The innovators disrupting bureaucracy in the General Services Administration’s 18F have learned quite a bit since launching in March, and now they’re taking that knowledge to other agencies with a new program called 18F Consulting.
During a panel Monday on citizen services at ACT-IAC’s Executive Leadership Conference in Williamsburg, Virginia, Greg Godbout, executive director of 18F, explained how the new pilot program is meant to help other agencies learn from the agile practices 18F has developed in user-centered services design.
“The central purpose is to be like an agile coach or a solution architect, to look at software inside the federal government and go, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. We’re gonna bring in a design-thinking team first. Before we go to procurement with this, we’re going to really make sure we’re at least kind of getting this right. Oh, and by the way, all the contracts you’re going to engage in are going to allow for pivots and allow for real agile work to occur,'” Godbout said.
According to 18F’s website, the program is “focused on providing hands-on consulting services to Federal program managers and other leaders who need assistance in designing and managing software acquisitions that use modern development techniques (e.g., agile, lean, open source). We offer a variety of services under the authority of the Economy Act from knowledgable and experienced software engineers and acquisition specialists. Think of us as your in-house technical brains for your next software acquisition.”
Currently there’s an issue with federal procurement where user-centered design is too often thrown away for what Godbout called “stakeholder design,” which regards the approval and decisions of senior leadership more than it does the people who are meant to use it. Because of this, he said project teams are handcuffed to failure.
“One of the problems that stills exists … is by the time something becomes a procurement for vendors to get involved who can bring in ideas and do all that different stuff, in the vast majority of cases it’s too late,” Godbout said. “They get this requirement, it’s written in stone to ‘build this functionality.’ I can’t tell you how many projects we’ve seen where the whole project team knows they’re going in the wrong direction and they’re just going to walk off that cliff because contractually, they’ve got to nail these certain pieces of functionality and they’ll be OK. They’ll legally be OK, they won’t, like, get fired necessarily — they’re going to just walk off that cliff.”
Working with about 14 projects now, 18F — which Godbout described as “a production floor inside the federal government” building out different services and re-engineering business processes — is diverting from that mentality and instead pressing to “contract and expect change.”
“The advantage we have, and what we need to figure out how to do for the procurement side, is can we have a conversation early on with the people who approve the budget,” he said. “There’s a problem here. It’s pretty compelling when you bring a group of users to the table and explain to the person who owns the program and say, ‘They’ll refuse to use your system if you build that functionality.'”
Even internally at GSA, 18F has passed on lessons learned in agile methodology.
“18F has done an awful lot in helping us transform the way we’re doing kind of internal business. We joke a lot that 18F, if nothing else, if it were to end tomorrow, at least it taught us how to hire people faster,” Administrator Dan Tangherlini said Tuesday at another ACT-IAC discussion. “By applying these agile approaches to even basic business processes, we’ve gotten better at doing something as simple or as straightforward as hiring folks. We’re hoping that we can show people that model and that they can learn from it too.”
Watching 18F operate in a completely agile manner, Tangherlini said, has opened GSA’s eyes on how to better consume information technology by helping break old habits.
“It’s great actually to have people who don’t have all the engrained experiences of what it’s like to work in the agency and ask the question, ‘Why do you do it this way?’” he said, likening it to a three-year old who continually asks “Why?”
“After the third ‘Why?’ you’re like, ‘I’m actually … I have no idea why,'” Tangherlini said. At 18F they keep pulling the “Why? string,” and a lot of times, he said, the answer comes down breaking a bureaucratic habit.
Godbout said 18F will also soon launch a dashboard where U.S. citizens can see metrics on all of its current projects.
“The end result will be communication is the key to customer service,” he said. “The U.S. should be able to go to any program in the government, go to a page and see an active, real metric of what that program is doing for the U.S. citizen.”
It should launch in the next week or two. Here’s the alpha version of it.