SAN DIEGO — As the startup-minded civic consultancy arm of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), 18F is opening up and talking about its creative charge — and shared three ways in which 18F is making tech deployment for agencies a little easier.
On the morning of Friday, March 18, Rep. Susan Davis (CA-D-San Diego) kicked off a GSA-hosted summit held at San Diego State University by focusing on 18F's creative solutions and opening a direct dialog with industry representatives.
During the discussion, 18F Deputy Executive Director Hillary Hartley pointed to the agency's work with U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Federal Elections Committee, helping to provide them with more functional and accessible online tools.
“Our attack pattern is to help agencies quickly deploy tools and services that are easy to use, that cut costs, and are efficient and really reusable,” she said. "That notion of reuse is really important to us. We don’t want to build just one-off solutions. We want to build things that we know we’ll be able to use again and that could turn into shared commons services.”
Hartley said the team of roughly 175 people throughout the United States is working to develop and test open source, user-centered solutions.
“So, for us, delivery, shipping, putting stuff out there, that is our strategy. What that means to us is that we just get started. We build something small,” she said. “You hit it on the head, Congresswoman — we have to be better at building small, so that you can put that in front of real users; you can learn from it and then do it again and again and again.”
Through the tools on 18F's Cloud.gov, government agencies and their development teams are able to deploy compliant solutions more quickly and securely, said software engineer Diego Lapiduz.
“So, let’s say we’ve built software, we’ve bought software in an agile, user-centric fashion, and now it’s time to put it out there, put it out to the users to actually start testing it, start working with it," he said. "It turns out that in government, doing that is not that easy."
Initial versions of the system were more efficient than the old way of doing things, but Lapiduz said there was still the issue of divergence between systems as a result of how they were configured by agency developers. The newer open source, cloud-based system skips the need for server procurement, compliance evaluation and the time-consuming configuration process.
The solution was a platform that took the legwork away from the end user and automated essential functions.
“A lot of the stuff we do is shared across all of the applications. There is nothing that unique from one application to the other,” Lapiduz said. “And so we said, 'Let’s build a platform that does all the ... configuration, all the boring stuff automatically.”
Partnering with State, Local Government
Through federal grants to state and local agencies, 18F is able to partners with agencies at this level of government as well. In one such partnership, team members looked at streamlining the request for proposal (RFP) process for much-needed updates to the California Child Welfare Services systems.
Jesse Taggert, a member of the 18F Strategy Team, said this process of “ghostwriting” RFPs helps to remove overly specific language, and allows for the vendor and purchaser to work through issues more easily without excessive limitations.
The two-day process, which involved all necessary stakeholders, resulted in two initial RFPs totaling around 70 pages each instead of one 1,500 page RFP.
The new system allows for platform launch in weeks, not months, and has greatly improved agility in the infrastructure and compliance processes.
“So, what we decided to do was, ‘Okay, let’s take this and offer it to the whole government, not just for 18F, and that’s why we built cloud.gov,” he said. “Again, we are building things once, whether it’s a database service, whether it’s a login system, whether it’s internal building — we just build it once and use it multiple times. This allows us to move faster and get to a point where we deploy things at a much faster pace, but also on secure and solid ground.”
Through these and other efforts on the part of 18F, agencies are now able to get the authority to operate in minutes, not months.
Alla Goldman Seiffert, 18F's consulting and acquisition attorney, said improving the federal technology procurement process has also been a focus. To address how federal agencies purchase solutions, Seiffert said a blanket procurement agreement (BPA) has been developed as a new vehicle.
Additionally, the group is experimenting with micro-purchasing, or purchases at or below the federal $3,500 purchasing card limit. The practice is opening new doors for the procurement of code, patches and potentially bug bounties.
“We wanted to pave the way for better procurement practices and we wanted to essentially start with government websites. We are not procuring pencils. We are not procuring boots. The acquisition system is set up for that reasonably well; we wanted to do this for digital services.”
18F is working closely with contract officers and is also handling the management of the BPA, as opposed to being managed by GSA as it might normally be.
Barriers to Partnership
At the U.S. General Services Administration's summit hosted on March 18 at San Diego State University, companies interested in partnering with the federal government noted barriers to such a partnership, some of which fell to very specific forms and systems, while others centered on the lack of process awareness and issues with accessibility.
Additionally, one industry representative questioned the wisdom in relying on open source code from a security and maintenance perspective.
Instead of vendors providing a long-winded proposal, the new process requires that approved vendors provide a working prototype of open source software.
“We wanted to see what the vendors could deliver,” Seiffert said.
Recently, the acquisitions team kicked off a draft RFP on the developer-centered GitHub, an open forum were vendors could communicate with each other and the project team with great success.
In an effort to draw technology companies into the federal marketplace, 18F unveiled Apps.gov at SXSW earlier this month. Andrew Stroup, director of product and technology for the Presidential Innovation Fellowship program, said complicated contract vehicles and security reviews were posing unnecessary limits to marketplace entry for private industry.
"What we are trying to do is incentivize that bridge point through a platform or marketplace," he said. "The first part is identifying and documenting the contracting process and the security reviews that have to go on."
The platform allows government agencies direct access to companies featured through the service and presents the information in a clear way.