Inside the Walls of 18F
It’s been a little over a year since 18F opened its doors as an in-house digital consultancy in the federal government. It’s grown to 140 people, all working to improve how government works. We sat down with executive director Aaron Snow to hear what the group has been working on and what's next.
First a little about 18F: It’s an office within GSA, co-launched by a group of Presidential Innovation Fellows, including Aaron, who's now running the show. It’s housed at GSA’s 1800 F St HQ (hence 18F’s name) and whose budget last year was about $30M. Half of its workforce is in DC, and the rest is in 18F’s San Fran, Chicago and NY offices and teleworking from other cities. Since the government can’t contract with itself, 18F is a fee-for-service agency that gets paid for its services through inter-agency agreements. It’s worked with 45 federal agencies, including 20 of the biggest, and completed over 80 inter-agency agreements on all kinds of digital projects.
18F’s work is a bit wonky, admits Aaron, but it’s improving citizen engagement and making life easier for the federal workforce. For example, take 18F’s work with the GSA team running the OASIS procurement vehicle, used by agencies to buy billions of dollars worth of integrated professional services. One software product 18F developed helps buyers find vendors on OASIS and another calculates labor costs. 18F is now helping agencies improve how they deliver software and get connected with vendors who use the same methods as 18F—at low cost and really well. The wall above is full of pictures of the 18F staff, each placed under the airport code of where they're based. The team rarely uses email and mostly relies on products like Slack for collaboration.
Up until recently, the notion of government operating like a startup was unheard of. Aaron says there’s been a sea change since the launch of programs like the Obama Administration's Presidential Innovation Fellowship program in 2012 and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2011. They helped user into government ideas of open source, agile development and human center design for software. The number of digital services experts in the federal government is now well over 300 people, including 18F, CFPB, the US Digital Service, digital teams within the agencies, and GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. “Now there's a real federal community to talk about the different things we’re doing,” Aaron says. But the biggest challenge to getting more momentum is culture, he adds. Each 18F project completed by these teams helps build confidence in digital innovation.
The 18F office and the rest of GSA look more like a tech startup than a government office. More startups have been interested in working on government tech projects, especially now that they see kindred spirits likethe 18F team on the inside, says Aaron. 18F is working on making the federal marketplace more welcoming to the DC startup community. The best way in? For now, Aaron says companies should get on Schedule 70 or partner with a prime contractor already on Schedule 70. But 18F is working on breaking down that barrier. Product companies that provide free online services should write a “compatible terms of service” agreement.
Aaron, a former lawyer who hails from Cleveland, says 18F will be around until at least 2018 and he hopes the next administration embraces and expands its work. Ultimately he’d like for agencies to adopt some basic principles: government software should be open source by default; every software product should start with thinking about the users first; and most software development in the government should happen iteratively so that things can be learned along the way. “If 18F had to vanish tomorrow and all we had done is raise the bar on what’s expected for the government’s digital dollar, we will have done our job,” Aaron said.