The ABCs of 18F

When GSA announced its in-house development startup, it got people talking, and not all the chatter was positive.

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When the General Services Administration announced its in-house development startup a few weeks ago, it got people talking. And not all the chatter was positive.

The new IT venture, called 18F, folds in the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and embraces the principles of lean and agile development. With a few dozen employees at launch and plans to grow quickly in both D.C. and San Francisco, 18F aims to "prove that building technology in an agile manner is possible in government at scale."

The move was applauded in the commercial tech press and excited those who have been rooting for the PIFs. But even before the March 18 announcement, GSA officials started getting the calls -- and so did FCW. Industry leaders wanted to know why GSA would compete with the private sector for development and deployment work. Executives at other agencies worried that their expertise and investments in traditional IT were being devalued. One acquisition expert complained, "The PIFs are running amok!"

For the moment, though, count me among the cautiously optimistic.

To be clear: Agile development alone will not magically improve every project. And the challenge of truly changing the federal IT culture could make the HealthCare.gov rescue look like a picnic. But there are precedents that suggest an upside worth pursuing.

The United Kingdom has seen real benefits from its Government Digital Service -- a technology-and-strategy SWAT team of an agency that was created in 2011 and is essentially 18F on steroids. Closer to home, the proposal by Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) to create a technology team under the federal chief technology officer suggests at least some congressional support for 18F's mission.

At a more fundamental level, however, why not give 18F a try? There is so much work to be done -- so many projects that could use extra expertise and so many aspects of IT acquisition that could be improved. A team of 100 GSA techies won't be able to do it all. But if 18F buckles down and joins forces with the larger community, we might all come away with a clearer sense of how to make federal IT work better.

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