Democratic presidential candidate and California senator Kamala Harris is introducing a bill on Thursday that would give state and local governments access to a pool of $15 million a year in grant funding, which they could use to set up tech teams and overhaul the often outdated tools and websites their constituents use every day.
The bill, called the Digital Service Act of 2019, is modeled after the United States Digital Service, an elite team of geeks inside the White House working on ways to make federal government technology less clunky and confusing—and maybe even good. Launched in 2014, USDS is one of the few Obama-era passion projects to survive the Trump administration. Now Harris wants to build on its success by giving state and local governments the resources they need to set up similar teams.
“We must do more to empower our state and local governments to tap into the power of technology to provide seamless, cost-effective services for the 21st century,” Harris told WIRED in a statement. “The Digital Service Act will help harness top talent for the government, save taxpayer dollars, and put the power of technology to work on behalf of the American people.”
Under the bill, government officials would be able to apply for two-year grants, ranging from $200,000 to $2.5 million per year, based on their population. At least half of that money would have to be spent on paying techies' salaries, and grant recipients could reapply once, and only once, for additional funding after the first two years are up. USDS would be responsible for distributing the grants, giving preference to state and local governments, as well as Indian tribes, with a proven track record of investing in tech and modernizing government; having a chief digital officer or chief technologist already in place is a plus. The federal grants would cover 80 percent of the program’s overall budget, with state and local governments kicking in the remaining 20 percent.
The Digital Service Act also includes another $50 million a year to help USDS continue its work at the federal level. Currently, Congress pays for USDS through the so-called Information Technology Oversight and Reform fund, which allows for funds to be carried over year to year. The Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the program, didn't respond to WIRED's request for comment.
Since it launched shortly after the notorious breakdown of the Healthcare.gov website, USDS has worked on technology to help speed up veterans’ disability claims and break down technical barriers for immigrants seeking green cards. The team, now led by former Googler Matt Cutts, doesn’t get to set the administration’s policies around these issues, but it’s there to ensure that cobwebbed government websites at least won’t stand between citizens and government services. Both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs have their own digital services. A similar team of technologists called 18F sits inside the General Services Administration.
State and local officials often lack the resources to devote an entire team to building this type of new technology. According to Jennifer Pahlka, who helped found the USDS and now runs Code for America, a nonprofit that helps connect technologists and local governments, that's a problem because cities and states often oversee the government services that people interact with most. "Food stamps, Medicaid, criminal justice work, all those services are either directly handled by the states or handled by counties," Pahlka says. "That's where the rubber meets the road."
In her work with Code for America, Pahlka says she's seen firsthand how local governments continue to build technology in an old-fashioned way. "It's monolithic, large projects that are vendor-driven," she says. "It’s very much about meeting government needs versus citizens’ needs."
Harris' own home state of California has endured several expensive and embarrassing technical snags in the past year alone. After the state rolled out a $290 million piece of tax filing software last May, which took nearly a decade to build, its customer service center was flooded with complaints. And that's in a state that's already teeming with tech talent.
When Harris' team first brought the idea for the Digital Service Act to Pahlka for review, she says, "I thought this was an enormous fail on my part that I never suggested this. It’s so obviously the thing to do."
She views the fact that USDS would oversee these grants as a promising sign that the money won't be spent on the sort of routine IT maintenance that sucks up a lot of local tech dollars. Instead, the funding is intended to go toward tools that make accessing government services easier for members of the public. The bill also requires grant recipients to file a report with USDS, outlining their progress before their two years are up. Beginning in 2022, USDS would then be required to publish its own progress report on these grants biannually.
The Digital Service Act is hardly a sure bet. Right now, it has no cosponsors in the Senate or partner bills in the House. Still, there has been some recent bipartisan willingness to invest in better government technology, primarily at the federal level. In December of 2017, President Trump signed the Modernizing Government Technology Act into law, which gives federal agencies access to funding to improve their archaic IT systems. The law combined elements of a Republican-led House bill and Democrat-led bill in the Senate.
Of course, even if Harris does garner enough support for this legislation, the implementation could still prove a challenge. Giving states funding is one thing. Convincing technologists to work on arcane government websites for a fraction of what they would make in the private sector is a different matter altogether. Even recruiting for USDS has proved difficult, particularly at a time when the Trump administration's policies are often at odds with left-leaning Silicon Valley. “In this environment it’s very important to make arguments about service and that we’re working for the American people,” USDS's administrator, Cutts, told WIRED last year.
Still, Pahlka says she's heartened by the work the organization has continued to do under President Trump. "There are certainly a lot of people there who worked for USDS though a different president, and they were wise enough to realize that while the leadership changed, the veterans didn't stop needing benefits. Young people living under the crushing burden of student loan debt didn't stop needing relief. People still needed access to healthcare," she says. "We didn't stop needing tech and design help because a different president came into office."
As for what this bill means for Harris' presidential campaign and its approach to tech, Pahlka isn't reading much into it. "I'm taking it at face value," she says.
It is worth noting, though, that the bill would fund this program between 2020 and 2027—just in time for President Trump's second term, or for a new man or woman to take his place.
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