Exclusive: GSA Lobbying Congress For New Tech Service, Sources Say

(Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

The General Services Administration is pushing Congress to get behind a plan to establish a third service branch, known as the Technology Transformation Service, that would be centered around GSA’s 18F digital service organization and would actively help manage the $3.1 billion IT modernization fund proposed by the White House, MeriTalk has learned.

Sources with knowledge of the proposed changes spoke to MeriTalk on condition of anonymity and applauded the move, which would consolidate the Office of Integrated Technology Services (ITS), the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies (OCSIT), and the Office of Information, Integrity and Access (I2A). Consolidating these offices, along with GSA’s in-house IT development and consulting arm, 18F, into a formal service branch of GSA is not only a formula for success, the sources said, but would also insulate 18F’s critical mission from the arbitrary changes that often accompany a new presidential administration.

A spokesperson for Phaedra Chrousos, GSA’s associate administrator for Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies/18F, canceled a scheduled interview with MeriTalk after learning the topic of the call. The spokesperson said the proposed reorganization was not something GSA was prepared to talk about.

Phaedra Chrousos, GSA’s associate administrator for Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies/18F. (Photo: GSA)
Phaedra Chrousos, GSA’s associate administrator for Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies/18F. (Photo: GSA)

News of GSA’s reorganization push comes just days before House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., plans to introduce legislation in support of the $3.1 billion White House IT revolving fund. GSA’s 18F will play a major role in deciding how modernization dollars from the fund are used.

Some observers are skeptical of GSA’s ability to conduct such a reorganization outside of the budget process. But a source on Capitol Hill said it is unlikely that the Hoyer bill will include language specifically establishing or authorizing a Technology Transformation Service centered around 18F.

Still, sources close to Chrousos say GSA’s leadership feels confident that the reorganization can be accomplished soon.

“People at GSA are saying that they’ve received approval to get it done and that an announcement is imminent,” said a source with knowledge of internal GSA deliberations. “I think it’s a good idea. And if they are able to pull it off, it could really be a good thing.”

Others say Chrousos deserves much of the credit for getting GSA and 18F this close to a goal that many have been trying to achieve for the better part of a decade—closer integration to improve the customer experience.

GSA’s consolidation plan also comes amid an active investigation by the GSA inspector general into 18F’s financial management, including projects carried out by 18F that did not have legitimate inter-agency agreements in place, which observers agree is a serious problem. But while the IG has yet to indicate it has anything of significance against 18F, the GSA digital consulting arm does face serious challenges.

GSA’s 18F and the larger Federal effort to field digital service teams will also be the subject of an upcoming Government Accountability Office report, scheduled to be released in June. A source with knowledge of how that study is proceeding indicated it would not be a positive report.

“The problem with 18F right now is they’re draining money. There are people sitting around doing nothing, yet they’re hiring new people hand over fist,” said a source with close ties to GSA leadership. “The people in leadership positions can’t do anything about it because the White House is pushing it. I think what they tried to do was overwhelm the government with sheer numbers.”

But sources who have been critical of 18F—particularly those who say it has not yet proven its worth—said in interviews that their thinking has evolved and they no longer believe getting rid of 18F is the answer.

“It’s the right way to go. But what needs to happen to make it really work is you need good leadership, you need to make sure that 18F is doing what they need to do and that they manage customer expectations properly.” said a source with close ties to senior GSA leaders. “You need a well-run customer organization with metrics that runs like a business.”

Dan Verton
About Dan Verton
MeriTalk Executive Editor Dan Verton is a veteran journalist and winner of the First Place Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for Best News Reporting -- the highest award in the nation for business/trade journalism. Dan earned a Master's Degree in Journalism and Public Affairs from American University in Washington, D.C., and has spent the last 20 years in the nation's capital reporting on government, enterprise technology, policy and national cybersecurity. He’s also a former intelligence officer in the United States Marine Corps, has authored three books on cybersecurity, and has testified on critical infrastructure protection before both House and Senate committees.
12 Comments
  1. Anonymous | - Reply
    I am not sure what the goal is for this new service. You say, "Others say Chrousos deserves much of the credit for getting GSA and 18F this close to a goal that many have been trying to achieve for the better part of a decade—closer integration to improve the customer experience." Who is the customer in this transaction? What does this have to do with GSA directly competing with industry? And what is "18F’s critical mission" being protected? The people at 18F turn away work because they do not have the resources, as is not well known they have had difficulty hiring actual engineers and back-end coders. They are flush with front end designers and researchers who are idle because they cannot do end-end development. They also turn away work because they disagree with the potential client or demand that they have access to a Department Secretary before they will take a job of an operating entity. It is curious that I have yet to see an article in any press that quotes an agency client. The success stories are always from 18F staff, GSA leadership and, sometimes, White House personnel. There is a discussion by 18F about their success with USCIS, but has USCIS said that their engagement was a success? There has not been any rigorous review of 18F progress. How many actual deployments via cloud.gov? How many acquisitions were successful from their consultancy? How many task orders on the agile BPA? How many clients? What is the impact of the work, that is what happened post-launch of a project? What were their challenges and successes? It is not clear that this experiment of an internal body shop is not falling to the standard government IT investment problem: lack of rigor in review and saying everything is great and blindly continuing the investment. Has it been reported how many millions have been spent on 18F, what have they billed out, and what are the results? This is the way that one evaluates a business. I would appreciate some reporting that addresses this, rather than uncritical praise.
  2. Anonymous | - Reply
    I did not think it was legal for government agencies to lobby congress. 18F is a powder keg and its personnel are running around flicking matches everywhere. How do they have the stones to ask for expanded power when there is no evidence that they have delivered any value? How many times does GSA have to get it tragically wrong and get in trouble with the law before it learns from its absurd mistakes? And the sad part here, the tax payer always picks up the tab for the stupidity.
  3. Anonymous | - Reply
    GSA should be applauded for their initiative once again. They can't operationalize anything. Can anybody spell FedRAMP? Maybe its time to rethink the whole idea of GSA? Can't wait to see those IG and GAO reports.
  4. Anonymous | - Reply
    Draining money? They're paid by federal departments who hire their services, and who report being happy with the work they get. This source you have has a distorted perspective. The quote doesn't reflect their business structure in any way.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      Thanks. Can you let us know the agencies that have said they are happy with their results? The reporters could line that up with the agency clients and we can see the relative effectiveness.
  5. Anonymous | - Reply
    Folks react to the article based on their positions. Those for 18F think the articles unfair to the newbies. Those against it think it does not go far enough. Dan, I think you did a nice job reporting on what's happening and tip toing through the minefield. What we have here is one of the most polarizing issues in our marketplace.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      I agree...comprehensive and fair.
  6. Anonymous | - Reply
    Also 18F staff are starting to leave, and the products they build are abandoned. Clearly a ROI problem.
  7. Anonymous | - Reply
    Tax payers are going to pick up the tab for this 18F experiment. 18F is an organization that is looking for a REAL mission. Cost controls and results don't seem to be in their vocabulary.
  8. Anonymous | - Reply
    This just hides 18F in a new organization and gives that new organization $3 billions. How is that better? Agree with previous poster: "Tax payers are going to pick up the tab for this 18F" which never succeeded at getting stellar results. GSA is a support agency, too far removed from the mission of agencies. Any new venture should not be housed at GSA because GSA does NOT know how to provide value to the mission, let alone to customers. Show me one poll in which GSA is loved?
  9. Anonymous | - Reply
    The "GSA's plan" seems like a part of "govy-to-govy" business model. Whichever agency has access to manage the monies for the gov IT modernization fund should advise the congress to revise the FISMA of 2002 Act. The act needs some new IT security measures (to focus on "prevention" more than "reaction") as rouge sources have been gradually catching up with the latest technology (clouds vulnerability) evolution. The NIST SP 800s could implement the FISMA better if changes were made. In light of such thoughts, the DOC should have a big part in this new funding to help NIST to upgrade its IS implementation beyond the FISMA.
  10. Anonymous | - Reply
    Nice vauge reference here... Ohhh all the naysayers are totally convinced now! But sources who have been critical of 18F—particularly those who say it has not yet proven its worth—said in interviews that their thinking has evolved and they no longer believe getting rid of 18F is the answer. “It’s the right way to go. But what needs to happen to make it really work is you need good leadership, you need to make sure that 18F is doing what they need to do and that they manage customer expectations properly.” said a source with close ties to senior GSA leaders. “You need a well-run customer organization with metrics that runs like a business.”

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