What Obama Did for Tech: USDS and 18F

In 2014, Obama established the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, two tech outfits made up of Silicon Valley experts that would act as digital task forces to teach concepts like agile development and deploy modern tech.

by / September 28, 2016
A busy screen is shown on the laptop of a Certified Application Counselor as he attempted to enroll an interested person for Obamacare on Oct. 2, 2013. Joe Skipper / Reuters

Editor's note: This story is part of a six-part series on how Obama has, over the last eight years, elevated the profile of IT in the public sector. He taught government how to ride the technology bicycle, so to speak. A future president who neglects technology won’t be able to make it forget the skills taught through the influence of Silicon Valley and startup culture, said Aneesh Chopra, the nation’s first chief technology officer.

On Oct. 1, 2013, the Obama administration experienced one of its most public, and incontrovertible, failures. It was the day that HealthCare.gov, the insurance exchange tied to the president’s hard-fought Affordable Care Act, crashed upon launch. In need of fast results, the president sent in a SWAT team of the nation’s best Silicon Valley tech talent. The group literally worked around the clock to get the massive system functioning again.

In the end, the experience was revelatory. Not only did it uncover the site’s inherent problems, but it also revealed some systemic challenges embedded within federal IT itself. Determined to prevent a similar debacle, in 2014, Obama established the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) and 18F, two tech outfits made up of Silicon Valley experts that would act as digital task forces to teach concepts like agile development and deploy modern tech. The two groups, which officially define themselves as digital consultancies, have gone on to serve various departments and agencies.

At the Department of Veterans Affairs, the teams improved Vets.gov to ease veterans’ access to benefits and information. They have partnered with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to digitize the immigration review process for more than 7 million annual applications and requests, and in the case of 18F, the digital support is even being offered to states working on federally funded IT projects. This was the case in California, where the state’s Health and Human Services used 18F’s advice to save millions on a contract for a new child welfare system. Instead of a protracted contract by a single vendor, 18F advised officials to break the large contract down into multiple parts. With a greater number of bids, 18F estimated that competition would drive down prices while improving the overall product.

The modular way of approaching the “big lifts” continues to gain traction across the country. There is perhaps no greater example than the deployment of large Medicaid and Medicare programs — projects that historically have typified the massive, multiyear IT contracts with technology that faded into obsolescence by the time the launch date arrived. With the support and leadership of the feds, several states have started to bite off implementations into smaller, more manageable pieces.

In that same spirit, 18F kicked off its own experiment with micro-purchasing as a way to buy innovative code, empowering federal government cardholders to purchase solutions as long as they fell under the $3,500 threshold, thereby circumventing the cumbersome requirements of a typical procurement process. Another 18F solution was the so-called blanket procurement agreement, which is being managed within the group through contract officers, rather than through the larger GSA.

The administration has placed a high priority on ensuring that both 18F and the USDS last after the president exits. The administration has created a new service line within the General Services Administration called the Technology Transformation Service that will house 18F, which works as a contracting outfit, and other innovation programs such as the Presidential Innovation Fellows, previously at the White House, and the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. To protect USDS, independent chapters of the group have been installed within agencies themselves. As an added nudge, contracts for both 18F and USDS staff last, on average, about two years, with the option of adding a two-year extension. Hiring for both groups has not stopped.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.