With the General Service Administration’s launch of 18F, a digital services agency, the federal government has taken another step to driving innovation in government through the development of a startup culture.
18F — named for the intersection of 18th and F streets in Washington, D.C., the site of GSA’s headquarters — uses cutting-edge practices, such as agile software development and a focus on user needs.
18F’s technology experts collaborate with agencies to rapidly build and deploy digital tools and services. They’ve already produced notable results, including the OpenFEC application programming interface. OpenFEC allows people to more easily search the Federal Election Commission’s campaign finance data, which was previously available but difficult to use.
The group set up shop in 2014 with 15 employees, 11 of whom were among the first two classes of Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIFs). The idea was already brewing when then U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park recruited Silicon Valley talent to help rescue healthcare.gov from the technical problems it suffered during its launch. 18F now houses the PIF program, which recruits successful technology innovators and entrepreneurs to work with agencies to help solve their most pressing technology problems.
In a recent interview with FedTech, five 18F leaders who left the private sector for public service discuss what attracted them to government, explain how 18F works and share insights on what they believe are government’s biggest challenges — and how to fix them. We talked to:
Andrew Stroup, product and technology director for PIF. He is a security startup CEO who previously worked on the Defense Department’s biosurveillance initiative. Stroup was a contestant on the Discovery Channel’s The Big Brain Theory, in which people compete head to head on engineering challenges.
He is CEO and co-founder of CommonKey, a cloud-based security startup, and co-founder of MegaBots, which recently raised $550,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to build a giant, fighting robot that will square off against a robot in Japan.
Kara DeFrias, senior adviser to the acting executive director of 18F. She was previously at Intuit, where she held numerous positions, including senior manager for innovation and experiential design. At Intuit, DeFrias served as the executive producer for both QuickBooks Connect and TEDxIntuit. She previously worked on the press operations team for the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup and on the production staff for the Oscars.
Mike Bland, practice director for 18F, where he develops infrastructure, processes and conventions for knowledge sharing. At Google, he worked on web search infrastructure and helped drive adoption of automated testing. Before coming to 18F, Bland was studying electric guitar at Berklee College of Music. His musical idols are Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon.
Before working at Google, Bland worked at Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, where he developed chart and radar rendering components for the U.S. Coast Guard navigation and port monitoring systems. Before he earned his computer science degree from Christopher Newport University, Bland first earned a theatre degree from CNU, and also led a campus protest there.
Ben Willman, director of strategy at PIF. He was previously on 18F’s delivery team, handling product management and experience design. He has co-founded several startups. As a Presidential Innovation Fellow, Willman worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he helped improve services to veterans.
Willman has co-founded several startups, including one of the first DSL providers in Manhattan. He is also very active in the Lean Startup community in Washington, D.C.
Alison Rowland, a co-founder and developer at 18F. She was previously at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for open government. At age 3, Rowland started using the family Commodore 64 computer and even learned how to type commands on the command prompt.
In high school, she launched a web development business, and in college, she ran a Software as a Service company. “It was a chance for me to make an impact,” she says. “I’ve always believed that government has the most interesting and largest honeypot of data, and that data should be open and available to the public. My interest is in leveraging that. I love solving hard problems.”
FEDTECH: What attracted you to work in the federal government, specifically at 18F?
Stroup: It was a chance for me to make an impact. I’ve always believed that government has the most interesting and largest honeypot of data, and that data should be open and available to the public. My interest is in leveraging that. I love solving hard problems.
DeFrias: I saw a tweet from [then U.S. CTO] Todd Park in March 2012 saying they were looking for a few good women and men to serve the country as Presidential Innovation Fellows. I learned quickly as a PIF that I’m an impact junkie, so to be able to have impact at that scale was exciting, rewarding and something I’m very grateful to have been a part of.
Rowland: I was attracted to government open data from the outside when I was at the Sunlight Foundation. I found that it helped me get up in the morning, working on a greater purpose. I got the fellowship, and it was a great opportunity to start changing things from the inside.
Bland: A friend put me in touch with Todd Park. I had phone conversations with him and others and was introduced to 18F. After talking to them, it felt like the atmosphere I had with the Testing Grouplet at Google [a team of developers that volunteered their time to promote software testing]. It was a very scrappy, us against the world, ad hoc kind of “yes, we can do it” attitude at 18F. I wanted to be a part of it.
Willman: I joined the initial Presidential Innovation Fellows, and when I finished, I did not hesitate to jump in and help stand up 18F. I wanted to work with the fantastic people I had been around in the fellowship, and that included the agency partners. Second, I joined to work on interesting problems. I wanted to stick around and keep doing what I could.
FEDTECH: How does 18F work, and how are projects chosen?
Rowland: I was one of the first PIFs who were ending our fellowships when we started to form the idea of 18F. We had a glimpse of how excited people could be from making simple website prototypes and demonstrating to people inside government that the things they wanted didn’t have to be so hard and take years and millions of dollars. Some things can be done quickly and easily. There was such an amazing response.
Stephanie Rivera [the business strategy director] and Will Slack [the business strategy deputy director] are doing great work in creating more of a structured intake process. We discuss the merits, the ability to make an impact, and whether the client is willing to work with us in the way we need to do our work. They need to be open-sourced and work in an agile manner. Most teams use Scrum, an agile software development method for managing product development, and do two-week sprints, and the client has to supply a person to be the product owner. And they need to be willing to work with us while letting us own the project in its entirety, so we can make sure we are guiding them in the right way with clear deliverables.
Stroup: There are different nuances with the 18F and PIF processes. For the PIF program, we look at projects that are more early stage or seed-level type of ideas — ones with no clear boundaries. We feel like we have the ability to scope or define an interesting problem statement, have a high impact on citizens, or help agencies rethink or re-evaluate how they use technology.
Willman: We always keep in mind how we can bring our agency partners along and make sure they are included in this journey, so we can leave them with ideas and new ways of doing things that they didn’t have in their toolbox.
FEDTECH: Pursuing a startup environment in government is a novel approach. Can you describe the atmosphere, culture and work environment?
Bland: We have been given the autonomy to develop our own way of working and body of knowledge. We are engaging with each other to evaluate ideas and tools on their merits and their applicability to solving problems across different agencies.
DeFrias: If you want to wear a suit and tie every day, by all means, come in the door. But if you are more comfortable with jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers, that’s fine, too. The focus is on the work.
Rowland: One of the things I love most about 18F is it’s a remote-first work environment. We have teams all over the country. We have collaboration tools online that make sure everyone stays on the same page no matter where we are.
Stroup: The biggest thing is collaboration and a focus toward a singular goal of helping people both inside and outside government think differently and be open to the collaboration. When fellows work with agencies, one of the main benefits is to provide outside insight. The agencies have a willingness to say, “I know the status quo is not OK and that we can be better.” How we do that is by getting amazing people into the door. We win by having the best help possible. And we’ll figure out how to solve it.
FEDTECH: How do you collaborate and make sure your style meshes with other agencies that might not be as agile?
DeFrias: It’s not "us versus them;" it’s "we." We are all in this together. We are not an outside agency or company coming in. We are government employees, and these are our partners. Because we believe in human-centered design, it’s about talking to people who actually use the product or process that we’re working on together.
Willman: We are in a transformational process. Agencies have varying degrees of comfort when we answer with, “We can’t tell you exactly what we will build and how much it will cost.” So we try to work with our federal partners to do things this way. And one area is 18F Consulting, where they help the federal partners think through the type of work they are about to contract out and break it into smaller pieces.
FEDTECH: What accomplishments are you proud of so far, personally and organizationwide?
Rowland: I was on the FEC team this spring, and we released their first public application program interface [API]. So for elections, people can view candidates and the amount of money they’ve received. That was huge. I’m proud of the way we did it because we used technology to build upon their legacy data. We were able to build our API on top of their database. We worked together with their internal database administrative team. It was a cool partnership.
Bland: I’m very proud of the working groups I’ve helped organize and the tools I’ve been able to develop, so we can channel some of the collective wisdom of the team in an accessible format. We are sharing knowledge, tools and skills to help make the products better and, of course, build up foundational strength.
Stroup: When I came in, I had a discussion with Garren Givens [director of PIF] about the fellowship program. I’m proud that we’re iterating around the process to make it more effective to better serve the agencies, which is why we shifted from a once-a-year recruitment call to a continuous onboarding and recruitment effort — so we can deliver amazing fellows and the products they produce at the speed of need at these agencies.
FEDTECH: What are some of the biggest challenges you see in government, and how do you expect to fix them?
Willman: The biggest challenge is to stay close to the needs of the actual end users. That’s because, in any large enterprise, you have a lot of things going on, and there are multiple layers, and sometimes users can be far from you.
18F and PIF are working on this and helping agency partners do user-centered design.
At Veterans Affairs, we have a group of fellows who have teamed up with the Secretary of the VA to really cultivate an enterprisewide focus on veterans: how to understand users and sharing how to do that when we are not around.
Bland: Identifying the core forces that hold back large organizations and trying to raise people’s awareness of those forces at play, like bureaucracy, information silos, friction and waste. It’s trying to teach government to be a team and to have less of a protectionist mindset. It’s about transparency, autonomy and collaboration.
DeFrias: The biggest challenge is there’s a lot of government out there, and a finite amount of people and resources to get at it. We started with nine people, and are up to more than 100 now. We need more people from the technology sector to come to government and do a tech tour of duty — that’s how we will get through it.
The real goal is to roll up our sleeves, sit down at the table with our agency partners, and figure out how to do this together. It’s about getting through as much as we can to make the greatest impact at scale in the time we have working here.
Illustrations by Fortuna Todisco