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Trump Squeezed America's Geek Squad. Biden Built It Back Stronger

Mina Hsiang returned to the United States Digital Service, the US government's rapid digital fix-it squad, on January 26, 2021, when the streets of Washington, DC, had hardly been cleared after Joe Biden’s inauguration. She was one of the group’s founding members but had spent the past few years working for a health care startup. Upon her return, Hsiang worked on Covid response, and in September 2021, she became the third administrator of the USDS.

Her timing was impeccable. The organization had sprung from the infamous HeathCare.gov debacle in 2013, when the website for selecting insurance plans under the new Obamacare law crashed badly. Hsiang was a key member of the scrappy rescue team that turned things around, using principles of web design that were common in Silicon Valley operations but underutilized in government. Their methods flew in the face of typical arrangements in federal agencies, which would contract out digital operations to legacy firms with Beltway connections. Those six- or seven-figure contracts seldom demanded benchmark performances and often took years to complete, or were never finished at all. The tiny team of idealistic rescuers not only helped design a cleaner avenue to health insurance, but charmed the lifers at Health and Human Services (HHS) into enlisting them to fix up digital government more broadly.

The idea behind the new USDS was to bottle the same guerilla spirit that had saved HealthCare.gov. Ideally, these volunteers from the commercial tech firms would win the hearts and minds of people inside agencies like the Veterans Affairs (VA) or HHS, infiltrating their calcified cultures with the can-do spirit and constant iteration of a startup and creating digital government services as slick as the latest app from Silicon Valley.

I spoke to Hsiang this week about how the USDS is faring after two years under her leadership. During the Trump years, the agency had to scramble just to stay alive, no easy task when a target was tacked onto anything even tangentially related to Obama. The team survived through a combination of lying low and doing productive work. They managed to thread that needle, in part, because Jared Kushner was at one point infatuated with the concept. Nonetheless, USDS wasn’t thriving when Hsiang returned. “The last administration had done a lot to undermine staffing,” she says.

Hsiang took over just as things were looking up. Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan directed an astonishing $200 million to the USDS, ballooning its previously modest budget. That enabled USDS coders and designers to work with more agencies and start new programs. “There was just a ton of demand across government. So it was, ‘OK, how do we rebuild, scale, and up level,’” says Hsiang. It also helped that late in 2021, Biden issued an executive order making human-centered design a key part of the federal government’s digital interface with citizens. One radical idea: “In all sectors, services should reduce burdens, not increase them.”

The head count of USDS is now around 215, up from 80 when Hsiang ended her first stint with the group. “About a third of those are returners,” Hsiang says. Despite what she calls the “anti-sell”—a warning about the restrictions and financial implications of working for the government—“People still want to show up.”

Another part of her task was steadying the ship. Despite a number of victories in agencies ranging from the VA to the Department of Defense, USDS has enemies. Not surprisingly, some of those fat-cat contractors who enjoyed no-blame deals to create bloated databases that didn’t work pushed to constrain or kill this threat to their business models and self-respect. And apparently some critics just don’t like the idea of people in hoodies churning out code in the basements of federal agencies. The USDS has always dealt with pushback in Congress, and this summer some legislators launched an unsuccessful (for now) effort to strip $80 million from the USDS budget, claiming that the service wasn’t accountable. “What the hell are they working on?” one anonymous government critic said to FedScoop.

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It’s actually pretty easy to see what the USDS is working on if you know where to look. You can find their work, for instance, on the Social Security Administration homepage, which has been revamped and streamlined with USDS input. “In November of last year it had 70,000 pages for you to navigate to find information,” Hsiang says. “We got it down to 280, which is much more digestible.”

Or consider the website that allowed Americans to order home delivery of free Covid tests. Instead of asking people dozens of questions before they could sign up, the drop-dead simple form just asked where to send the darn things. Yes, there was a speed bump when the site couldn’t parse some addresses for citizens who lived in multifamily residences, but that was quickly resolved. Two-thirds of American households ultimately participated, with over 755 million tests distributed. “It was a phenomenal example of the partnership between USDS and agencies and the White House and the US Postal Service—of how we can all work together,” says Hsiang. “We can restore trust by having a thing that operates as you would expect it to, that looks more like the products we all choose to use every day, rather than the ones we have to use.”

There’s a long way to go, of course. Matthew Desmond, in his book Poverty by America, describes how millions of Americans don’t take advantage of vital programs because they are difficult to access. “I think a lot about the opportunity for technology to reduce that administrative burden,” says Hsiang. One problem, she notes, is that getting help often requires a citizen to access programs from multiple agencies that are poorly coordinated. “One of our superpowers is our ability to work between multiple agencies.”

One missed opportunity is the failure of the Biden Administration to fill the post of chief technology officer of the United States. “It would definitely be better to have an incredible partner in that office,” Hsiang concedes. On the other hand, Biden’s current chief of staff, Jeff Zients, is deeply familiar with USDS, since he was once in charge of the HealthCare.gov rescue. “He brings us in and ensures that programs are running the right way,” Hsiang says.

I ask Hsiang how USDS regards generative AI because, well, my license as a tech pundit would be revoked if I failed to do that. “We’re looking at it very carefully,” she says—a line currently mandatory for those in her line of work. She cites concerns that AI bots might infect services with bias. But like it or not, the AI boom has to be dealt with. Hsiang cites an HHS website called Grants.gov that takes submissions for thousands of funding applications. A flood of AI-generated pitches is expected. “We need to respond to that,” she says. The USDS is also experimenting with ways to use generative AI inside government services. “We’re hiring for folks who really understand how to use and implement AI systems,” she says.

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One thing hasn’t changed at USDS: its desire to spread a positive contagion of citizen-centric tech efforts among those bureaucracies. “One of our hypotheses early on is to see if we can do this culture change, with different ways of operating and thinking, and make it sustainable,” says Hsiang. “We’re currently working with about a dozen agencies who are trying to think through how they can build that capability internally.”

One indicator of this shift: The patient Hsiang first joined the government to save is thriving. Transcending its disastrous beginning, HealthCare.gov no longer requires outside support from the group’s geeky fixers.

Time Travel

In January 2017, I wrote about the United States Digital Service’s accomplishments, as well as its uncertain prospects under a president who might not be inclined to continue the Obama-created agency of tech hackers dedicated to Silicon Valley-izing government IT.

As the inauguration approaches, the mood swings at the USDS are Calder-esque. Dickerson describes it as “a high school graduation and a massive layoff mixed with a funeral that’s gone on for two months.” On the Facebook feeds of politically appointed tech surgers you see photos of final handshakes with the president; they’re wearing uncharacteristically formal garb and are often with their families; they have been ushered into the Oval Office for mutual thanks. Obama himself bid farewell to the team at a ceremony on the steps of the Executive Office Building last Thursday. He spent the better part of an hour thanking the team and telling them what a difference they made.

But they know it already, and the experience has made many of them reluctant to return to their previous lives inside profit-making corporations. Those jobs don’t seem so meaningful anymore. Some are sticking around the DC area, even though they hate it as a place to live. There’s talk about a loose network of tech surge alumni engaging in a new kind of insurgency—outside the government but with the same end of serving the people.

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“Every hint I ever had was that the infrastructure of civilization was someone else’s problem,” says Matthew Weaver. “What a lie that was. It was my problem. I’m lucky to have the skills to address this. Now I want everyone who has an inkling of this to understand … to say, this is my problem.”

Ask Me One Thing

Erica asks, “Would it be possible to create a transcription application (implanted or external) that could record your musings, whether vocalized or internal, while still protecting privacy? The idea of this application would be that I could turn on the app for that moment, but not continuously.”

Hi, Erica, thanks for asking. As you imply, the brain is too leaky to preserve our best thoughts, not to mention memories that could be of use to us, or at least entertain us and indulge our nostalgia. Technologists have been trying for years to come up with a system to record everything, and in recent years some have come on the market, including an app called Rewind, to record huge volumes of what you see, hear, and read. Eventually, if all goes well, you accumulate a lifetime of memories and business interactions, stored “offline,” meaning not in your head.

Your requirements, Erica, seem less ambitious: to capture only the thoughts you consciously decide are worthy of retention. If that’s what you want, the “implanted” device you mention is overkill. You might as well use a cheap digital recorder and flip it on.

But what about privacy? I asked Dan Siroker, the founder and CEO of Rewind. (Its capture mechanism isn’t a brain implant, but the iPhone.) He says that his company’s security strategy rests on keeping the data on your private device, not in some cloud system. Because Rewind compresses raw data up to 3,750 times, a cheap hard drive could store a lifetime’s worth of conversations and dictations. Of course, if it’s available to you, others could gain access to it, whether through hacking, theft, or subpoena. So the answer to your question is a qualified yes—an app that records your transcription can protect your privacy, but only to the extent that any data security plan can be relied on.

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Siroker also thinks that you should reconsider your plan to selectively capture your thoughts. “I highly recommend keeping it all and sifting through it as needed,” he says. I suspect you may not take his advice.

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

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Updated 9-8-2023, 7:45 pm EDT: Mina Hsiang is the United States Digital Service's administrator, not its director.

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