What 18F aims to accomplish

Rather than skirting the federal procurement system, GSA's 18F is designed to address challenges head on, says Lena Trudeau.

 
Lena Trudeau_GSA

GSA's Lena Trudeau says the 18F program will create more opportunities for companies to work with government technology professionals. Photo by Zaid Hamid for FCW.

When I was invited to provide an 18F perspective on Stan Soloway's commentary, I was honored. Soloway has long been an advocate of meaningful, sustainable improvement in the public sector, and he has worked tirelessly to that end from both public- and private-sector positions. I must, however, take issue with some of his arguments.

One line puts a very fine point on Soloway's position. He writes that "rather than improve the system to facilitate new ways of doing business and drive real systemic change, 18F is designed to skirt the system altogether."

In fact, 18F's stated purpose is to establish and scale successful models for procuring, building and delivering incredible, easy-to-use digital services to the people and businesses government serves. Facilitating new ways of doing business is one of our primary objectives.

And as someone who navigates the bureaucracy on a daily basis, I can say with certainty that 18F is not designed to skirt the system -- quite the opposite. Our mandate is to address challenges in the current system head on. Because we're practitioners, we can address changes to policy, process and practice with the knowledge gained by working on the front lines of delivery.

Soloway asks how 18F would fare under the same policies and processes to which others must adhere. 18F complies with all laws, rules, and policies that govern digital product and service development and delivery in the federal government. We also face constraints that the private sector does not. For example, public engagement, salaries and hiring are all highly regulated.

I don't think that's what Soloway is getting at, though. When distilled, his argument entails two chief concerns: 1) 18F competes unfairly with the private sector and 2) we assume the "old guard" (his words) of traditional vendors has little to offer.

To be clear, 18F is not competing with the private sector. There has always been a role for in-house technologists in government. In an era in which technology holds such promise for greater efficiency and effectiveness, it is more important than ever for government to have the technical expertise required to make sound, objective policy and operational decisions.

18F is building capacity in government by showing what's possible when we apply known best practices consistently and share what we've built and what we've learned for the benefit of all. (Note: "All" includes the private sector.) We focus on user needs, develop in the open, and use lean principles and agile methodologies. We work with agencies to quickly deploy working prototypes and iterate rapidly based on customer feedback and analytics. By leveraging experimentation, we achieve results quickly and at low cost. We also design for reuse.

These are not new approaches, as the Silicon Valleys, Alleys and Prairies -- and the readers of FCW -- are well aware. And it should be noted that these tools and methodologies are already being used in government, too, but they are not yet the standard.

Building and scaling technical capacity will help the procurement process. For evidence of this, look to our recent release of FBOpen, a simple API that businesses can use to find opportunities to work with the federal government. The work we are doing will also lead to the creation of better statements of work. By prototyping and conducting user testing at the earliest stages, we'll be able to conduct procurements against clearer, more accurate requirements. Ultimately, we believe our efforts will create greater opportunities for vendors to work in true partnership with talented government staff.

As to Soloway's second point, I have talked to many people in the private sector who believe our work will create opportunity for both new and long-standing contractors to bring more innovation to government. And, no, we have not made any broad assumptions about "traditional" vendors.

Have we seen situations in which large, complex and costly technology projects have yielded poor results? Yes. But we've also seen some of the "old guard" adopting and promoting new tool sets and approaches, to great effect. This year, federal agencies will spend $80 billion procuring technology support from the private sector. That spending will be increasingly directed toward companies that are embracing the transition to digital government.

Our nation's people and businesses are eager for us to engage with them, and find new and better ways to deliver much-needed information and services. And our ability to deliver is central to rebuilding the trust of Americans in their government.

Stan, we are joined in the same cause.

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