Feds Extend 18F’s Silicon Valley Expertise to Cities, States

In a partnership with federal agencies, digital service group 18F plans to assist city, county and state officials with federally funded IT projects.

by / February 23, 2016
18F Deputy Director Hillary Hartley talks about what agile development can do for governments at the 2015 Code For America Summit in Oakland, Calif. Flickr/Code for America/ Drew Bird Photography

To help steer local IT projects in the right direction, the U.S. General Services Administration’s (GSA's) team of ex-Silicon Valley technologists at 18F have unveiled a program to assist cities, counties and states with federally funded IT projects.

GSA officials believe the development, announced Feb. 23, has potential to save thousands, if not millions, of dollars in IT project costs through 18F’s arsenal of agile development and lean procurement strategies. In 2015, the GSA experimented with the idea in a pilot project to upgrade the California’s outdated child welfare system. 18F helped the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the California Department of Social Services tackle the $400 million dollar project. This was done by breaking up a massive procurement contract into a collection of smaller contracts. According to all three organizations, the tactic led to better solutions and therefore better care for vulnerable children.

This is one of many projects that have benefited from 18F’s influence. At the federal level, 18F has enabled agencies to realize savings of up to 50 percent for certain projects. Since it was founded in March 2014, the agency has grown from 15 to 165 people as it and its sister organization the U.S. Digital Service have tasked their teams of designers, engineers and policy experts on a variety of federal projects. Likewise, success has delivered additional funding for the group until 2018.

The GSA has called on former Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan to lead the initiative as the group’s first program director for state and local government. Carnahan said she’s eager to start, and feels well suited considering her experience in state government. She spoke to Government Technology about the initiative on Tuesday, Feb. 23.

Government Technology: What do 18F’s new services for local governments entail?
Robin Carnahan, 18F's director of state and local government: The first thing to understand is that we're going to be continuing to work with federal agencies that are funding these digital upgrades. So that's the first step, it's not just on any project, it's those that are using federal funds. But we'll be asking them about what their primary pain points are and where they need help in the same way we do with our federal customers.

GT: Will this extend to actual technical work or will it primarily be consulting?
Carnahan: Well we'll see what develops. I think this first step will be primarily looking at consulting projects, not unlike what we worked on in California last year, to help people understand different approaches to design and procurement.

GT: While I might be able to offer a good guess, how would these services “stretch grant funding dollars”?
Carnahan:
What we've seen through the federal projects so far is it's gotten better results for the public and saved money for taxpayers, and reduced the number of failed projects while speeding up the [project completion] time. So we expect those same results to happen on these federally funded state and local projects.

GT: What are a few examples of federal grant funding for state and local IT projects, and are there any specific ones you’re currently considering?
Carnahan:
We're going to wait and see what's going to make the most sense; there's a large amount of federal grant money that flows to states, counties and cities that included federal technology upgrades. For example, we saw in California that HHS provides 50 percent of the money to do the upgrades on the child welfare systems, and that's not just in California, but around the country. HHS is also very involved in upgrades to Medicaid systems. The U.S. Department of Labor is involved with various systems that have to do with workforce development. And in the U.S. Department of Transportation, there is a lot of money that flows there to state and local governments. Almost every agency has grants to local governments, so we'll just be exploring which ones are key and could use some help right now ... we're talking to all kinds of cities and states, so we're excited to get started.

GT: How will your experience as the former Secretary of State for Missouri help you lead 18F in this effort?
Carnahan: I understand the pain points local governments are going through having to reinvent the wheel on their own with all these technology projects. The public's expectations have changed about what service should be like because we all walk around every day with smartphones in our hands that can do so much, and we expect that government can keep up with that. So there's a real challenge in government to try to keep up with what's happening in the private sector, and it's just fabulous to have a resource like the digital experts at 18F to help these officials provide more services to more people. It's a terrific opportunity and I ... wish I'd had something like 18F to help when I was in office.

GT: How does this initiative further the goals of 18F — and its sister organization USDS — to institutionalize innovation in government after the president leaves office?
Carnahan: This is just about common sense — there's nothing that's partisan or something that we should be fighting about. This is just about providing better service to the public and cutting costs to taxpayers.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

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