Following the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov, the Obama administration quickly learned that policy initiatives can easily be derailed by poor technology management. To remedy this, Obama’s team launched a number of initiatives in subsequent years to ensure that the federal government could recruit and retain highly-qualified product designers, software engineers, product managers so that other mission-critical initiatives would not suffer a similar fate. The most high-profile of these efforts was the creation of the U.S. Digital Service, a startup within the White House initiated by former Federal CIO Steve VanRoekel to bring in top talent from the private sector who could apply the latest technology and design strategies to address policy priorities such as immigration, veterans’ benefits, and health care.
While the Trump administration obviously has different priorities than the Obama administration, using technology to make government work better is a common goal. In fact, President Trump signed an executive order in May establishing the American Technology Council, in which the first paragraph boldly states, “Americans deserve better digital services from their Government.” Moreover, the Trump administration needs technological prowess in its senior ranks if it is to accomplish its goal of reinventing government. For example, President Trump wants to significantly scale back the size of the federal government, and the way to do that effectively is to use technology to increase government productivity. Indeed, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney has already rightly ordered agency heads to assess how technology may have eliminated the need for certain functions, such as processing invoices or human resources transactions, and eliminate those positions.
Unfortunately, Obama-era initiatives to bring in top technologists have suffered a number of setbacks since the Trump administration began. Some of this has been policy missteps. For example, in January, President Trump instituted a hiring freeze across the entire federal government that prevented agencies from filling existing vacancies or creating new positions which has delayed hiring for vacant positions. And some of this has been ideological. Many of the tech recruits are young liberals who oppose many of the policy objectives of the new president.
For example, Mikey Dickerson, a former Google employee who fixed Healthcare.gov and led the U.S. Digital Service, volunteered to continuing recruiting technologists after President Trump took office, but stopped his efforts after the president signed the travel ban. More recently, Noah Kunin, a senior engineer at 18F, the digital services agency within the General Services Administration, publicly announced his decision to leave government service in a lengthy blog post detailing his personal misgivings about working for the Trump administration. Turnover in government workers is typical with the change in an administration, not just among political appointees, but also with senior career civil servants, and it is unclear so far whether overall turnover in this administration is different than in the past, but at least anecdotally turnover appears to be significant for government technologists.
But not everyone wants to leave. While some have concluded that they do not want to continue to serve under new leadership, many others have opted to continue in their current jobs. Thus, it is important that the Trump administration ensures that it retains these high-performing recruits and encourages others to join. Unfortunately, the administration has not yet done enough.
First, many recent hires are being forced out of their positions because the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has not renewed the special hiring authority used to bring them on. One of the lesser-known changes the Obama administration made to address the problem of a shortage of technical talent in the federal government was to authorize agencies to use a special non-competitive hiring authority to develop their digital services teams. This special hiring authority exempts agencies from having to go through many of the federal government’s hiring processes that often result in lengthy candidate searches. Using a non-competitive hiring authority allows agencies to act more like the private sector and move quickly to bring in top talent and recruit specific individuals. These appointments are for up to one year, but can be renewed annually.
However, this special hiring authority for IT projects is set to expire on September 30, 2017. This means that agencies cannot extend the employment of employees recruited and hired under this authority past this date. And with this date looming, many highly-qualified federal workers are not waiting until the last minute to find new jobs. While President Trump nominated George Nesterczuk, a long-time government veteran, to be the OPM Director in May, Congress has not yet confirmed him because the committees overseeing his nomination are still waiting on the necessary paperwork. Rather than delaying further, the Trump administration should direct OPM’s acting director to extend the special hiring authority for at least two more years.
Second, the Trump administration should direct agencies to allow technologists who want to move to be reassigned or detailed to other agencies. While many technologists from Democratic-leaning Silicon Valley may not support the president’s agenda on healthcare or immigration, they are still committed to better government. And the vast majority of the projects for which agencies have recruited for top tech talent are ones that should have strong bipartisan support. These projects include automating lending for small businesses, managing veterans’ benefits online, modernizing the FBI’s biometrics databases, and improving cybersecurity in federal agencies. OPM should make it easy for government technologists to make lateral moves to work on projects that they support.
It is not too late to stop this government brain drain and keep some very talent government techies, but the window for action is rapidly closing.
This article originally appeared in The Hill.
Image: Another Believer.