Oct 25 2022

How 18F, USDS Help Drive Digital Transformation

The two federal consulting organizations have similar goals but different business models. Which is right for your project?

As agencies move through the IT modernization process, they may find they lack the internal skill sets needed to evolve quickly.

A pair of government initiatives offer technical expertise and support to help accelerate agency efforts. Known respectively as 18F and the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), both are available to support the IT modernization journey.

For agencies looking to augment their internal resources, it’s worth understanding how these two offerings work and how they compare with each other.

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What Is 18F?

In 2014, a group of Presidential Innovation Fellows — a program run by the General Services Administration — began 18F as a way to extend their efforts to help modernize federal technology beyond their yearlong fellowships.

18F, also part of the GSA, “partners with agencies to improve the user experience of government services by helping them build and buy technology,” says Acting Executive Director Joe Krzystan.

“The expertise of our teams spans engineering, product, content specialists, account management, service designers, visual and product designers, user researchers, acquisition consultants, and more.”

The 18F program combines this expertise into cross-functional teams that work with agency partners “to conduct discovery, refine the goals of their digital products, prototype, navigate procurements to hire and manage vendors, integrate with Technology Transformation Services’ shared services, and deploy secure and compliant technology that meets the needs of the folks using it,” Krzystan says.

READ MORE: Learn how agencies can help with the cultural change associated with IT modernization.

Beyond solving point problems, 18F looks to help agencies develop their internal IT capabilities. “In each of our projects, our teams work to build our partners’ capacity for agile digital service delivery, so that they’re empowered to continue iterating and improving after our collaboration has ended,” Krzystan says.

Industry experts say that the 18F effort can help to bring to bear private sector expertise in support of complex government IT projects.

“You can think of them as a ‘special forces’ version of a major private sector consulting firm. If you just need one or two people, this may be the most expedient way for you to bring in that expertise,” says Tom Suder, founder and president of the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center (ATARC).

What Is the USDS?

A part of the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Digital Service arose after the original version of Healthcare.gov collapsed.

The original website “was failing; too many hits, and the architecture was horrible,” Suder says. “So, the administration brought in experts and they started fixing things. USDS grew out of that. The thinking was, ‘Where can we put this crack team onto administration priorities, usually regarding citizens?’”

“They continue to be very focused on administration priorities,” he adds.

The overall mission of USDS today “is to use technology and design to address the federal government’s most pressing technical challenges,” says Deputy Administrator Cori Zarek.

DIVE DEEPER: Federal agencies must work together to achieve IT modernization success.

“We work in small teams and deploy across government to support the delivery of digital services that complement the lifecycle of the public, such as filing for social security and unemployment benefits, helping families get access to vaccines and food, or making it easier for veterans to access benefits for healthcare, housing and education,” Zarek says.

As an organization within the White House as part of the Executive Office of the President, USDS focuses on “addressing an administration’s executive priorities,” Zarek says. “An example of our collaboration with several federal agencies, including 18F, was to launch COVID.gov, which allowed the public to get COVID tests mailed to their homes.”

In addition, “we have supported the development of various units across agencies, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, where some of our alumni are leading dedicated digital service teams, allowing for continuous improvement of government services for the people they serve,” Zarek says.

Cori Zarek
USDS and 18F are just two of the many parts of government working on technology modernization and service delivery, and we often work alongside one another.”

Cori Zarek Deputy Administrator, U.S. Digital Service

Which One Should You Choose for IT Modernization Help?

Both 18F and USDS offer useful support mechanisms, and agencies can look to either or both as they seek to bolster their IT modernization efforts.

“USDS and 18F are just two of the many parts of government working on technology modernization and service delivery, and we often work alongside one another,” Zarek says.

Still, it’s helpful for agency leaders to understand the differences as they look to partner in support of their most pressing technology initiatives.

At a high level, there are two different business models in operation here.

“USDS is already funded by the White House. They are there not as firefighters but as fire prevention, typically on high-profile efforts. They come into a major program to stop a problem from ever becoming a problem,” Suder says.

“With 18F, they’re funded like a consultant. The agencies pay for their services,” he says. “That may be the way to go if you want that kind of consulting help, and you want it from a government person, but you don’t want to wait a year to hire someone.”

DIVE DEEPER: How the FITARA dramatically changed the path to improved IT.

While 18F charges for its services, leadership there says this structure also gives that office added flexibility.

“Our structure allows us to work with almost any federal partner, including the judicial and legislative branches and certain state/local/territorial/tribal governments,” Krzystan says. The business model affords “the flexibility to tailor the type and length of support.”

USDS, meanwhile, puts the focus on “the modernization of existing systems and products that agencies have. We also have procurement, design and engineering experts that go where the work is,” Zarek says.

In weighing the options, cost likely will factor in, but it’s helpful to consider the overall mission of the two entities. The scale of the modernization project may help the agency determine which path to take.

“If you’re doing internal business operations where the visibility is not quite so high, that’s probably going to be 18F,” Suder says. “If you’re doing some transformative website that is serving the American people, that’s very high-profile, that will likely be USDS — when there is so much exposure and you can’t afford to fail.”

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