Congress should grow the Digital Services budget, which more than pays for itself

Congress should grow the Digital Services budget, which more than pays for itself
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The Trump Administration recently celebrated the first anniversary of the President’s Management Agenda to modernize government — by highlighting VA.gov, the new simplified and consolidated website that provides Veterans with a much-improved experience to find and access the benefits and services they deserve.

Within the first three months of the November 2018 launch of the new website, the VA has seen a 16 percent increase in customer satisfaction, an 81 percent increase in online healthcare applications, and estimates $55 million in cost savings due to reduced call center transactions.

Those are numbers that would make anyone proud — and the Trump Administration should rightly take credit.

Modernizing government is a non-partisan topic — witness support from both parties in Congress for the Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA), passed in late 2018 and signed by President TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham: America must 'accept the pain that comes in standing up to China' Weld 'thrilled' more Republicans are challenging Trump New data challenges Trump's economic narrative MORE.

Yet, the recently released President’s 2020 Budget more than halves the budget of the tech team that helped rebuild VA.gov — the U.S. Digital Service (USDS). The President’s budget calls for just $7.5 million in fiscal year 2020 for USDS, down from a $16.5 million budget in fiscal year 2019.

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Started in the wake of the Healthcare.gov rescue, the U.S. Digital Service was created to use design and technology to deliver better services to the American people. To accomplish this mission, USDS hires top talent from the private sector into government for short-term tours of service. In addition to the 80 top-level designers, engineers, product managers, technical recruiters, and strategists in the USDS headquarters inside the Office of Management and Budget, there are agency teams in DOD, DHS, HHS, and VA.

It’s not just the VA.gov project that is showing results — the U.S. Digital Service has worked on important projects like making it easier for our military families to relocate around the world as they work to keep us safe and protected, making government systems more secure by launching bug bounty programs to identify technology vulnerabilities before they can be exploited, and working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the healthcare industry to improve patient access to data and care. From rapidly recovering failed systems to consolidating services and designing intuitive interfaces, USDS has made a measurable impact on the American people and taxpayers.

The VA Digital Service team has also improved the scalability and reliability of software by helping move to cloud infrastructure and avoid nearly $100 million in costs over the next 10 years. They’ve streamlined the healthcare appeals process by developing digital tools for both VA employees and Veterans filing for appeal — decreasing appeals claims with mismatched documents by 40 percent. VA clearly has had IT problems over the years, and the oversight and frustration from Congress is definitely warranted. But success stories like these rarely break through the news cycle.

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Of course, USDS’s success in the VA and in other federal agencies depends on strong partnerships with mission, IT, and customer experience groups inside the agencies, as well as partnerships with senior agency leadership. None of these results would be possible if it wasn’t for the strong relationships and the people inside the agencies — unsung heroes who also deserve massive credit.

The U.S. Digital Service isn’t perfect, but it is clearly working. The team estimates that for every $1 million invested in USDS that the government will avoid spending $5 million and save thousands of labor hours. Over a five-year period, the team’s efforts will save $1.1 billionredirect almost 2,000 labor years towards higher value work, and generate over 400 percent return on investment. Most importantly, USDS will continue to deliver better government services for the American people, including Veterans who deserve better.

In the private sector, these kinds of numbers would not lead to a 50 percent cut in budget. Instead, you’d clearly invest further with that kind of return. Considering the ambitious goals set out in the President’s Management Agenda, the Trump Administration should double down on better support for the public, our troops, and our veterans. The best way to do that is clearly through investments like USDS.

Nick Sinai is Adjunct Faculty at Harvard Kennedy School, Senior Advisor at Insight Partners, and former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the Obama White House. Follow him on Twitter @NickSinai.