Is 18F living up to its hype?

A white board at the front of 18F's Washington, D.C., headquarters in the GSA building displays every employee based on the airport code they call home. (Billy Mitchell/FedScoop)

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With lots of buzz comes high expectations — and 18F has plenty of both.

Since its inception in early 2014, the digital services team, housed in the General Service Administration, has made waves with its rallying cry to transform government technology. It has caught the eye of the greater federal IT community largely because of its steadfast dedication to software development principles not traditionally found in government and its belief in doing everything in the open.

Yet with all the praise heaped on 18F, more critics are coming out of the woodwork, claiming the organization is insular or underachieving.

Take this for example:

“When I asked about successes, 18F pointed to analytics.usa.gov,” Steve O’Keefe, founder of MeriTalk, wrote in an article, which also addressed the team’s tendency to only work with agencies that signed on to its agile principles. “Outside of that traffic-tracking site, 18F didn’t have too many more triumphs to trumpet.”

But for those critical of the hardly 18-months-old 18F, Phaedra Chrousos, associate administrator of the team and its Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies counterpart, told FedScoop those concerns are misconceptions — to fairly judge the success of 18F, you have to truly understand its goals.

Changing hearts and minds

“Year one was all about changing hearts and minds,” Chrousos said. By that she means giving 18F’s agency clients the basic tools they need to continue developing in short, iterative sprints long after 18F leaves — think Daniel LaRusso learning to defend himself in “Karate Kid” by doing Mr. Miyagi’s chores, like “paint the fence” and “wax on, wax off.”

In a sense, that’s the root of the group’s reputation for pushing a certain development methodology on agencies. When working with an agency, 18F requires that agency fully invest in concepts like sprints, minimum viable products and user-centered design — or it won’t work with that agency.

But while some might see this as an abrasive way of engaging clients, 18F’s advocates say it doesn’t exist to perpetuate to the status quo. It wants instead to bring what’s largely worked in the private sector into government and fix federal IT, a concept riddled with the failure of massive projects like Healthcare.gov in its infancy, so much so that the Government Accountability Office listed it on its 2015 “High Risk List.”

“If you look at any startup worth its seed funding out in Silicon Valley, they’re going to work the way 18F works or aspire to work the way 18F works,” GitHub government evangelist Ben Balter said.

“18F really embodies that ‘teach a man to fish’ approach to IT reform,” Balter said. “At the end of the engagement, agencies are obviously left with the deliverables, the code, the thing that 18F actually shipped. But at least anecdotally, from talking with agencies … program managers realize all the sudden that ‘hey, all these things they’ve been talking about — not only is it possibly to do in government, but 18F has been doing it, and all the while I just did it for the past two months.’”

If everything is going according to plan, Chrousos said, 18F’s role in the federal government is “absorbing the risk that government inherently has to work in agile, put users first and work in the open” so other agencies can explore and try it themselves.

The big splash vs. the long ripple

With 18F in the spotlight, though, the federal government, contractors and the media all expect some massive result to validate the team’s hype and existence.

“When you talk about they hype, I think one of the challenges they have is that they created that themselves,” said Stan Soloway, the CEO and president of the Professional Services Council who said he tends to come off as an 18F critic but denied being such. “So when you do that you tend to create higher expectations.”

But instead of a huge project or two, the team has embarked on more than a dozen smaller engagements that might not excite the average technologist or contractor.

To some, like Balter, however, that’s great progress.

“There’s definitely a lot of hype around them,” he acknowledged. But “launching 14 projects in a year is unheard of from most government organizations … In terms of where the kind of baseline for where government is and where 18F is, I think they far exceed expectations.”

Looking purely at GitHub presence, a sort of standard for how organizations develop software in the open, Balter said the about 100-person team far exceeds any other federal agency with 294 repositories.

Targeting smaller projects also has to do with 18F not trying to bite off more than it can chew while growing and spreading the culture of agile around government. This belief in modular development — building smaller pieces of bigger projects — is a technique used to reduce the risk inherent to big IT projects.

“Projects that don’t seemingly have a big splashy impact actually are having ripple effects in government that are really important to acknowledge,” Chrousos said.

18F’s agile blanket purchase agreement is an example of that. In its first iteration, it might look like just any other contact vehicle, but really it’s a way for the team to scale and meet demand through vendors who perform similar agile services. Projects like that, she said, “provide government digital services teams and government CIO shops, anyone who’s working in this ecosystem, with the tools they need.”

But also, it’s important to remember 18F is a business — it survives on fees charged to agency clients. And that sometimes means taking on a less-sexy but achievable project in its wheelhouse rather than those driving public discourse.

“They might not be tackling the kind of vital, national defense-type systems,” Balter said. “But they are working with agencies on projects that affect citizens’ lives on a daily basis and actually have an impact on how people interact with government.”

Chrousos, though, said to keep an eye out. “In year two, we’re going to be continuing [pushing for culture change], but we’re also going to be looking for bigger projects as well.”

How can 18F succeed?

Critics or not, those on the outside looking in say that for 18F — or other organizations like it — to be successful in sparking government IT culture change, it needs to be engaging, embracing and listening.

“I’m a strong believer in experimentation … but when it’s done in a way that at least appears to be, whether it’s intentional or not, insular, sort of ‘we have all the answers,’ that’s not necessarily the way to change culture,” Soloway said.

He experienced firsthand what it was like struggling to effect change on a large scale while serving as deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition reform at the Pentagon.

“Innovation is thinking differently about a problem and approaching it differently, and people who think traditionally aren’t going to necessarily support it,” he said. “People were waiting for us to fall right on our faces, because the status quo makes sense, they weren’t big on change and so forth.”

Martha Johnson, former administrator of GSA before 18F launched, is a major proponent of new innovators joining federal government to help tackle large issues. But they should come to Washington, she said, “eager to help but also as deep listeners. Listen deeply to what’s going on in government and to the people you’re working with.”

“Many of the people in government deeply want the government to be much more innovative, to take different kinds of risks, to move more quickly, to be high preforming, and they have struggled in their careers to make that happen,” Johnson said. “And when people come in from the outside and say, ‘we have all the answers,’ it puts people who are very, very committed to trying to find new ways of doing on the defensive.”

She added: “Coming in and listening to the stories of people who are trying do and what they dream and what they want for government is a very big way of creating a partnership with them rather than coming in as a heroic savior of some sort.”

But at the end of the day, 18F, its critics and its supporters are all on the same team, Soloway said, working toward a more effective government.

“We actually think they have a great opportunity,” he said. “We just don’t want to see it wasted.”

-In this Story-

18F, Agencies, Ben Balter, challenges, Citizen Services, General Services Administration, Government IT News, Innovation, Martha Johnson, Phaedra Chrousos, Stan Soloway
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