As a stream of people walked through a recruiting event at the Oakland Marriott City Center on a recent morning, a woman stopped at a table advertising a federal agency that calls itself a “startup.” She looked confused.
“Welcome!” a recruiter said, as the young woman peered at the agency’s information card. “Have you heard of us before?”
“No,” she answered.
Zero name recognition and a tough time recruiting? The United States Digital Service just might be a startup after all.
The agency, which President Barack Obama once called a “SWAT team” for technology and charged with updating government websites following the rocky launch of HealthCare.gov, has other problems today. Recruiting from Silicon Valley was tough enough when it meant convincing talent to leave behind playful offices and high salaries. Now, Matt Cutts, the agency’s acting administrator, has to persuade candidates to sign on to an administration led by a man many of them didn’t vote for.
But now, well into the second year of the Trump administration, Cutts has a message: The United States Digital Service is doing just fine. And, yes, it can still get the important work of modernizing government done.
“I’m happy to say that after a year and a half, we’re still working on things that matter, we’re still hiring, and we’re still here,” Cutts, the former head of search quality at Google, said at a Code for America conference last month in Oakland, where he spoke excitedly about digitizing federal forms and handed out his business cards from a crumpled ziplock bag.
In a notoriously chaotic and understaffed administration, Cutts says, the digital service has quietly endured. That’s largely because, he said, veterans still need easy access to their benefits online, taxes need to be secure, student loans need to be easy to repay and immigration forms need to get digitized.
Meanwhile, there are signs of what some might characterize as “resistance” at the service. On LinkedIn and Twitter, the USDS logo bears the rainbow stripes of LGBT Pride Month, one of the few federal government acknowledgments of the summer celebration.
— U.S. Digital Service (@USDS) June 1, 2018
USDS and a similar organization called 18F that is part of the General Services Administration were the results of a web of social hyperlinks built between Washington and Silicon Valley during the Obama administration: Software engineers brought in for tours of duty brought fresh thinking and the newest technologies to D.C. , and they returned with knowledge of government processes and connections inside the Beltway.
After President Trump was elected, some decided to leave or end their contracts. The agency was placed under a hiring freeze and couldn’t replace those who departed. A few months into the administration, the White House unveiled a new Office of American Innovation that seemed like it might overshadow — or take the place of — the existing agencies.
Even though the new office — which has been closely associated with White House adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law — has no significant accomplishments to its name, the USDS and 18F have gotten little mention under Trump.
When Mikey Dickerson was the agency’s administrator, he said he met with President Barack Obama at least once every three months. Cutts said he has yet to directly meet with Trump but meets frequently with officials from the Office of American Innovation.
After the hiring freeze was lifted, the service got back to 170 employees, which is about the same number it had under Obama. And, as proof of their productivity, Cutts points to their list of accomplishments: making it easier for veterans to access their health and education benefits online and a digitized application for U.S. citizenship.
The agency frequents recruitment events and conferences like the one in Oakland in an attempt to raise its profile and attract new talent. Like a startup, it’s mostly selling people on the mission — in this case, getting government apps and websites into the 21st century.
Product Manager Julie Meloni, who has a USDS logo tattooed on her arm, said she’ll be the first to tell you that the job isn’t glamorous.
“There is no analogy in the private sector to the type of work that we do,” she said. “We actually have a sticker that says ‘This job is weird.’”
And demanding, she said.
“When we bring people in, we are looking for people who have a breadth and a depth of knowledge to basically handle anything, but are also able to step back and do the traditional tactical work, but also ramp up and talk to cabinet secretaries at any given time.”
Laura Lanford, who works for San Francisco health care data startup Nuna, said she’s been tempted by the idea of serving a tour at the digital service, in part because the tech it builds has a lasting impact.
“There are so many logistical challenges that are independent from ideology,” she said.
Lanford has seen the service at recruitment events before, and is plotting when the best time for her to make the jump is. But for now, she’s admiring their work from afar. Unlike many at the conference, she knew what the USDS is.
“I love that you guys exist,” she said, leaning against the table. “At some point, I’ll feel like it’s my time.”