Blog Post

Structuring the Next Chapter of the Federal Digital Community

  • Mark Lerner
| Apr. 26, 2021

There’s no doubt about it: the federal digital service community will grow by orders of magnitude in the coming years, and we’re at a pivotal moment right now to plan ahead and make the most of that growth. 

Over the last decade, the U.S. federal government has steadily expanded its ability to build modern and effective digital services. Through programs and offices like 18F, the Presidential Innovation Fellows, the U.S. Digital Service, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau’s tech team, the Lab at OPM, and many more, the federal government has brought a significant number of highly qualified technologists into meaningful and impactful roles. Taken together, these efforts have started bridging the wide gap of tech talent left by decades of underinvestment. However, as a federal digital community, we now find ourselves entering a new chapter, and we need to rapidly get organized to make the most of the opportunities being presented. 

We are seeing a wave of technologists from the private sector expressing deep interest in working in the government, with many actually coming into government for the first time. USDS saw thousands of applications within the first weeks of the new Administration, with many more steadily streaming in since then. Similarly, thousands of technologists (by which I mean software engineers, designers, product managers, and the various other people involved in building software-based services) volunteered with the U.S. Digital Response, a volunteer-based nonprofit group that provided pro-bono aid to state and local governments across the country during the pandemic. Groups like the Day One Project have put out proposals to bring in students and fresh college graduates, while others like the U.S. of Tech are working to hire over 10,000 technologists directly into federal, state, and local governments. 

We need to make changes to our structures and strategies now to make the best use of this new growth. We have an opportunity to learn from the last decade and organize ourselves towards efficiently tackling the deep-seeded problems that prevent us from delivering the good, modern services that people need and deserve. 

To make the best of the incoming talent, I believe that we need to organize ourselves around a set of strategic pillars: 

  1. Expanding the Talent Pipeline 

  1. Building Platforms 

  1. Reviewing Services 

  1. Addressing Policy 

  1. Developing Systems 

  1. Building Communities 

Strong, concerted efforts on these fronts will create sustainable digital change in government, and will also address the most immediate and critical system and service failures that need repair. The various federal digital groups – both those I have already named, and the many more I have not – are addressing these in their own ways, but a coordinated strategy focusing on these pillars will put the new technical talent to effective use. 

Strategic Pillars 

In offering up these pillars, I’m aiming to put a name towards the central and critical channels of work I see ahead of us. I understand that it’s much easier to name the work than it is to do the work. In an effort to stay concise, I’m not diving in deep with each pillar (e.g. I’m not making OKRs or offering a roadmap for any of them). Ultimately, this essay is just a proposal for where to focus our efforts, and a call to the leaders of the federal digital community to collaborate on these pillars to make best use of the surge of support coming our way. 

Expanding the Talent Pipeline 

If there’s one area that needs the most investment, it’s the hiring and talent pipeline for technical talent. We need to build up and strongly support the talent teams: recruiters, HR specialists, people that work directly with candidates and move them through the process. Some organizations, like USDS and TTS, have experienced talent teams that have brought in hundreds of technologists to work in government. However, they’re struggling under the weight of the current supply of candidates, and their efforts are highly specialized to fill positions on these teams. Outside groups like the Tech Talent Project and Skylight Digital have put out resources to help in this, but it’s not enough. If we are looking to expand the number of experienced technologists working in government by several orders of magnitude, then we need to expand our talent teams and our talent pipelines, including the resources and authorities at their disposal. 

Building Platforms 

Over the last few years, the U.S. federal government has expanded the set of modern digital platforms it offers, including services like, and However, these are just the tip of the iceberg for what digital platforms could provide. Many people have put out visions for a series of digital government platforms, and I recommend following their advice and example. Utilizing the influx of technical talent to create platforms will give us the biggest bang for the buck in terms of sustainable change and reusable tools. The new talent can be used to build new platforms, as well as stabilize and expand existing platforms for use across the entire federal government apparatus. 

Reviewing Services 

Even with hundreds, potentially thousands, of new technologists coming to work inside the government, we still won’t have enough in-house, capable, experienced, and qualified technologists to manage and work on every software project in the federal government. To address all of these different programs, we will need to build the capability to effectively review public services across the government. There are existing examples of these types of modern technology reviews across government, including USDS Discovery Sprints and PortfolioStat reviews, but these should be expanded greatly with the influx of talent. With an expanded and well-orchestrated effort, modern service design teams can perform full reviews of federal services from all angles; security experts can continuously run penetration tests and security exercises; technical procurement experts can review, and potentially approve, new contracts; and cross-functional teams can bring all of these modern best practices to bear on critical services. By holding all of our federal services up to a higher modern standard, these review teams would actively improve the quality of services while scaling up the scope of impact for the incoming talent.  

Addressing Policy 

Many of the core blockers to better modern service design and delivery stem from outdated or poorly-implemented policies. Many efforts have been underway across the federal government to address these policies, including new policies for the Trusted Internet Connectionmodern procurement policies, and conversations on ATO reform. To unlock the potential of the new wave of incoming technical talent, we’ll need to more rapidly address these policy issues and concerns, and make sure that the policy changes are swifty implemented across the federal government. This includes other ancillary factors, such as both modern hiring and modern tool usage policies, that will make the new teams and groups able to move faster. 

Developing Systems 

As we expand the number of technologists working in government, eventually the majority of them will be working in a traditional development capacity. The closest current analog to this is 18F, though ultimately we will want to see these development teams both directly inside agencies as well as in groups like 18F. In-house technical development teams, particularly including Product Managers and different kinds of Designers, will be a huge boon in building modern digital services. These teams will never fully supplant vendors and contractors – nor should they – but they will certainly be pivotal in building and maintaining mission-critical systems and services for the public, as well as for government workers (e.g. Immigration Officers) to do their work more efficiently. 

Building Communities 

Different digital groups within the federal government have their own internal versions of centralized technical communities, where each community is generally centered on a particular practice or discipline. USDS calls these Communities of Practice, while TTS calls these Guilds. However, the majority of the work in these communities is internal to the organizations. maintains some listservs for government-wide communities, but these don’t have substantial-enough investment to create true supportive communities across government. As the in-house modern technical talent in government expands, we will need to build supportive and fully-fledged communities to engage the new workforce. This should ultimately include dedicated staff that supports the community in their federal careers via events, training, cross-agency communication, and more. 


There is no doubt that we will be seeing massive growth in the public interest technology space as more and more technologists decide to work on the problems they care about. As a federal digital community, I believe that the most important work we can do now is to expand in-government technical talent, particularly towards these critical strategic pillars. 

This is my attempt at offering a potential structure for the coming influx of talent. In building our organizations towards these pillars, we can create structures that target the root causes of government service delivery. These certainly aren’t a final step, but rather a next step towards an ultimate state where the federal government consistently delivers effective services, and where technical talent is common and ubiquitous across government. 

Many other groups are working on each of these topics, including various academics at the Georgetown Beeck Center and Harvard Kennedy School, the U.S. Digital Response, the Tech Talent Project, the National Conference on Citizenship, the Day One Project, and many others, including groups within government. Each of them bring valuable perspectives and resources towards these pillars, and have already naturally started organizing their efforts in a similar fashion. 

We’re at a pivotal moment, where more and more people are deciding to build the government they want to see. We still have a long way to go to make it easy for these talented people to come in, but they are coming. Let’s get ourselves ready now, and make the most of this momentum while we have it. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Lerner, Mark.Structuring the Next Chapter of the Federal Digital Community .” Perspectives on Public Purpose, April 26, 2021,

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