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.
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.
“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.