GSA launches 'digital incubator'

The agency's new 18F program is intended to work like a tech startup aimed at helping build federal Web services.

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The federal government is rebooting its approach to building online services.

A new program dubbed 18F will try to graft the DNA of a high-tech startup onto the cumbersome machinery of government. Housed at the General Services Administration, 18F will be home to a team of developers who will build Web services for government agencies, prototypes for projects and tools that can be reused across government.

18F will be staffed by GSA's digital delivery team and Presidential Innovation Fellows.

"This service delivery program will make GSA the home of the government's digital incubator," GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini said in a statement. "By using lessons from our nation's top technology startups, these public service innovators will be able to provide cutting-edge support for our federal partners that reduces cost and improves service."

18F is the latest in a series of IT development reforms being pushed by the Obama administration in the wake of the botched launch of HealthCare.gov in October. It's of a piece with the new cross-agency performance goal to improve the delivery of IT services and can be seen as a new front in the battle to get agencies to adopt the rapid prototyping and iterative design methodology of agile development. 18F is also going to be a hub of open-source software solutions and is posting its own internal site development code on GitHub.

The move tracks with draft legislation being written by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) that would give the U.S. chief technology officer responsibility for streamlining IT procurement and create an office that would be required to participate in the development of large-scale federal websites.

Connolly said in an email message to FCW that 18F embodies key principles contained in the Eshoo-Connolly proposal and "reflects our belief that a digital government office comprised of talented designers and developers can serve as a catalyst for modernizing government IT to be customer focused, iterative in nature and open to all."

In one significant difference from the legislative draft, 18F is an opt-in service, not a supervising authority.

Federal agencies can ask 18F to build public-facing websites for them, use it as a kind of consultancy or contract shop for needed expertise, or tap it as a resource for advice on what to build or buy. Agencies will pay for 18F services or for the time of embedded employees the way they reimburse GSA for other services.

The 18F team reports to Dave McClure, associate administrator of GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. It has 15 full-time employees, with room under the fiscal 2014 budget to grow to 65. Agencies are under no obligation to take their public-facing Web projects to 18F, and a GSA spokesperson told FCW that there are no plans at this time to have 18F review large-scale online services like HealthCare.gov while they are in development.

"The cost of building and delivering technology through 18F is expected to be significantly lower and less time-consuming than through traditional procurement due to use of lean startup practices, open-source software and tools, and agile development methods that are proven to deliver successful technology outcomes in shorter time frames," a GSA spokesperson told FCW via email.

Former Presidential Innovation Fellow Clay Johnson, a vocal critic of federal IT contracting practices, was optimistic about the news.

"18F has an opportunity to convince federal agencies to move away from the glacial, monolithic enterprise IT approaches of yesterday," he wrote in a blog post. "More than that, they can help to prove that small teams, inside and outside of government, can deliver high-quality technology products and services on time and under budget."

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