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GSA's 18F speeds innovation to government

Jul. 8, 2014 - 03:18PM   |  
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18F Demo Day
Kathy P. Conrad, left, and Lena Trudeau ()

In December, the General Services Administration launched the 18F program, a lean and agile software development office that, in its first few months, created a flurry of digital services designed to help people better navigate government, whether they are feds or citizens.

Among its early products: a set of procurement tools that help businesses more easily find federal opportunities; an app that makes using purchase cards easier; a website that helps people navigate the myriad of federal tools and information sources concerning sexual assault; an app that speeds up federal hiring; and another that accelerates federal software deployments.

Overseeing the program are Lena Trudeau, GSA’s associate commissioner for strategic innovation, and Kathy Conrad, principal deputy associate administrator of GSA for the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. They recently discussed the 18F program with Federal Times Editor Steve Watkins. Following are edited excerpts.

What’s the genesis of 18F? Where did the idea come from?

Trudeau: It was an idea of [GSA Administrator] Dan Tangherlini in partnership with Todd Park, the governmentwide CTO. Todd launched a program called Presidential Innovation Fellows, and Dan and Todd were in discussions, as that fellowship was entering its second round, about where to give that program a permanent home to give it the kind of management infrastructure that it would need in order to scale. We all recognize the value that program provides as a catalyst of really innovative projects and influx of new talent into government.

So as we started to transition that program into GSA, which really started about a year ago now, we realized pretty quickly that we were in danger of potentially orphaning a lot of really good projects every cycle as fellows rolled off and new fellows came on board. And Dan’s notion was, if we could create some sort of accelerator to partner with the incubator, we could give the really promising projects that showed the capability for governmentwide use a home, and it would also serve as a home for other innovative ideas whose time had come.

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How did you go about creating the 18F organization, bringing on the talent that you need and envisioning how that organization would look?

Trudeau: There were actually a number of Presidential Innovation Fellows from round two that were rolling off of six-month fellowships from agencies across the government that were very invested in this idea and very passionate about continuing to effect change in the federal government. A group of co-founders decided to stay and keep doing the work that they were doing, even though they had only committed to come for six months.

Conrad: And they saw, I think, that in order for their projects to be sustainable and to scale, they required ongoing investment and ongoing attention. And so part of what we tried to do is find an avenue to more permanently hire that talent and enable them to apply what they have learned and accomplished over their six- to 12-month fellowships for longer-term impact across government.

Trudeau: But our recruiting strategy is much broader. We have a San Francisco office that is in its earliest stages, because that is where a lot of the developer and designer talent we are looking for resides. And asking those folks to join government and move across the country might be a step too far, so we’re going to where they are. And we’ve also received a lot of interest from folks who are in the open-government community around government. And we have had folks in other agencies reach out to us, people who really want to be able to do innovative work and need a good platform and some top cover in order to do it.

I can imagine there’s a lot of kind of enthusiasm out there.

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Conrad: I think we have tapped into pent-up demand really in two ways. One is pent-up demand of talent, people who really do want to give back and serve the public. And the other pent-up demand is from our agencies, who have challenges and issues that they would love to be able to address in this way. So we are sort of matching demand on the agency side with talent out in the world.

Trudeau: I couldn’t agree more. The really interesting thing to me has been how many agencies have come out of the woodwork and said, ‘We have a really complex problem we’ve been fighting with for a long time, and we’d love your help because we bring different tools, different resources, different expertise to address the problems.’

Conrad: And they are looking to proactively find new ways to solve problems. So think about this as proactive problem-solving rather than crisis response. Instead of them coming to us and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we have something failing, can you fix it?’ it’s more, ‘We recognize that we have a really complex problem and we need some fresh, creative thinking on how to solve it with a new, incremental approach that significantly reduces risk and leads to more long-term solutions that can be institutionalized and scaled across the agency, the department, or for whomever the customer is.’

One of the things I thought was really fascinating was the common theme I saw from the various 18F projects about using digital technology to essentially transverse bureaucracy. I can imagine that’s a very rich field for you. Do you see a lot more kind of in that vein of projects?

Conrad: Absolutely. I mean, it really builds on the work that our Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technology has been doing for many years, where we see huge opportunity to improve the ways that citizens can engage with government using digital technologies. And this allows us to build client-specific solutions that address mission-specific needs.

Trudeau: You know, I love the saying, ‘A prototype is worth a thousand words.’ There’s something so powerful about very quickly driving to the development of some sort of prototype that you can get into the hands of users so they can interact with it. And that really tells us where to go next, right? It just isn’t feasible to think we know all the answers and that we can predict exactly the tool set and requirements and functionalities that users are going to want to engage with. They’re best at telling us that. That’s why we use lean principles and agile methodologies — the more quickly we can get something into the hands of users, the more quickly they can say, ‘Well, if it only had this, or if only it could do this ...’

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Conrad: It allows us to be flexible and dynamic and solve problems as we learn more about what’s really needed. And when you think about a two- or three-year procurement cycle, it’s very, very hard to do that. So part of what we’re doing is trying to pioneer and apply methods that have been used successfully in some places in government, and more commonly across the private sector, so that they can be more easily and commonly used across government.

Trudeau: We have to marry this up, I think, with some good tools to enable government to do agile procurement as well. Because this whole notion that you can spend a year or two years developing requirements, and then go to market for them, is just not going to work.

So how does that work in terms of fitting this into the current procurement structure of the FAR [Federal Acquisition Regulation] and so forth? To what extent do you need to take liberties from the rules that exist?

Trudeau: I don’t think we do.

Conrad: I don’t think so either. The rules are all there, and we’ve seen plenty of examples of innovative procurement going on across government. I think one of the things that’s exciting about this is ... you’ve heard the theme of reuse, and so part of what we’re doing is helping shorten the procurement cycle by having reusable cold code and modules and templates that can be used more quickly to build and develop new solutions that may not, on the surface, look like they meet the same needs. So when you think about a sexual-assault website and a federal-procurement search tool, what do those two things have in common? And yet the underlying technology foundation was very much reused and that shortened the development cycle dramatically.

Trudeau: Steve Kelman [former federal procurement policy administrator] has a great quote where he says — and I think we should all remember this — ‘If it’s not prohibited by the FAR, it’s allowed.’ And, actually, the FAR allows us to do everything we want to do. The question is really the processes we use — some of the legacy systems that are in place, contracting officers sometimes use over 20 different systems in order to process one procurement, one contracting action.

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And our practices, which have built up over time ... some people have the perception that they’re requirements, like regulations or policies. But they’re not really; they’re just practices. And so part of what we’re trying to do is just bring new practices in to show what’s possible. And it’s really that theme, I think, that is the umbrella for the entire organization: If we could just demonstrate what’s possible, measure the results, tell people about that, it makes folks a lot more comfortable that you really can do this sort of thing.

Conrad: And share what works — both share information and share actual underlying code.

Can you tell me about the 18F, the organization? How many people work within it, and how do you budget for this kind of thing?

Trudeau: You budget for it iteratively. 18F, as an umbrella organization, includes both the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and a [GSA] Client Services delivery team. Right now, I think at last count, we were 41, including both of those groups.

Conrad: Counting the Innovation Fellows who will be coming in, so we are in a transition with Innovation Fellows where we have got one class that is rolling off, and we are in the process of reviewing applications for the third round of fellows whose applications were due April 7.

Trudeau: We see that growing, and right now the demand that we’re hearing from agency partners is really outpacing our capacity to deliver. So I think there’s a lot of opportunity here.

Can you give me an example of some of that demand that you’re getting?

Conrad: Until we have signed agreements, we do not want to prematurely describe what agencies are doing.

Trudeau: But I can tell you about the kind of work that is coming forward. So there’s some work being done around the user experience of a particular agency’s services, where right now users can go to that website for the various different uses they have along a life cycle of a process they go through. That information is all over the place, difficult to find and written from the government’s perspective — from the perspective of the program that owns that piece of the process, rather than from the user’s perspective. So that’s a really interesting kind of user experience, a user journey over a life cycle of multiple transactions.

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We’re talking to a particular agency that wants us to develop a prototype around two forms that they would like to automate. But they don’t just want us to automate the forms; they want our expertise in helping think through what that means for the back-end transaction that has to happen when that form is submitted. There are, I think, a number of interesting opportunities around different websites to develop them with consistent design principles so that the digital assets of the federal government are much easier to find and navigate for the American people.

And we do a lot of work in procurement modernization — residing in GSA, it’s a real passion of ours, or maybe it’s just a real passion of mine. There’s a lot of our work that falls into improving the experience, which I think benefits businesses — particularly, small businesses — that want to engage with government.

Do you guys look at what you do from a return-on-investment perspective or business-case perspective? In other words, do you keep metrics on estimated savings and that sort of thing, and what are those at this point?

Conrad: It’s probably too early to have actual ROI dollars reportable yet, but we’re certainly tracking progress, we’re tracking demand, we’re tracking adoption. So we have a whole set of performance metrics that we work with.

Trudeau: And we’re baselining. When it takes less time and at least some of the effort is in-house, we know that it costs less money.

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