How the U.S. Digital Service is helping during the coronavirus pandemic

Matt Cutts speaks April 5, 2018 at the IT Modernization Summit presented by FedScoop (FedScoop)

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You may not have heard much about the U.S. Digital Service‘s role as the nation battles the spread of the coronavirus, but the federal government’s tech surge team has had its hands in some of the administration’s most pressing efforts behind the scenes.

The USDS has some team members embedded in the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Administrator Matt Cutts said last week during a Partnership for Public Service webinar.

“So whenever you see Ambassador [Deborah] Birx presenting slides and showing data sometimes going down to a county level, oftentimes that data is derived from or even prepared by the U.S. Digital Service,” Cutts said. “So in terms of deciding allocations of things like [personal protective equipment] or ventilators, those sorts of things.”

The U.S. Digital Service was founded after the 2013 Healthcare.gov website rollout fiasco as an injection of tech talent into government to solve big problems that affect the critical services Americans depend on. So it’s no surprise that during the pandemic, the team is staying very busy.

Cutts said the team has also been assisting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with overhauling some of its website architecture as it publishes important information and data on the spread of the coronavirus.

The team is also working with the Small Business Administration as it delivers loans to companies affected by the economic downturn. The SBA has had its hands full after nearly 8,000 companies looking for relief may have had their personal information exposed through the agency’s loan portal.

On top of that, USDS has team members “slotted in” at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and the Department of Homeland Security “helping people do remote work,” Cutts said.

“COVID has revealed that government needs to be effective and efficient and it needs to be able to move fast,” Cutts said. He continued: “It is really important for government to work well right now.”

USDS is pitching in at the state and local levels, too.

“People are getting an unprecedented number of applications for unemployment insurance at the state level,” Cutts said. “And so we’ve even been able to help talk to several states about, ‘OK, what can we do to help improve this particular system? How can we make it scale a little bit better?'”

This week, a group of senators called for congressional leadership to make it easier for USDS and its General Services Administration counterpart 18F to work with state and local entities, which tend to be most afflicted by the impacts of the pandemic. “Unfortunately, both the USDS and the TTS are hindered by regulatory hurdles that slow down or prevent them from supporting state and local governments,” reads a letter from 16 senators. “During this national emergency, when speed is vital for millions of Americans, this red tape is preventing the federal government’s skilled technologist from helping the state and local agencies that need them most.”

Cutts said he’s been on calls with those state and local governments “and they were like, ‘Yeah, having some of this technology expertise would make a huge amount of difference.'”

During the webinar event, the Partnership for Public Service released a report on the importance of tech talent in the 21st-century federal government, particularly during this current crisis.

“If we look at how our world has really changed in the past month, in the past six weeks from an increased need for remote work to seeing our technical and our human infrastructure strain, under the weight of things like unemployment claims or health care delivery, the COVID-19 pandemic is laying bare the fact that modern technical and digital leaders are going to be vital to our country’s recovery,” said Jennifer Anastasoff, executive director of the Tech Talent Project and a former founding member of the USDS.

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CDC, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), coronavirus, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), HealthCare.gov, Matt Cutts, Partnership for Public Service, Small Business Administration (SBA), state and local, USDS, White House Coronavirus Task Force
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