'Hacking bureaucracy' at 18F

Greg Godbout, executive director of GSA's innovation lab, wants to set an example in hiring and other areas for the rest of the federal government to emulate.

Greg Godbout

Greg Godbout, executive director of GSA's innovation lab, wants to set an example in hiring and other areas for the rest of the federal government to emulate. (Photo: Greg Godbout/LinkedIn)

This is the second of two stories on former Presidential Innovation Fellows taking leadership positions in the Obama administration. On Thursday, FCW profiled Garren Givens. Today: Greg Godbout.

Becoming deputy associate administrator of the Office of Strategic Innovations and the executive director of GSA's 18F innovation incubator wasn't what Greg Godbout imagined when he applied for the second round of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.

He expected a six-month stint in government, where he would do some public service and then get back to real life, where he owns the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse in suburban D.C.

It didn't work out that way.

As part of his fellowship, Godbout worked on overhauling government contracting tools. But his career path swerved when the idea of getting 18F off the ground moved beyond the rumor stage near the end of his fellowship.

"Just being close to the idea, could you build a permanent production floor inside the federal government and building agile, lean start up -- all the things we aspire to do," Godbout said. "And knowing how much that would fundamentally make a positive change, and thinking 'We can do that here, we have to try.'"

Right off the bat, Godbout and a handful of other former PIFs recognized that hiring would be absolutely crucial to the success of the venture.

Inspired by the same sorts of opportunities Godbout envisioned, applicants flocked to 18F, which has brought more than 50 people on board since April, with plans to nearly double that by October.

The hiring cycle was reduced to six to eight weeks, compared with the average government time of six to nine months.

The trick? 18F was able to operate under Schedule A -- classified as "temporary" hiring, which translates into four years -- plenty of time for people working in technology, Godbout said.

Part of the appeal is the tech start-up feel to the venture. 18F's collaborative GSA workspace is alive and buzzing, home to both sneakers and suits, with plenty of GitHub and 18F stickers plastered about.

By the end of fiscal year 2015, Godbout is planning to have 90-100 people on staff, with D.C. as the largest office, followed by San Francisco, and the rest "scattered around the country."

Shrouded in mystery

There has been lots of conversation about 18F circulating through government and industry, and a handful of 18F blog posts about early projects, but very few details on exactly what 18F is working on -- and with whom -- have been revealed.

Godbout would say only that the office is working with 14 "clients," but he is holding the names and projects close to his vest for now.

Why the secrecy?

In part, he said, it's because several projects are still in the negotiation stage. And, because demand for 18F's services has been high, Godbout said he has felt little need to publicize their work to this point.

There's a belief that people do something a certain way, and because they do it that way it becomes a habit," Godbout said. "There's a tendency to think that your habit is a policy or a law.

That is likely to change soon, however, with plans to bring in a communications staff member to trumpet 18F's work to the public.

"It's important for us to be transparent, but just from a priority standpoint we needed to do the classic contractual things to bring the clients on board, business development and initial steps," Godbout said. "But now that we're starting to get more people into support roles, we'll be able to get that information out."

Godbout said the goal is to have each project team do continuous blog updates as that project progress.

With only a quarter of his staff having government experience, compliance with policies and regulations is something that Godbout must address on a daily basis. At the same time, busting out of the box is a feature, not a bug, of what Godbout calls "hacking bureaucracy." And often his colleagues find that current policies allow for much more than they originally thought.

"There's a belief that people do something a certain way, and because they do it that way it becomes a habit," Godbout said. "There's a tendency to think that your habit is a policy or a law."

Not hiring the hidebound is the recipe for success, according to Godbout.

"Generally they're sort of overachievers," he said. "They're looking to make a difference. You want to give them as much freedom as possible to make that difference."

18F is broken up into loosely attached working groups, which Godbout said tend to define themselves. People align where they're most interested, and lend their skills to other groups as the need arises -- a common approach in the developer communities that support many open-source projects, and the organizational "structure" used by GitHub employees. As the number of 18F employees grows, Godbout said, the working groups will continue to evolve.

He also expects other agencies to adopt their model.

Some have already been working with 18F to learn and copy their expedited processes. The accelerated hiring process, for example, is currently being rolled out across GSA.

"I hope it's a positively disruptive change in the federal government and I hope it's permanent," Godbout said. "I want to see people copy us, I want it to proliferate."

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