Head to the corner of 18th and F streets in Washington, D.C., and you’ll find the cream-colored facade of the General Services Administration (GSA). It’s one of the many block buildings that line the stately parks and sidewalks of our nation's capital. But this building in particular houses a gamut of GSA’s federal procurement and property management activities — and serves as the headquarters for 18F, the widely publicized digital consultancy named after the building’s cross streets.
Founded in March 2014, 18F was organized during the fallout and eventual fix of the national health-care exchange HealthCare.gov. The site was the primary vehicle for the Obama administration’s highly contested 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare). Despite hard work and good intentions, HeatlhCare.gov crashed upon its October 2013 launch — which renewed the intensive opposition from Republican legislators seeking to use the site’s troubles as a reason to dismantle Obamacare.
Against such pressures, the Obama administration turned to Silicon Valley experts from Google, Microsoft, Oracle and elsewhere to ensure the platform met ACA’s looming enrollment deadlines. This support, plus around-the-clock work, not only resulted in success, it also seeded a desire to systematize the expertise across agencies.
18F at a Glance
What is it?
Who works for 18F?
When was 18F created?
Where does it operate?
How is it funded?
How is it organized?
What are some of 18F's major projects?
1 // Beta.FEC.gov is a website revamp for the Federal Election Commission that makes its records easily searchable.
2 // MyUSCIS is a new service that helps users navigate the immigration process within the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
3 // USCIS Identity, Credentialing, and Access Management (ICAM) Development is a login and identity verification system for people wanting to interact with USCIS, and currently is in use by hundreds of thousands of citizens.
4 // eRegulations platform is a Web-based application that makes regulations easier to find, read and understand.
5 // The College Scorecard is a clearinghouse tof the clearest, most accessible and reliable national data on college cost, graduation, debt and post-college earnings.
6 // Cloud.gov is a platform that gives government teams the ability to develop, run and manage Web applications without the complexity and cost of building and maintaining infrastructure.
7 // a draft of U.S. Web Design Standards offers open-source UI components and visual styles to create beautiful, consistent experiences across federal government websites.
Procurement18F also has worked to make government IT more affordable by shrinking the size of contracts and heightening competition by opening up agency IT contracts to small businesses.
The president charged U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park with the task, who strategized with thought leaders within the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows program (PIF).
The year-long fellowship, created in 2012 to answer government problems with outside innovation, included participants Hillary Hartley, Aaron Snow and Greg Godbout. The trio worked with GSA leadership and several other PIFs to create 18F — a team that aimed to not only improve federal IT management, but also reshape how all buying, building and sharing of technology in government is done.
The group's structure required three big ingredients: access to serve agencies across the federal government; a mission that modernized IT and procurement; and the willingness of leading technologists, contracting specialists and policy experts to sacrifice lucrative private-sector salaries to improve their country. Miraculously, the founders were granted all three, and on March 19, 2014 then-GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini officially announced 18F’s launch.
Very much a startup within government, 18F operates as a digital consultancy to help agencies buy, build and share modern software. The group, composed of about 200 employees, does not choose its projects or customers. Instead, federal agencies contract 18F’s various teams to answer specific challenges. These developers, data scientists, designers, researchers, policy analysts and contracting specialists then go to work applying tech startup operating principles like agile development, human-centered design, open source code and data-driven decision-making to enable an array of IT solutions. With these contracting revenues, 18F is required to pay for all its operating expenses.
A few of 18F’s hallmark tech projects include its ongoing work to continually enhance HealthCare.gov, improving the benefits claims service at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, expediting the immigration application process at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and reworking the Federal Election Commission’s website into a user-friendly database of searchable financial election records.
18F’s most prolific contributions, however, likely exist within IT procurement. 18F has implemented a number of practices to make government IT become more affordable by shrinking the size of contracts, heightening competition, and opening up federal work to startups and small businesses.
18F’s micro-purchase initiative created a Web platform for agencies to freelance low-cost coding jobs to technologists and businesses. Its Agile Delivery Services Blanket Purchase Agreement (Agile BPA) built a program for startups and companies to provide open source technology at competitive pricing, and 18F’s state and local IT consulting program — which provide services to federally funded state projects — may save California and other states millions with a new child welfare system upgrade. Through 18F’s influence, California officials broke down what would have been a costly contract into more smaller, more manageable, competitively priced contracts that ask for open source code — code that can be freely reused by other states.
The achievements have brought 18F both praise and resistance, as established government IT firms that worried about added competition and preserving large contracts have lobbied to isolate 18F's procurement activities. Internally, former GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini has also said that the GSA's Federal Acquisition Service, which manages 18F's funding, has expressed concern about the group's growth and its ability to recover costs — something it estimates to accomplish by 2019 or sooner.
In what some might deem a protective gesture against an incoming presidency, in March 2016 the Obama administration created the Technology Transformation Service to house 18F, PIF and the GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technology. The hope is that the structural adjustment will allow 18F's work to endure for years to come.