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Editorial: What's cool in government

May. 19, 2014 - 04:04PM   |  
By STEVE WATKINS   |   Comments
Steve Watkins, Managing Editor of Federal Times.

One of the coolest things I’ve seen in government in recent years is a new project called 18F, launched by the General Services Administration.

18F is basically a lean and agile software development office that, in its first few months of operating, has already created a flurry of digital services designed to help people better navigate government, whether they are feds or citizens.

18F carries the gritty vibe of a tech start-up — lots of energy, enthusiasm, and conspicuous references to MVPs (minimum viable products) and APIs (application programming interfaces).

Since 18F started operations in December, its team of roughly 40-some folks has hammered out numerous products and services. One offers a set of procurement tools that help businesses more easily find federal opportunities. Another aims to make using purchase cards easier. Another helps people navigate the numerous government tools and information sources that exist concerning campus sexual assault. Another speeds up federal hiring (and, so far, they have shown reductions in hiring times of 70 percent), while another seeks to speed up federal software deployments (which it did by 80 percent). And there are many more — most of which were launched within weeks and then continually improved upon.

Critical to these efforts are collaboration, good listening, agile development and tapping into the creative power of innovators throughout the government. At a recent public demonstration of 18F’s efforts, GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini referred to 18F as “a small group, but a big idea.” He’s right.

“Take a look at what we’re trying to do here, to break down the barriers — the physical barriers — that reinforce hierarchy and get in the way of collaboration, communication and cooperation. What we’re really trying to do is express a new way of organizing ourselves physically so that we can actually transform the way we deliver our services,” he said.

Technology has transformed people’s expectations of how government services should be delivered. And 18F is a sorely needed response to that.

The coolest thing about 18F is not even the great products and services it has spit out in a remarkably fast time — it’s the example that it sets, proving that government, if it really wants to, can be awesomely creative, responsive, quick and, yes, cool.

“What we are trying to do is just bring new practices in to show what is possible,” said Kathy Conrad, principal deputy associate administrator of GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, which oversees 18F. “And it is really the theme, I think, that is the umbrella for the entire organization. If we could just demonstrate what is possible, measure the results, tell people about that, it makes folks a lot more comfortable that you really can do this sort of thing.”

So if you haven’t seen what 18F is up to, you should — you might be glimpsing the future of government.

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