Congress showing little love for digital services in 2017 budget

An analysis by Federal News Radio found only a handful of agencies are expected to receive funding to create digital services offices next year, but that may no...

Congress is rejecting most of the White House’s push for funding to create digital services offices in every agency for a second year in a row.

A review of the fiscal 2017 spending bills finds lawmakers are not funding nor publicly supporting the creation of these offices.

But the fact that the Obama administration isn’t getting traction in Congress for digital services is actually to be expected if history tells us anything.

There are a lot of similarities between digital services today and e-government in the early 2000s during President George W. Bush’s administration.

Back in 2001, the White House committed to spending $100 million over three years on e-government to make services more citizen-centric and accessible.

Sounds similar to what President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget request said about digital services: requesting $105 million to seed digital services teams across the largest agencies to “increase oversight and accountability for IT spending, improve IT procurement, and improve agency cybersecurity and cyber readiness.”

In the following years after the Bush White House request, Congress gave paltry support to e-government–$5 million in 2002 and 2003, and $3 million in 2004—a total of $13 million over three years instead of the $100 million proposed.

The Obama White House received no funding for digital services offices, but is seeing support for the U.S. Digital Services Office in the Office of Management and Budget.

Senate lawmakers wrote in their report on the Financial Services and General Government bill that “The committee supports the formation of U.S. Digital Service and their role in collaborating with federal agencies to implement digital and technology practices on the 10 highest priority IT investment projects that are under development across federal agencies. The committee encourages USDS to use the increase in ITOR funding to become more fully engaged on each one of the projects. In addition, the committee encourages OMB to provide detail on how the 10 highest priority IT investment projects are selected and report quarterly to the Committee on Appropriations on the status of these projects.”

The problem here is there is no increase in the ITOR or Information Technology Oversight and Reform fund. Congress allocated $30 million in 2016 and the same amount again in 2017.

The administration requested $35.2 million for ITOR and $18 million for the U.S. Digital Services Office, which is up from $14 million in 2016. Lawmakers do not address the $18 million request for USDS at all in either appropriations bill or in the committees’ reports.

House and Senate lawmakers, for the most part, are silent when it comes to digital services across the other spending bills. They did offer a few interesting comments thrown in here and there.

For example, despite the fact that each agency requested funding for digital services–the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, asked for $5 million the Agriculture Department $7.6 million and Commerce $6 million–lawmakers on from both chambers only specifically called out the request for HHS.

“The committee recommendation does not include funding for the proposed HHS ‘Idea Lab’ or the Digital Services Team,” the House said in its report.

Only the Homeland Security Department received a positive response around digital services.

The House allocated $2.5 million for the “Digital Innovation Program to procure, test, and adopt digital technology products and services to leverage the most effective, currently available technology solutions that are critical to the department’s missions.”

House lawmakers also allocated $6 million for the Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement directorate and said a portion of that funding should be used to work with the department’s Digital Services staff to “develop several pilots to more rapidly improve ICE’s desired end-state for immigration data management including data collection standards, data quality practices, and common reporting methodologies.”

The Senate gave the IRS kudos for using Treasury’s digital services team to improve and secure the get transcript application, which suffered a major cyber breach in May 2015. But no mention of extra money.

The White House said in its Statements of Administration Policy that Congress also approved digital services funding for the Office of Personnel Management, the National Archives and Records Administration and at VA, and gave the Energy Department “sufficient flexibility to fully fund” digital services team.

But how much money each of these agencies received is unclear in the House and Senate bills.

Meanwhile, the White House highlighted the lack of support for digital services for every other agency in its Statements of Administration Policy, writing somethings similar to:

“The administration urges the Congress to fully fund the FY 2017 Budget request for the Departments of Commerce and Justice, NASA, and NSF to develop a U.S. Digital Service team. This funding supports efforts to improve digital services that have the greatest impact on citizens and businesses.”

While it’s not clear why Congressional support for digital services is cold, it doesn’t mean agencies or the White House’s efforts are dependent on the funding.

Kathy Conrad, Accenture’s director digital government and a former deputy associate administrator in the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, said agencies are aggressively moving into digital services, either by taking advantage of 18F or USDS or by putting out contracts like we’ve seen at DHS or the Department of Veterans Affairs or from the Environmental Protection Agency.

She says there is a recognition that digital services are driving the agency’s mission.

“Eight years ago when a lot of this was initiated, there wasn’t nearly the public pressure there is today and the experience with government that parallels personal life means expectations have changed over last 3-to-5-to-8 years,” she said. “These expectations flow to all parts of life and they don’t give government a pass so it requires the government to rethink how they deliver services.”

Conrad said she is seeing agencies more readily acknowledge and understand who their customers are and how they need to take an “outside in” approach to improving services.

“Those that take that kind of approach have a leg up and can redesign mission critical services and other services based on customer needs today and not what they thought they needed in the first place,” she said. “That is a real differentiator. It also makes the case for agencies to embrace agile ways of working and gain expertise in user-centered design and employee experience. Those are key parts of what’s necessary to be successful.”

It took nearly a decade for Congress to come around to see the value of e-government. It finally met the Bush administration’s goal of $100 million for these efforts during the Obama administration when Congress was much more generous, including allocating $34 million in 2010.

Hopefully it will not take lawmakers as long to come around on digital services and realize a little funding reverberates through their entire constituencies.

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