The Obama administration learned a painful lesson on how bad technology can disrupt policy initiatives when its high-profile rollout of the Affordable Care Act was derailed by a bad website. Following this fiasco, the White House implemented many reforms, one of which was the creation of 18F—the federal government’s digital startup housing some of the best and brightest technologists in government. Eighteen months ago, 18F had nearly 300 people; today, there are fewer than half that number. This sharp decline represents a significant erosion of technical talent in the federal government and, if it continues, will likely impede the ability of the Trump administration to use technology to implement its agenda over the next few years.
18F is an office within the General Services Administration (GSA) that works with other federal agencies to improve how the government procures technology to deliver services to the public. 18F partners with agencies willing to take an agile, modular, and user-centric approach to software development. The goal of this method is to avoid the problems that often plague government agencies procuring bespoke IT solution, such as incomplete or changing requirements and insufficient input from users, thereby saving agencies money and improving government services. Through its approach, 18F not only helps agencies better procure and manage technology, but it also changes government culture to embrace experimentation and innovation.
By most metrics, 18F is withering away. The average annual attrition rate at GSA is 6.6 percent, although the majority of that is accounted for by individuals who are retiring. This rate is typical for a government agency. In comparison, according to new data released by GSA, the attrition rate at 18F last year was 24.5 percent, including some highly public departures among senior staff. Virtually all this attrition is likely voluntary separation because while there are some older workers at 18F, it tends to attract a younger crowd, so there are probably few, if any, who are retiring from 18F.
Moreover, 18F has not replaced these departing workers. Overall employment numbers have dropped steadily at 18F over the past year. While it is not surprising that some of the individuals who joined the federal government during the last administration may choose to leave under a new president, it is notable that the Trump administration has either been unable or unwilling to recruit large numbers of technologists to serve. Even today, 18F is not hiring. This means that virtually the entire staff, who are hired for two-year terms with an option to extend for a second term, will be gone before Trump’s first term is over.
Part of these changes at 18F likely reflect an overall push by the Trump administration to reduce the size of government. During Obama’s first 9 months, the federal government had a net gain of 68,000 permanent employees; in contrast, during the same period in the Trump administration, there has been a net loss of 16,000. In addition, Trump enacted a hiring freeze early on that made it impossible for agencies to replace those who left. As a result, all Cabinet departments except Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and Interior had fewer staff in September than in January of last year.
But the changes at 18F appear greater than those elsewhere. Some of this decline may be a result of an erosion of support for its mission. From its inception, detractors both inside and outside of government, have argued that 18F unfairly competes with the private sector. Part of this objection arises from the fact that 18F does not have its own appropriated budget, but rather funds itself through cost-recovery from its work for other agencies.
The Trump administration seems to understand the importance of technology. For example, the White House’s Office of American Innovation announced that it is developing centers of excellence to do technical assessments, strategy, and planning in five areas: cloud adoption, IT infrastructure optimization, customer experience, service delivery analytics, and contact centers. And it has reorganized the Technology Transformation Services, the branch of the GSA where 18F is located, putting it under the Federal Acquisition Service (FAS), and making the head of FAS a political appointee. But it has been slow to bring on staff, such as taking almost a year to appoint a new federal CIO. This matters because if agencies like 18F cannot recruit new talent, they will fail. As Dan Tangherlini, the former administrator of GSA, put it “[18F’s long-term viability] really comes down to whether they’re able to continue to attract the absolutely world-class people that they’ve been able to bring in over the last several years of their existence.”
If the Trump administration hopes to avoid the problems faced by its predecessor, it should not neglect the importance of recruiting top technical talent.
Daniel Castro (@castrotech) is vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and director of ITIF’s Center for Data Innovation.