The US government is ready to hack bureaucracy.
At least, that's the stated mission statement of 18F, a fast-moving digital services agency that just launched within the Government Services Administration (located at 18th and F street in the Northwest quarter of Washington, DC). 18F promises to build products for government agencies using lean startup principles, modern programming languages, and open source code, a significant departure from the way most government websites get built.
"We favor experimentation, customer feedback and analytics, and iterative design over a sequential 'waterfall' model," says the office's website, which launched earlier this week. "If startups and companies like General Electric can do it, why not the U.S. government?"
Just setting up my twttr.— 18F (@18f) March 4, 2014
Yesterday, 18F took 29 minutes to push new code onto the GSA's mobile website, the company bragged in a blog post. In the traditional model of government IT, even such a small change could have taken weeks or months to go through the clunky federal procurement process.
The launch of the agency was spurred by the embarrassing launch of Healthcare.gov, the high-profile health insurance marketplace that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build but was so broken that only six people were able to use it on the first day. The website was a major setback for President Barack Obama's administration, but it started a movement to reform the way the government builds technology for its citizens.
18F doesn't yet seem empowered to prevent another Healthcare.gov-type fiasco
The founding of 18F parallels the response in the UK after a failed attempt to upgrade its national healthcare website cost taxpayers more than £9.8 billion. That fiasco prompted the government to institute a Government Digital Service, a 300-person team that tackles federal tech projects. The government estimates the GDS saves taxpayers $20 million a year.
With just 15 employees to start, 18F is much smaller than its UK counterpart. It's also still unclear what types of projects it will be working on, and it doesn't yet seem empowered to prevent another Healthcare.gov-type fiasco.
Clay Johnson, a former Presidential Innovation Fellow who has taken up the cause of reforming federal IT procurement, says he's encouraged but has some concerns. The office needs to log enough "wins" before Obama's term ends to justify its continued existence, for one. It's also unclear whether 18F plans to help privately-owned startups bid on government contracts. "Without appropriate checks in place, what's to prevent this from becoming a large, monolithic contractor inside of government that doesn't have to compete for contracts?" Johnson says.