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Hacking bureaucracy: improving hiring and software deployment

When asked what it is we do, one quick answer is, “we’re hacking bureaucracy.” While it may sound provocative, it isn’t.

In the movies, hackers are often dangerous criminals who break into large systems, but in the software development community, “hacker” describes the way someone thinks and works rather than a malicious activity — hackers are problem solvers. We consider ourselves hackers in that positive sense: productively disruptive and curious. See “What is a Hacker?” by Bruce Schneier for a wonderful definition.

It’s not enough for us to just build software inside the federal government. Such an approach may bring short term gains, but it won’t drive long term positive change. At 18F we’re integrating our style of software development with the many departments and employees of the federal bureaucracy. This is the human platform on which we build our software platforms.

When we launched 18F internally in December, we decided to start with two initial big and challenging projects: improving the efficiency and agility of first the hiring process and second the software deployment process. Building our “startup” inside the federal bureaucracy meant first integrating with the federal bureaucracy.

Historically, hiring and software deployment practices inside the federal government have posed significant challenges for agile and user-centered software development practices. These processes need to take weeks, not months.

18F is approaching hiring and software deployment in the same agile, open, user-centered way that we approach all of our projects:

  • Find innovators inside government who have solved similar problems
  • Engage stakeholders and users early and often
  • Set up a minimum viable product to get started quickly
  • Give real users the process/solution from the beginning
  • Learn and iterate our approach
  • Stay aligned with the rules of the bureaucracy
  • Formalize the process/solution for reuse

The initial results have been exciting. Collaboratively, we’ve significantly improved turnaround times for hiring and secure deployments. We’ve reduced the time to hire by 70 percent, and the time to deploy software by 80 percent, and many of our products are now in continuous deployment. Despite the constraints of the federal bureaucracy, continuous iterative improvement is possible. These processes and policies are now being formalized and we intend to make them repeatable and useful to the rest of the federal government.

Our colleagues, who have been innovating within the government for years, have been excellent teachers. These results are not possible without the strong partnerships and leadership provided by multiple teams inside GSA: the Administrator’s Office, Human Resources Management, Office of the CIO, Office of the Senior Information Security Officer, and many other technologists throughout the federal government. In the spirit of the collaboration that helped to achieve these results, we plan to share the details of our HR process and software deployment process publicly.

This is the first of an ongoing series of blogs where we share the details, methods, and stories of how 18F hacks bureaucracy.

You can also view our “Hacking Bureaucracy” presentation from 18F Demo Day on May 9th:

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