Meet 18F, the GSA’s bid to change federal IT


Hillary Hartley is co-founder and lead designer at 18F, an internal tech hub at the General Services Administration. (Jeffrey MacMillan)

In a large, white room that looks more like an Apple store than an office, a group of developers and entrepreneurs meet every day in downtown Washington to work on new software projects for customers.

They talk quickly, using phrases such as “minimum viable product” and “fail fast, succeed faster.” They are constantly toggling among smartphones, tablets and laptops as they review their creations in action.

It’s not exactly a tech start-up, though it might seem like one. Nested in the General Services Administration’s headquarters at 18th and F streets NW, the team — called 18F, after the agency’s location — is the GSA’s latest attempt to improve federal IT services. It’s also an example of what is sometimes called “intra-preneurship” — when large organizations create internal innovation hubs to foster, and later harvest, new ideas from employees.

The team is staffed largely by former and current participants in Presidential Innovation Fellows, a months-long program during which members of the private or nonprofit sectors, or academics, are paired with government employees to encourage collaboration.

Since its inception in early April, 18F has been tasked with solving IT problems for other agencies. Initially, the team is focusing on projects that are public-facing­ — such as agency Web sites — that could eventually raise awareness about 18F.

For instance, 18F recently released FBOpen, a Web site and search service intended to help small-business owners find federal contracting opportunities. (The team meant to improve upon the Small Business Administration’s request-for-proposals search system, called RFP-EZ.)

The ubiquity of smartphones and tablets is “in many ways the [tip] of a much bigger iceberg, in terms of the technological transformation that’s sweeping so much of what we do,” GSA Administrator Dan M. Tangherlini said. “That change also has to come to the way we do IT projects. . . . We have to be smarter about being more agile, and being quicker about delivering transformation.”

If federal agencies regularly come to 18F for “agile” software development — a term for a rapid, highly iterative project management process — they might eventually make that a priority when seeking IT contracts with outside tech companies, Tangherlini said.

The group was also formed to advance a collaborative, creative approach to software development, said Greg Godbout, 18F’s senior team lead. The code for FBOpen, and all other 18F projects, is posted publicly online on Github, a software code repository, and the team encourages developers at other agencies to use the code to build new features into their own Web sites.

About a month ago, two staff members from the GSA.gov development team approached 18F, asking how they could add FBOpen’s search capabilities into the GSA’s mobile Web site. Within 29 minutes the team had a version of the site up and running, 18F lead designer Hillary Hartley said. A more traditional development method — requiring a series of meetings between agency staff and IT companies — might have taken weeks or months, according to the team.

And other agencies are using FBOpen’s basic model to develop search engines for other data sources — export opportunities, loan opportunities and the Small Business Innovation Research funds issued by the Small Business Administration, for instance. “The same engine contains all those opportunities,” Godbout said.

But not all agencies are immediately receptive to this agile, collaborative approach, Tangherlini said, so it may take time to validate the 18F model. “I think spending American tax dollars, we have a huge level of accountability . . . to the extent that people are staying true to the existing method, it’s because there’s a certain level of comfort, there’s a certain ability to explain what you’ve done,” he said, adding, “There’s an assumed risk associated with the new path or a different path.”

In 18F’s early stages, the GSA is still determining how to measure whether this new approach is working. One metric, Tangherlini says, is whether agencies are using the product that 18F builds.

“Look, if agencies don’t want to buy it . . . then we’ll pull the plug and try something different,” he said. But he added, “I’m not ready to do something differently. I think this is a useful solution at this time.”

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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