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GSA hub brings startup methods to government

Mar. 21, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By NICOLE BLAKE JOHNSON   |   Comments
18F is the General Services Administration's own start-up venture.
18F is the General Services Administration's own start-up venture. (Sheila Vemmer/staff)

Successful tech startups know how to meet their customers’ needs and can quickly adapt to change.

They also know how to fail fast — and federal agencies are taking notice. The government wants to apply similar expertise and concepts within its walls through a new General Services Administration initiative: 18F.

GSA characterizes 18F as a digital hub created to partner with agencies and offer high quality, in-house digital services. A digital delivery team comprised of GSA’s top talent will work to rapidly test and deploy prototypes of digital tools and services that can be rolled out for wider use. The program will be housed at GSA 1800 F St. headquarters.

“The mission of 18F is to make the government’s digital services simple, effective, and easier to use for the American people,” GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini said in a statement. “This service delivery program will make GSA the home of the government’s digital incubator. By using lessons from our Nation’s top technology startups, these public service innovators will be able to provide cutting-edge support for our federal partners that reduces cost and improves service.”

A March 21 blog post described how 18F’s digital team worked to integrate FBOpen — an open source search tool for finding federal contracting opportunities — with GSA’s mobile website. The team had a working code up and running within 29 minutes.

“We get so used to things taking multiple meetings, multiple days/weeks/months, and lots of back and forth,” wrote Aaron Snow, an 18F team member. “A couple of stars aligned to make this one easy, but bottom line: it took 29 minutes to go from ‘How could we do this?’ to a working code integration that went live the same afternoon.”

In many ways, 18F is complementary of the administration’s 2012 Digital Government Strategy. The strategy set a number of goals with deadlines ranging fom one month to a year. The goals are about creating mobile apps, publicly releasing more digital data and better equipping feds with mobile technology.

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The 18F team will build products agencies can buy from the organization, similar to other reimbursable services GSA provides for agencies, said Andrew McMahon, Tangherlini’s senior adviser.

McMahon said 18F is a small team, only 15 people, and won’t grow to a size capable of supporting the entire federal government. When asked what role contractors will play in supporting 18F, he said “it’s hard to say right now, but I can’t envision a world in which that is not the case.”

GSA has not yet detailed the specific projects 18F will tackle, but McMahon said there will be transparency about the work being done. Digital services and tools will be developed using an iterative or agile method while keeping the end user in mind.

“The more we learn about what the user wants, the better the product will be,” he said, noting the process Google used to develop its Gmail service and incorporate user feedback. “Startups have to do this to be successful,” and many organizations are in a constant state of developing and improving their products.

McMahon expects agencies will likely spend less over the course of their technology projects, especially considering corrections will be made regularly during the development phase and “the mistakes that are made aren’t of the magnitude that we were accustomed to in the beltway.”

Similar to lean startups, 18F will use techniques such as minimum viable product, said Hillary Hartley, the lead designer for 18F and former presidential innovation fellow. Eric Ries, an entrepreneur and creator of the Lean Startup methodology, defines minimum viable product as “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”

“Depending on what we are building, development cycles for this team are on [a] magnitude of weeks,” Hartley said.

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