Sep 2, 2021 - Technology

Exclusive: New boss for government's tech "SWAT team"

Photo illustration of incoming USDS administrator Mina Hsiang in front of a laptop with the USDA logo on it
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Courtesy the Office of Management and Budget

Mina Hsiang will lead the U.S. Digital Service, the Office of Management and Budget told Axios Thursday, as the Biden administration beefs up its cadre of technological special forces tasked with solving problems across the federal government.

Why it matters: Washington is preparing to spend trillions in infrastructure money allocated by the president's top-priority legislation, and building and tuning the digital systems for those programs will demand know-how.

Driving the news: Hsiang will be the first woman and first Asian-American to be the administrator of USDS, which was launched in 2014 in the aftermath of the troubled rollout of the HealthCare.gov website.

  • Hsiang is a USDS veteran from the Obama administration and worked on the HealthCare.gov rescue team.
  • More recently, she helped the Biden administration with the launch of the Vaccines.gov website to help Americans find COVID-19 vaccines.
  • She will fill the vacancy left by the April departure of Matt Cutts, the Google veteran who led the service from 2017.

The big picture: USDS teams are deployed for crisis work that needs a quick response — such as assisting at the southern border or helping with the Afghanistan evacuation. They also help implement new programs like those created by the American Rescue Plan.

  • USDS currently has the most employees in program history — about 200.
  • "Government services — and helping people access those services via many channels, including digitally — are more critical now than ever," Hsiang told Axios. "The pandemic has been a catalyst to our country's collective awareness of this truth and has mobilized people to step up and act. "

Yes, but: That work also happens outside the federal government. Civic tech nonprofit Code for America on Wednesday announced the launch of a new tool, GetCTC.org, meant to help low-income Americans who aren't required to file income taxes obtain their child tax credit.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration this week announced a new program, the U.S. Digital Corps, aimed at bringing software engineers, data scientists and others into federal agencies for two-year fellowships.

  • Unlike other tech units of the federal government, the Digital Corps is meant to recruit technologists to government service at the start of their careers.
  • The initial group of 30 fellows will work with agencies including Veterans Affairs, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

What they're saying: "We understand that there's a huge need for this type of talent in government," said Dave Zvenyach, of director of the GSA's Technology Transformation Services, which oversees the Digital Corps. "And one of the things that we were really excited about is having the next generation of technology leaders come in at this time."

Flashback: The new Digital Corps builds on several government tech efforts, including USDS, that began during the Obama administration.

  • The Presidential Innovation Fellows program, launched by the White House in 2012, brings experienced technologists into federal agencies for a year-long fellowship focused on projects, such as launching a website to provide information on telemedicine during the pandemic.
  • 18F, started in 2014 by a group of Presidential Innovation Fellows and named for the address of the GSA building, helps agencies build and buy tech products, including a revamp of the Federal Election Commission's website.

By the numbers: Presidential Innovation Fellows nearly doubled their program in bringing on a cohort of 34 fellows, for a program total of 64, according to a GSA spokesperson.

  • 18F currently has 122 employees and will bring on another 15 soon, the GSA says.
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