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Happy 5th birthday, 18F

It’s been five years since we launched 18F with a “Hello, world” and a blog post about our vision for change. We’ve grown a lot since that day – in size, in focus, and in impact.

We wanted to celebrate our fifth birthday with a look back. Here’s what we’ve accomplished, what we’ve learned along the way, and where we’re headed next.

What we’ve accomplished

Projects

We may be small, but we are mighty. Our team of 118 employees worked with 22 different federal agencies and three states last year on everything from modernizing legacy Air Force schedulers to making background investigations more secure nationwide. Some of our most notable projects include:

  • Helping the U.S. Forest Service sell Christmas tree permits online, simplifying the tree-buying process for the public and minimizing the administrative burden for Forest Service staff.
  • Working with Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services to explore modern procurement methods that get the right vendor partners working sooner rather than later.
  • Via 10x funding, building a tool for the U.S. Department of Agriculture that reduces error and waste by giving states a single, centrally owned way to check federal benefit eligibility rules.

Products

Many of our partner projects depend on products, which support the day-to-day efforts of agencies across government, too. For example:

  • Federalist, our website managing tool, hosts 134 .gov sites with more than 65 million hits per year. Vote.gov and FedRAMP both rely on Federalist to keep their sites functional, accessible, and easy to maintain.
  • cloud.gov, our Platform as a Service (PaaS), hosts 37 systems for agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Internal Revenue Service. It also hosts some of our own products like Federalist. By automating infrastructure and managing most of the compliance, it’s a simpler way to get systems onto the cloud.
  • And login.gov, our single sign-on solution, protects data for 12 million account holders. It offers the public secure, private access to sites like USAJobs.gov and the Trusted Traveler programs.

Portfolios

By working with multiple agencies in similar fields, some of our team members have gained insight into sector-wide issues — challenges specific to, for example, the defense community or those who work in science.

Previously, gaining that kind of knowledge has been a happy accident. But in 2018, we decided to become more intentional about preserving our experience in these fields. That way, we can better help our partners solve their challenges and in turn help them deliver more value for the people they serve.

Our first iteration of this idea is the Human Services Portfolio, a dedicated team working with federal and state agencies that support health and human service programs. You can find a list of the projects we’re working on in this GitHub repo — right now we’re focused on helping replace legacy systems via an iterative, modular approach.

And of course, we continue our commitment to a human-centered approach at every step of our work. As part of that commitment, we coach our partners on how to conduct and learn from user research, so they can keep improving their systems long after 18F has transitioned out of the project.

How we’ve made an impact

We know we’ve done our job right when a partner doesn’t need us anymore. Over the last year, we’ve wrapped up long-term projects with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Department of Interior’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR), and the National Science Foundation (NSF), two of which we’ve worked on since 18F began. These projects have been successfully transitioned to their home agencies, who are now developing and maintaining these projects on their own.

Alex Palmer, the staff director and chief information officer at the FEC, had this to say about us:

We engaged with 18F, and it was a game-changer for us. They came in and helped the IT team and business owners get involved in the agile development process. It changed our whole methodology. Now, it’s not just IT; it’s educating the entire staff on the agile methodology. Agile doesn’t just apply to IT, but also [to] business.

The Forest Service, another long-term partner, shared similar thoughts:

Selling permits just is part of the story. We are learning how to position the agency for the future.

But it doesn’t take years, or a multi-phase project, before agencies start seeing a return on their investment from 18F. For example, one partner came to us last year with a massive time management problem — workflows that involved staff processing thousands of emails for 10 hours per day. Within a single eight-week engagement, we were able to identify the root cause of the problem and propose new ways of working. Now, instead of 1,000 emails a day, the team gets 50; instead of spending 10 hours a day processing, they can focus on fulfilling their mission.

What we’ve learned

We’re immensely grateful for our founders and our former colleagues — we wouldn’t be here today without them. In the past year or two, we’ve revisited some of the values that were core to our identity in those early years, and refined them as we learned from our agency partners and project experiences. Here’s where our heads are now, and how that’s changing our approach to our work.

Delivery isn’t the only strategy

Inspired by Mike Bracken and the UK’s Government Digital Service, our early work was focused on delivery. This was the right move in 2014, when a big part of our job was simply proving that what we wanted to do was possible.

But today, the question isn’t if government tech can be built in modern ways. It’s how that modern tech should be built — what needs to be in place behind the scenes to make it sustainable. And in response, we’ve learned that our real value isn’t just in websites. It’s in helping our partners uncover the teams, the skills, and the processes they need to maintain technology in ways they weren’t capable of before.

In 2018, we wrapped a long-term engagement with our partners at the Department of the Interior’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR). We spent the last phase of our work together building a seamless transition between 18F and ONRR, from hiring to coaching to revisiting the product vision entirely. ONRR now has the capacity in house to build, manage, and maintain their own human-centered design projects, including the site we built together when we started working together in 2014.

Trust starts with humility

We started with the narrative that industry expertise would “save” government. Some of that was intentional — we think back fondly on our early swagger — but the rest was, more often than not, miscommunication. We called ourselves “experts,” but we’ve come to realize that our partners are often much more expert. We wanted to “hack” and “disrupt,” not realizing that Silicon Valley messaging wasn’t right for government’s ears.

Today, we’re a lot less about “hacking” and a lot more about intentional humility. That means de-centering 18F, re-centering agencies’ program knowledge, and making sure our projects serve both user need and mission support. It’s impossible to do our jobs right on day 50, day 100, or day 365 if we don’t walk in on day one knowing how much there is to learn. It also means recognizing that sometimes processes are there for a reason — even if we don’t understand them at first.

When we offered to help the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) redesign their budget tables, we knew the magnitude of what we were suggesting. It wasn’t enough to just put the forms on the internet; to provide genuine value, we’d have to understand and abide by regulatory guidance that outlined everything from cost allocations to how information needed to be presented.

At 18F, we put in the hours to understand our partners’ work — but for this project, we knew we couldn’t do it alone. In addition to a product owner, we asked CMS for a policy person who could guide us through the project’s financial and regulatory hurdles. He partnered with us to help us stay compliant and present information clearly, even (and especially) when that meant making design choices we might not otherwise have made.

As a result, within two months we had a fully clickable prototype that CMS experts could find believable and trustworthy. And by passing the sniff test for accuracy, we could all focus on what the new tables offered — hundreds of hours saved on manually checking Word documents or errors — instead of what needed to change.

Don’t do ALL THE THINGS

Experiments are fundamental to our work for a number of reasons. First, they’re fairly low stakes — safe places to try something new without radically altering services people depend on. And second, they let us work a little more broadly than an average 18F engagement. From innovation toolkits to micropurchasing platforms to API programs, we’ve historically used experiments as a way to attempt tackling government need in general.

There is so much work to be done, but trying to address all of government’s issues and be everything to everyone all the time was maybe not the best plan. To avoid burnout and to better demonstrate our own cost recoverability, we’ve learned to shift our focus to things that we do really well, that address specific issues, and that lead to financial stability.

For example, in 2018 we decided to pause use of our Agile Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA). Although the project taught us a tremendous amount, helped build trust between vendors and government, and delivered for our agency partners, it wasn’t able to deliver at the speed or scale we anticipated it would in 2015.

So with a “thank u, next,” we’ve gratefully taken the lessons we’ve learned — approaches, processes, ways of working — from the Agile BPA and applied them to the rest of our work. We may revisit this in the future, but today it’s a better choice for 18F to support partners in navigating the structures of acquisition instead of trying to maintain those structures ourselves.

Write down what we’ve learned

Most 18F staff aren’t career government employees. Instead, we serve two to four year terms — meaning that long-term institutional knowledge can be hard to come by.

We didn’t really start to feel the effects of our relatively short shelf lives until we were, well, two to four years into our existence. That’s when our informal systems (“Oh, I remember that!” “Yep, go ask Laura!”) started to fall apart.

Skills transfer and succession building aren’t just key to our partner engagements. They’re key to how we run our own organization, too. So in addition to what we share externally, we’re working to better write down what we’ve tried and learned. This helps us stay consistent (memory is a fickle thing) and prevents upcoming generations of 18F from having to rediscover findings or re-make our mistakes.

In the past few months, we’ve been experimenting with a new role we’re calling the Chief of Projects. It’s now someone’s job to research, synthesize, document, and disseminate best practice across the organization — to make sure that as little as possible gets lost when folks reach their term-out dates. Our first Chief of Projects has been creating templates, codifying roles, and mapping out 18F engagements to help us all more clearly understand and learn from each other’s work.

What’s next

As we move forward, we hope to improve 18F and the services we offer by concentrating on three initiatives.

First, we’re going to be able to better assist our partners in their acquisition processes thanks to our new access to the assisted acquisition authority. This allows us to buy products and services on behalf of our partners and will help us increase the use of modular, agile contracting in government.

Second, we’re working with our talent team and GSA HR to start hiring career positions. Previously, most 18F staff have been on four year terms, which has helped us stay innovative by having individuals with new points of view and skills continually joining our teams. But to ensure that our culture and mission continue for the long term, we need certain members of our team to be in career positions. That way they can build bridges and grow relationships within the federal government, as well as work as mentors to new employees.

And last but not least, we’ll be creating new portfolios based on what we’ve learned from the Human Services Portfolio. Our goal is to help define 18F’s areas of expertise for partners while creating stronger internal skills for solving common problems throughout government. If this model works, we’ll be able to increase our impact and better serve our partner agencies.

Today’s 18F is different from the 18F of 2014. We’re a little quieter, a little more pragmatic — and we can take that approach because previous 18F staff blazed a trail for us. Thanks to them, we don’t have to prove our concept anymore. We can just get on with the work of helping government create smart, digital, data-driven change.

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