18F wants to move past building digital services for agencies
The General Services Administration’s 18F team hopes to one day move away from its primary business of building digital services for other agencies, two of its co-founders said Wednesday.
“We would like to get to the position eventually where what we’re doing is providing digital acquisition platform services, educational services, but not actually engaging in build because the agencies are already there, already working in the open, already putting users first throughout the process, already working iteratively in short cycles to get maximum value for their digital dollar,” said Aaron Snow, 18F’s executive director.
This has been 18F’s intent all along — to facilitate and manage a culture shift in the way agencies address building and buying IT — by absorbing the initial risk and showing CIO shops that agile, iterative IT procurement and development is possible in government, Snow said during a Bloomberg Government-hosted talk.
18F quickly validated this approach with its first interagency agreement with the Federal Election Commission.
“They had all of this data, it was public, it was available, but it just wasn’t showcased very well,” Hillary Hartley, co-founder and deputy executive director of 18F, said of the ongoing engagement to build a better FEC website and data portal. “It wasn’t easy to find; it wasn’t easy to interact with.”
Her team, dozens-strong then but now nearing 200, helped FEC create a foundation on which it could build a modern and user-friendly website to best use its expanse of campaign finance data. “We went back to basics … leading with data, thinking about APIs,” she said.
The shining moment of the project, Snow said, wasn’t necessarily the delivery of a lightweight and more functional beta version of FEC.gov, but rather when the agency revealed it had began working with another agile vendor, not 18F.
“We said, ‘Wait, hold on — you have another vendor doing agile too?'” Snow recalled. A lot of teams might not be too happy to learn they were being phased out, Snow said, but 18F was delighted.
“In one sense we’re here to deliver digital services and help agencies build and buy digital services. But the thing we’re really here for is change management. The thing we’re really here for is to help agencies transform how they build and buy digital to the extent that we can,” he said. “So hearing that the agency had decided to use the methodologies on a second project … they decided that that’s the way they should do projects — that to me is the big win.”
18F is looking to scale involvement of third party vendors with its agile development services blanket purchase agreement. The team awarded a pool of vendors spots on the vehicle late last year, giving the chosen contractors its stamp of approval for agile development. GSA issued the first task order under the BPA in June to contract work on a new Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program dashboard.
[Read more: 18F’s agile pilot purchase order finally launches after protests]
There’s more than $80 billion spent on federal IT each year, and much more than that if you include federal grant money that goes toward state and local IT, Snow said. “18F does not want, nor could it ever, tackle even close to all of those things. The long-term play has always been, lets figure out how to help agencies connect with vendors who will use modern tools and methodologies and get work done for the right price, at high value and low risk. The BPA is our way of filtering forward companies that are going to do that.”
Snow continued: “Now we have an ability to concierge a relationship between and agency that might or might not be familiar with agile development and a vendor who’s ready to do that.”
Hartley agreed the BPA is “super important” to 18F’s long-term vision.
“[B]etween the Technology Transformation Service and the U.S. Digital Service, there are about 400 of us trying to turn this Titanic ship in a new direction,” she said. “It is happening, it is going to be slow, but what this allows us to do is really scale that effort in a hockey-stick way almost. It helps us say yes to more people. It’s an $80 billion federal IT industry — 400 of us are not even a speck in that. We have to rely on the vendor community. We have to rely on businesses that can do this work and work with us to get it done.”
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