I’m all for shaking up Fed IT. So, when Dan Tangherlini launched 18F, GSA’s internal innovation hub, he grabbed my attention. More than a year later, seemed like a good time to check in on GSA’s geek squad. The question, is the 18F experiment working – Fairytale or Frankenstein? I decided to ask around – talking to Feds and directly with 18F.

Tech Timeline?

Here’s 18F’s history – from the horse’s mouth. The Presidential Innovation Fellows – PIFs –started in 2012 – under Federal CTO, Todd Park. The goal, to bring a bunch of high-tech smarties into government and embed them with agencies for six to 12 months to tackle tech troubles – and amp up innovation. The initial cadre was 18. The second round of PIFs arrived mid 2013 – and the group grew to 40. Today, there are almost 100 at 18F.

The program’s seed funding came from GSA’s revolving capital fund. 18F will pay back that investment by selling fee-for-service projects to agencies. As the program matures, 18F explained its focus on making a lasting difference – getting roots and giving wings to engagements. PIFs are hanging in D.C. longer – the 12-month term limits are history. 18F explained that a year just wasn’t enough to really make a difference.

Tech Triumphs?

When I asked about successes, 18F pointed to analytics.usa.gov. It’s a pretty cool site that tells you in real time how many folks are visiting Federal websites – no lightning bolt, the weather service is consistently top of the pops. Cool, but not exactly transformational tech stuff that enhances fundamental government efficiency. 18F noted that Philadelphia’s showing analytics.usa.gov some brotherly love — utilizing the code to provide web visit transparency to its citizens.

Outside of that traffic-tracking site, 18F didn’t have too many more triumphs to trumpet. The spokesperson pointed to the growth of the size of 18F as a metric for success. Is bigger better?

I did speak with some other Feds, who pointed to the work/dashboard page on 18F’s site. Interesting, but difficult to map from here to groundbreaking innovation.

Tech Terrors?

However, the 411 on 18F is mixed. While Ex 18Fers sing the program’s praises, a series of Fed IT execs grumble the glossy sheen doesn’t reflect reality. They say 18F’s running amok. Agency “sponsors” don’t know where to find their PIFs or quite what they do. Folks tell of an arrogant DNA – characterizing 18F consultants as patronizing and demeaning. “Seems they think they’re smarter and treat us like we have no idea what we’re doing.” “What have they actually accomplished, beyond the website tracking thing?”

Folks also have questions about the cyber consideration – “if we didn’t have to follow the rules, we could all move a lot faster too.” “Prototypes built in minutes don’t cut it when our bacon’s on the line.”

I put these observations directly to 18F – they seemed aghast. They feel they’re super accountable. They note every agency has a 30-day-out clause. All work is structured in iterative cycles. So, if you don’t like 18F, here’s your chance to 86 them. 18F noted that agile is a leap of faith for anybody that hasn’t done it before – there’s comfort in a laying out a traditional waterfall timeline if it’s what you know. In fairness to 18F, based on GAO reports, waterfall has left much of Fed IT under water to date.

Responding to the arrogance accusation, 18F says they’re not trying to play “hero ball.” “We’re not here to tell folks that they are doing it wrong – we want to be sensitive.”

Industry has real questions too. Companies feel 18F’s competing with the private sector – leveraging an unfair advantage to shill for work inside the government.

Tech Tension?

Ironically, former 18Fers do a much better job telling the 18F story than today’s team. 18F is committed to new ways of doing things – agile, minimal viable product, open source, tech sprints, etc. Former 18Fers say that if agencies won’t embrace these principles, 18F simply won’t work with them. That might explain the perception of arrogance.

As I said, it’s a pretty confusing situation. First off, if I might be so bold, 18F could use some real PR support. That said, the tension over 18F seems to be a quarrel between the past and the future of Fed IT. Is 18F perfect? Likely not, but they’re surfacing new ideas – which has to be a good thing. The tension between traditional IT and smarty pants consultants is shake things up – and ultimately that’s good for Fed IT efficiency. We clearly need increased accountability and transparency in the equation – how and where is 18F delivering value – how much and at what cost? Is there an expiration date on the experiment?

It’s impossible to talk with everybody who’s had experience with GSA’s geek squad – so please write in with your feedback.

Until we hear more from you – it’s WT18F? TBD…

Steve O'Keeffe
About Steve O'Keeffe
The most connected executive in the government technology community – O'Keeffe is an accomplished entrepreneur and tech-policy expert, with 30 years’ experience as an innovator at the crossroads of government and industry. He founded MeriTalk, O'Keeffe & Company, 300Brand, among other entities. O'Keeffe is a fixture on the Hill, in both the House and Senate, testifying on IT, budget, government workforce, and the requirement to modernize government IT to enhance outcomes for the American people and government employees. He is a champion for change, simplification, transparency, and clear communication of IT value without jargon. A committed philanthropist, O'Keeffe has served for 15 years on the USO-Metro Board of Directors – Vice Chairman of the Board and Chair of the Annual Awards Dinner. He started his career as a journalist – O'Keeffe has contributed to The Economist, Government Executive, Signal Magazine, The Washington Post, and, of course, MeriTalk.