GSA's digital incubator program has some private-sector leaders wondering if the agency is encroaching on their territory.
The General Services Administration's new 18F program is beginning to put its development and management skills to work on federal IT projects, but some procurement industry observers question the program's ultimate aim.
The digital incubator is home to a team of developers who will build user-centric Web services for government agencies, which can also ask 18F staff for help with contracting or tap it as a resource for advice on what to build or buy. Agencies pay for 18F services or for the time of embedded employees the way they reimburse GSA for other services.
GSA officials have trumpeted 18F's potential to remake federal IT, but the program's launch has raised eyebrows among some established procurement groups and industry analysts.
"The concept raises a lot of questions," said Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, the national trade association for the government professional and technical services industry.
"The jury's still out" on exactly how the program will work, said Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president of the Information Technology Council's IT Alliance for Public Sector.
"GSA is an acquisition agency," said federal procurement expert Larry Allen, adding that it has never done research and development.
Some industry officials are concerned about how federal procurement rules apply to 18F's activities, whether the program will take on tech development efforts that have been the purview of the private sector and whether the new operation could inadvertently become a kind of de facto standard for what IT tools agencies should build or buy.
One of the procurement experts FCW contacted wondered, for instance, if the open-source software 18F uses is ultimately subject to the formal federal procurement process. "Is choosing the open-source software to create a platform a competitive process?" he asked. "Is open-source technology neutral? I'm still thinking about that."
Advocating agile/lean development
In an interview with FCW, Greg Godbout, 18F co-founder and lead developer at GSA, and Andrew McMahon, senior adviser to the GSA administrator, said they want agencies to see 18F as a new way to build and deliver innovative technology, digital services and citizen-centric applications.
They said 18F is not an R&D effort but rather a management venture aimed at spurring more agile and lean technology development that will fuel federal efforts to serve the public more effectively.
"We're not DARPA," said McMahon, referring to the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
When they launched 18F, GSA said the program would operate much like the other services it provides, which means agencies have the option of working with the organization but are not required to. Officials also said they did not expect to review all federal proposals for public-facing websites and online services.
Godbout and McMahon countered criticism that 18F might skirt federal procurement rules by saying its activities are based on federal technology transfer authorities and open-source technology that doesn't require formal procurement processes. McMahon added that 18F also falls well within GSA's mandate to deliver maximum value for government agencies.
18F's first pilot application, FBOpen, showcases the organization's strengths and focus. Godbout said the app takes an existing government service -- the Federal Business Opportunities website -- and uses open-source tools to streamline users' ability to search the massive database of contract opportunities in a single Google-like page.
Godbout said FBOpen is not a stripped-down search capability -- it is an open application programming interface that will allow users inside and outside government to create their own FBO search functions.
"Different vendors can download the code and make an app for their own targeted market," he said.
GSA officials have also said 18F will release a widget maker that allows FBOpen queries to be added to any Web page by pasting in a small piece of code. Developers also plan to add new search features, including the ability to subscribe to particular queries so users can be notified automatically when new opportunities arise that match their interests.
Godbout and McMahon said agencies have begun contacting 18F about projects. They added that the organization is especially interested in federal projects that could combine agile development, lean management and open-source capabilities for websites or applications that have a direct impact on the public.
"It isn't an assignment through email," McMahon said, adding that 18F assesses each agency's request through an agile/lean development lens.
A needed boost?
Despite some questions from the procurement industry, most vendor representatives and analysts FCW talked to said 18F offers an opportunity to improve federal IT if it's implemented thoughtfully.
"I'm intrigued overall with what they're trying to do," said Mike Hettinger, TechAmerica's senior vice president for the public sector. "I think this project is more like the [Presidential] Innovation Fellows program. As the work is done, we'll see better how it fits. It's not a huge program and mirrors development efforts in technology companies and in Silicon Valley. Any attempt to make government more innovative is worth a look."
The organization has 20 full-time employees, with room to grow to 95 in fiscal 2014 depending on need. Currently, all the staff members work at GSA's headquarters at 18th and F Streets in Washington, McMahon said, but more could be housed at the agency's office at 50 United Nations Plaza in San Francisco.
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