The question of how the United States can avoid another Healthcare.gov debacle has been on the mind of many officials, from Congress to the man in the Oval Office.
Last November, I speculated about the potential of a” kernel of a United States Digital Services team built around the DNA of the CFPB: digital by default, open by nature,” incorporating the skills of Presidential Innovation Fellows.
As I wrote last week, after a successful big fix to Healthcare.gov by a trauma team got the trouble marketplace for health insurance working, the Obama administration has been moving forward on information technology reforms, including a new development unit within the U.S. General Services Administration.
This week, that new unit became a real entity online, at “18F.
As with the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Services Team, 18F is focused on delivery, an area that the UK’s executive director of digital, Mike Bracken, has been relentless in pushing. Here’s how 18F introduced itself:
18F builds effective, user-centric digital services focused on the interaction between government and the people and businesses it serves. We help agencies deliver on their mission through the development of digital and web services. Our newly formed organization, within the General Services Administration, encompasses the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and an in-house digital delivery team.
18F is a startup within GSA — the agency responsible for government procurement — giving us the power to make small changes with big effect. We’re doers, recruited from industry and the most innovative corners of public service, who are passionate about “hacking” bureaucracy to drive efficiency, transparency, and savings for government agencies and the American people. We make easy things easy, and hard things possible.
The 18F team, amongst other things, has some intriguing, geeky, and even funny titles for government workers, all focused around “agents.” API Agent. Counter Agent. Free Agent. Service Agent. Change Agent. User Agent. Agent Schmagent. Reagent. Agent onGover(). It’s fair to say that their branding, at minimum, sets this “startup in government” apart.
So does their initial foray into social media, now basic building block of digital engagement for government: 18F is on Twitter, Tumblr and Github at launch.
Looks like their office suite is pretty sweet, too.
This effort won’t be a panacea for federal IT ills, nor will a U.S. Government Digital Office nor the role of a U.S. chief technology officer be institutionalized until Congress acts. That said, 18F looks like a bonafide effort to take the approaches to buying, building and maintaining digital and Web services that worked in the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and trying to scale them around the federal government. The team explained more at their Tumblr blog about how they’ll approach their sizable remit:
- Partner with agencies to deliver high quality in-house digital services using agile methodologies pioneered by top technology startups.
- Rapidly deploy working prototypes using Lean Startup principles to get a desired product into a customer’s hands faster.
- Offer digital tools and services that result in governmentwide reuse and savings, allowing agencies to reinvest in their core missions.
- We’re transparent about our work, develop in the open, and commit to continuous improvement.
More than five years ago, Anil Dash wrote that the most interesting startup of 2009 was the United States government. Maybe, just maybe, that’s become true again, given the potential impact that the intelligent application of modern development practices could have on the digital government services that hundreds of millions of Americans increasingly expect and depend upon. What I’ve seen so far is promising, from the website itself to an initial pilot project, FBopen, that provides a simple, clean, mobile-friendly interface for small businesses to “search for opportunities to work with the U.S. government.”
Clay Johnson, a member of the inaugural class of Presidential Innovation Fellows and founder of a startup focused on improving government IT procurement, offered measured praise for the launch of 18F:
Is it a complete solution to government’s IT woes? No. But, like RFP-IT and FITARA, it’s a component to a larger solution. Much of these problems stem from a faulty way of mitigating risk. The assumption is that by erecting barriers to entry – making it so that the only bets to be made are safe ones – then you can never fail. But evidence shows us something different: by increasing the barriers to competition, you not only increase risk, you also get mediocre results.
The best way for government to mitigate risk is to increase competition, and ensure that companies doing work for the citizen are transparently evaluated based on the merits of their work. Hopefully, 18F can position itself not only as a group of talented people who can deliver, but also an organization that connects agencies to great talent outside of its own walls. To change the mindset of the IT implementation, and convince people inside of government that not only can small teams like 18F do the job, but there are dozens of other small teams that are here to help.
Given the current nation-wide malaise about the U.S. government’s ability to execute on technology project, the only approach that will win 18F accolades after the launch of these modern websites will be the unit’s ability to deliver more of them, along with services to support others. Good luck, team.