The Trump administration doesn’t hold much regard for asylum seekers or projects started by President Obama. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has moved to keep more asylum seekers in detention. Trump has rolled back Obama-era initiatives wholesale since taking office. Yet in one corner of the White House, a team of idealistic tech workers established by Obama is helping the Department of Homeland Security offer asylum seekers better customer service.
Welcome to the strange second act of the United States Digital Service.
USDS emerged from the technological and political meltdown of the 2013 launch of healthcare.gov. After a squad of Silicon Valley techies descended to fix the site, President Obama created USDS to get tech workers helping other parts of government. Under Obama, the group’s missions included speeding immigration processes, and expediting the acceptance of refugees.
Under Trump, the unit’s current leader, Matt Cutts, admits that he’s less likely to highlight those projects. “We might talk more about how we save money,” says Cutts, a former Google executive, who took the helm after USDS’s founding director, a political appointee, departed in 2017. On a visit to WIRED, Cutts highlighted wins such as saving the Veterans Administration almost $100 million by convincing the agency to host a new project in Amazon’s cloud instead of buying equipment.
Cutts has also had to change his unit’s pitch to potential recruits, many of whom take temporary leaves from tech companies to join USDS for short tours of duty. Obama was popular in the left-leaning tech industry, and would sometimes invite people into the Roosevelt Room to persuade them to join the group. Trump’s reputation among tech workers is poor, and he doesn’t offer USDS such direct support. Cutts says USDS has around 175 people, roughly the level it did at the start of the Trump administration. That’s down from the 202 the group had late in the Obama administration. “In this environment it’s very important to make arguments about service and that we’re working for the American people,” says Cutts.
It’s a good line, but Cutts’ team works for Trump and his policies, too. The Obama-centric idealism under which USDS was founded has met the political reality of civil service.
In 2016, USDS worked on Homeland Security systems to help meet Obama’s goal of welcoming in 85,000 refugees, for example. One contributor to that effort, former Google employee Mark Lerner, says his work at USDS was partly motivated by his family’s negative experiences with the US immigration system. Last year, the Trump administration admitted roughly 29,000 refugees.
Lerner now helps lead a USDS unit inside Homeland Security working on projects including making it easier for the more than 300,000 asylum seekers waiting for case reviews to track their status. “When we look at projects we look at doing the greatest good for the greatest need,” he says. He also works for a government getting tougher on people seeking asylum. Earlier this month, Sessions announced that all people crossing the U.S. border illegally would be prosecuted, including asylum seekers. Critics say that contravenes the United Nations refugee convention of 1951.
Cutts argues that the core of USDS’s work is bipartisan: saving money and preventing screwups like the healthcare.gov launch that make it hard for citizens to get services they need. And he claims USDS’s way of doing things is catching on, as agencies witness its successes, and through programs like one announced this month that trains government staff in how to buy digital services more effectively.
Other parts of USDS work have been slowing down. Cutt says he gets fewer emergency calls from agencies asking for help with urgent system problems. “I honestly don’t know if there are fewer fires or if people are hiding because they don’t want to admit problems,” he admits. “We don’t seem to have so many emergencies.”