation gave an unprecedented $200 million directly to USDS. This money was more than double what this tech startup in the White House had been appropriated since its creation.

As Biden took office and the 117th Congress was sworn in, I was one of the strongest advocates pressing for these historic technology investments (full disclosure — at this time I was a private citizen). My time in the Executive Branch had taught me the value of having good technology, implemented by great people, to enable a President’s vision for a modern, effective government.

USDS can serve a very specific, useful purpose in government: Identifying and triaging failing technology projects and supporting key administration IT priorities. To share some specific examples, I worked closely with USDS leadership on numerous modernization projects during my time in the Executive Branch, including standing up the TMF, overhauling the visa application process, and developing the federal government’s foundational policy on vulnerability disclosure.

But now, with the benefit of hindsight and my direct experience in the Legislative Branch, I can say that Congress made an awful mistake with the USDS ARP investment. During my time in the Senate, our committee was consistently unable to get a straight answer from their leadership as to how the office was using the $200 million. Simple questions such as “What is your current headcount?” or “Can you provide a spend plan for the coming fiscal year?” were met with obfuscation, incredulousness and offers to provide information that never materialized. Each meeting our staff forced USDS to accept, after multiple rounds of scheduling negotiations, bred more questions and fewer answers.

No early stage technology company would behave so cavalierly to their venture capital funders. So why should USDS, the government’s technology startup, treat its angel investor – Congress — in such a bedeviling fashion?

After having expended some substantial portion of this historic investment, USDS should be able to produce a simple spreadsheet providing their status of funds or current number of full time employees. The office’s inability to provide sufficient information to such fundamental questions represents a significant failure of leadership, lack of internal controls, and defiance of the office’s legitimate oversight entities. Simply put, the office has grown too fast — and too fat and happy — with its hundreds of millions in ARP funds.

Congress can shed some light on what USDS actually does and deliberate on what an appropriate role for the office should be. To start, House and Senate committees should hold hearings to examine the office’s finances, get the administrator on the record about what actual initiatives the agency is supporting and secure commitments for transparent reporting. If answers are not satisfactory, Congress should immediately rescind any unspent USDS funds.

Such a reset can breed a better path forward for USDS and provide an opportunity to build trust between the administration and Congress on the appropriate role of the office.

Lawmakers also should draft legislation that codifies USDS, gives them specific authorities and responsibilities and subjects the office to greater accountability measures, such as making the administrator a Senate-confirmed appointment and requiring quarterly public reports on USDS’s expenses and projects. As the appropriations process unfolds, Congress can have another say on the amount of resources USDS can access to support its specified priorities.

IT modernization is critical to the effective functioning of the government. USDS can be a vital force for good and help deliver high quality digital services that improve the lives of Americans. Now is the time for Congress to ensure greater accountability and use its legislative powers to reform USDS to ensure its long term, sustainable success.

Matthew Cornelius is a former senior professional staff member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He also served in several senior Executive Branch technology and cybersecurity policy roles, including at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration. The views here are his personal opinions.

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