USDS, 18F could be exempted from federal hiring freeze

Sources inside the General Services Administration say a town hall at the Technology Transformation Service (TTS) with two White House technology officials brou...

The General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Service (TTS), and particularly the 18F organization, received some good news last week.

Multiple sources confirmed Trump administration officials said the upcoming guidance from the Office of Management and Budget to implement the hiring freeze of federal employees likely will not impact 18F or the U.S. Digital Service.

GSA employees, who attended the TTS town hall on Jan. 26 and who requested anonymity because they didn’t get approval to talk to the press, said Gerrit Lansing, the White House’s chief digital officer, and Reed Cordish, the assistant to the President for Intragovernmental and Technology Initiatives, assured them that the administration didn’t want to inhibit their ability to bring in talented IT employees.

“He said the administration would protect the ability we have to do tour-of-duty hiring,” said one GSA employee. “Gerrit said they have already incorporated language into OMB’s guidance that is coming out in the next few weeks that protects 18F and USDS from the hiring freeze. They said it’s a done deal. They didn’t go into a ton of detail, but said they had to get creative in the guidance.”

That revelation was a relief to many employees at both USDS and 18F because many are hired under special authorities that give them two-year appointments. If the freeze impacted these employees, 18F and USDS wouldn’t be able to renew their appointments.

Multiple requests to GSA for comment on the town hall were not returned.

Another GSA employee who attended the town hall said several questions remained centering on the future of 18F, especially in light of the hiring freeze.

The employee said many employees started out hostile, according to comments on the Slack channel, but in the end were pleasantly surprised by the discussion.

Lansing helped relieve some of the anxiety when he tweeted on Jan. 26 that Cordish told the town hall, and particularly the 18F organization, that “we have your back.”

This was Lansing’s second tweet that starts to the fill the void of federal management news, especially around information technology, over the last few months.

He first made the community notice with a tweet that at least partly — I’d like to think — was in reaction to my notebook item last week about the USDS. Lansing tweeted on Jan. 23 that “USDS was here to stay. Period.”

Overall the town hall didn’t offer too many more details about plans and actions. But sources say Cordish and Lansing came with the right attitude, saying they aren’t technology experts and don’t have all the answers.

“They still come in with the premise that government is broken,” said the first GSA employee. “Gerrit focused on digital transformation and wanting to build on what we’d done, and making it bigger and better and citizen-centered. They focused on citizens having what they need and when they need it and how they want to receive it. It’s similar to what we have been operating under and how programs and initiatives are aligned. They also talked about the need for large IT modernization projects, but didn’t get into lots of detail.”

While both sources said the feds working for 18F and TTS more broadly were relieved to get the support, they also said the potential challenges of becoming exempted from the hiring freeze was concerning.

“People were even discussing that is a double-edged sword. 18F has been successful in trying to change how they are perceived, but there were some who were concerned that if they get hiring exception and their customers don’t, then it’s another reason to dislike 18F.”

The first source added if customer agencies are in a holding pattern, and don’t have executives or even political appointees in place yet, it could make it more difficult for 18F to finalize interagency agreements.

The source said TTS Administrator Rob Cook also said the new administration understands 18F’s financial dilemma, and is looking at a different funding model. Currently, 18F is funded through the Acquisition Services Fund (ASF) and must repay the $30 million it received to get started. In June, the Government Accountability Office said 18F may not begin to recover its costs until 2019 and was more than $9.5 million in the red in 2015.

The second GSA source said while the support for TTS and 18F more specifically was nice, it doesn’t mean the organizations will not change.

“You have to read between lines between what they are saying, Jared Kushner’s email to TTS and other comments. It always references the great work of 18F in helping agencies work with businesses,” the source said. “But that is a small part of what 18F does. Most of its funding and hiring went for designers and other expertise. If the only thing getting praise is their work around businesses, then it’s not what’s being said, but it is what’s not being said.”

Among the other topics that came up included fixing the federal procurement system, building communities around digital services across the government and addressing long-standing technology and business architecture problems by dealing with legacy systems.

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