DHS meets digital services deadline as hope for governmentwide funding dwindles

Eric Hysen joins the Homeland Security Department from the U.S. Digital Services Office.

Back in December, the Office of Management and Budget gave agencies an Oct. 1 deadline to set up digital services teams as part of the IT budget passback.

So here we are, 10 months after the instructions, and several agencies have met the goal, including most recently the Homeland Security Department.

DHS joins the departments of Veterans Affairs, Commerce and Transportation, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the General Services Administration.

DHS recently hired Eric Hysen as its director of its digital services team. Hysen had been working at DHS for the last few months as part of a team provided to the agency by OMB’s U.S. Digital Services Office.

“For the past year, I’ve been working with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) within the Department of Homeland Security, to modernize our country’s immigration system,” Hysen wrote in a blog post. “We’ll be taking the model the U.S. Digital Service has been using for the past year and making it a core part of how DHS does business. We’ll be expanding our work to modernize the immigration system as well as taking on new challenges across DHS’s critical missions — everything from facilitating international trade to responding to disasters to improving the federal government’s information security practices.”

Hysen invited others to join him at DHS to create the digital team.

DHS’ decision to join the ever-growing list of agencies with digital services offices is a good sign. But the ability of these teams to have a long-term impact may be dependent on Congress.

The White House asked for $105 million in its fiscal 2016 budget request to seed digital services teams across the government.

In the meantime, while Congress figures out the budget, OMB is working with others to create a digital services infrastructure.

Additionally, the Office of Personnel Management in May approved “excepted hiring authorities” for digital services positions.

And the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and the U.S. Digital Services office are in the final stages of a challenge competition to create a training course to help contracting officers improve how they buy digital services. Three teams, GovLoop, Team ICF and Management Concepts received $20,000 to conduct a pilot course for 30 students. The winning team will receive $250,000 to expand their pilot program governmentwide.

Congress hasn’t been supportive from a budgetary sense of digital services so far.

The House didn’t mention money for digital services offices in its conference report on OMB’s 2016 budget and reduced the IT Oversight and Reform Fund (ITOR) to $20 million from $35 million.

The Senate also reduced the ITOR fund to $25 million.

“The increase in ITOR funding in fiscal year 2016 will help to grow the USDS team to enable them to serve as a resource across federal agencies,” the Financial Services and General Government conference report stated. “In addition, the increase in funding should be used to support OMB’s newly-formed E–Gov Cyber and National Security Unit [OMB E–Gov Cyber] which focuses on strengthening federal cybersecurity.”

The report also stated that USDS should become more engaged to implement digital and technology practices on the 10 highest priority IT investments across the government.

But $5 million will hardly cover the $105 million in seed money OMB wanted for these teams.

So the question remains whether agencies can “find” enough money to create these digital services teams in spite of Congressional support, and how effective can they be without the necessary seed money?

One solution, GSA has more than $1 billion reserve funding in its Acquisition Services Fund (ASF). Why not “refund” each agency 10 percent of the fees it paid last year for “acquisition” digital experts? I’m sure lawyers could figure out how to make that within the rules that govern the use of the ASF.

This post is part of Jason Miller’s Inside the Reporter’s Notebook feature. Read more from this edition of Jason’s Notebook.

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