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.”

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MeriTalk Staff