An 18F for cyber? Co-founder Greg Godbout says it’s on the horizon

EPA's Greg Godbout speaks at FedScoop's 7th Annual Lowering the Cost of Government with IT Summit in 2015. (FedScoop)

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The first executive director of 18F, the Obama administration’s IT tiger team, envisions a new federal cybersecurity fix-it organization that could parachute into agencies to help boost their digital defenses.

Reflecting on his vision for the future of digital citizen services, and on his time with the federal government, Greg Godbout said there’s a need for a U.S. “cybersecurity service” as an adjunct to the administration’s U.S. Digital Service.

And he noted the feds could look to Britain’s Communications Electronics Security Group as a possible model.

The CESG — which provides technical advice and expertise on cyber and information security to British government agencies and their vendors — is part of Britain’s GCHQ, London’s electronic spy agency and their equivalent to the NSA.

“It would be really great to have a consultant service in government similar to an 18F or USDS model … that’s built around cybersecurity,” Godbout told FedScoop about a month after he left his last post as Environmental Protection Agency’s chief technology officer for the private sector.

He added, “In some ways it’s inevitable, but [I say] let’s do it now.”

Godbout was short on details about what such a “cybersecurity service” might look like. He said it could be set up by some combination of the U.S. CIO’s office, the Department of Homeland Security and the General Services Administration — but “it doesn’t have to be those three.”

Godbout’s passion for what he calls digital government runs deep: He was part of a group of former Presidential Innovation Fellows who started GSA’s 18F digital services team, and, after leading that organization, he joined EPA to develop its digital services offerings.

Earlier this month, he joined cBrain, a publicly traded Danish tech company that makes an integrated software platform designed for public agencies. He said it brings in records management, chat or messaging and other functions in a way that makes it easier for federal employees to work — which he says is part of the larger digital transformation movement.

When Godbout came to government three years ago, federal IT focused on building monolithic systems, which took several years and were delivered all at once, in a closed environment, he said. Now, an increasing number of systems, projects and programs are becoming user-centered, agile and modular.

“When I first got here, people were saying things like, ‘government can’t produce good products,’” he said, pointing to the disastrous rollout of the Healthcare.gov. “It was all this can’t, can’t, can’t. Now, all these things can be debunked.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he said, was an early leader in the digital transformation charge — it “was like early adopter,” he said. Indeed, four of 18F’s 12 original members came from the CFPB.

“We were really the platform that we built upon — because they were doing it,” he said.

Now, he said, “in nearly every agency I’ve engaged with, there is a group of innovators who are doing very exciting things for transformation.”

Just a few examples of agencies that “have fully committed to transformation agencywide and taken action to do so,” he said, are the State Department, DHS, the Office of Personnel Management and the Social Security Administration.

He also said he was “especially impressed” by Department of Veterans Affairs CIO Laverne Council’s recent work to reform the agency’s IT management.

Looking ahead, he said that he thinks even after the Obama administration ends, the digital services push will continue. The digital services movement is happening in countries across the globe, and there’s pressure to keep pace with the technology in other governments. At the same time, forward thinkers in the federal government want it as well.

“You have a choice: You either get in front of it or let digital happen to you,” he said.

He added, “If the momentum goes away, there will be a decrease in security, there will be increases in failed websites, there will be increases in lack of productivity,” he said. “I can’t imagine anyone wants that.”

Contact the reporter on this story via email Whitney.Wyckoff@fedscoop.com, or follow her on Twitter @whitneywyckoff. Sign up for all the federal IT news you need in your inbox every morning at 6:00 here: fdscp.com/sign-me-on.

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18F, Agencies, Cybersecurity, Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, Government IT News, Greg Godbout, U.S. Digital Service, White House