GSA's In-House Innovators Help Agencies Rethink Software Design

The incubator group known as 18F uses agile methods and open source software to deliver user-centric services to federal agencies.

by / August 18, 2014
Dan Tangherlini, administrator, U.S. General Services Administration J. Scott Applewhite /

Taking a page from several successful initiatives at the local level, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has opened its own effort to accelerate innovation through technology for federal agencies. Launched in the spring, 18F (the name stands for the letter and number street intersection where the GSA’s headquarters is located in Washington, D.C.) consists of more than 50 software developers and specialists who are taking on digital projects for agencies that can be built using leading-edge Web technology and design tools.

“The mission of 18F is to make the government’s digital services simple, effective and easier to use for the American people,” said GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini in March when 18F was launched. “This service delivery program will make GSA the home of the government’s digital incubator." The GSA manages and supports a broad array of basic federal government functions and is sometimes described as Uncle Sam’s landlord for all the federal real estate it oversees.

Greg Godbout (pictured left), executive director of 18F, described it as a combination consultancy and software production workshop. “We’re a full-service team,” he said. “We typically build software but also do business process re-engineering.”

What sets 18F apart from other government technology development teams is 18F’s emphasis on using an agile methodology, lean startup techniques and user-centric design. While still new, Godbout said business has been brisk, thanks to word of mouth about the group's work. “If the agency is willing to work this way, we set up an agreement, which includes building tools for users that will benefit internal employees of the federal government or citizens,” he said.

In other words, all of 18F’s work is open source development, with an emphasis on rapidity, quality and security. Some of the projects developed so far include: the Midas Innovation Platform, an open source software platform which was developed in partnership with the Department of State that lets agencies post projects for others to collaborate on; FBOpen, which is a set of open source tools to help small businesses find work opportunities with the federal government; and SBIR Search, which makes searches with the Small Business Innovation Research program more efficient in terms of finding commercial opportunities for small business technology R&D.

Godbout said 18F was created to meet a need in the federal government for well designed Web technology solutions that use the latest in user-centric techniques. The program operates as a business, which means it is reimbursed for the work it does for agencies. But the code created by 18F is posted online on Github, a public software code repository. Godbout and many other members of the team are former members of the Presidential Innovation Fellows, a program that pairs individuals from the “innovation community” with government employees to foster entrepreneurism and innovation within government. The fellows program is now run by 18F.

Innovation offices and teams have been around in local government for a while. Boston started with its Office of Urban Mechanics, which has been emulated by Philadelphia. San Francisco has the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation and Denver has the Office of Strategic Partnership. Other cities have designated a single person as chief innovation officer and entrust them with the job of building innovation and efficiency (but not necessarily designing code). 

Success for government innovation teams has varied, according to Ben Weinryb Grohsgal, a researcher at Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance. The one mistake that can throw off the best intentions is the lack of a well articulated business plan. Without one, “governments run the risk of rendering these innovation efforts inconsequential to their operations.” Grohsgal breaks down government innovation models into three broad groups: consultants, connectors or producers.

Godbout said 18F's full-service approach with an emphasis on production works well. When projects are launched, 18F creates cross-functional teams to ensure that all important stakeholders are involved. Projects are also broken down into modules to ensure both quality and speed during development -- techniques that are common in the private sector, but sometimes missing in government, with its history of emphasizing large-scale system design.

The hope is that fresh ideas from 18F will rub off on the agencies. "By using lessons from our nation's top technology startups, these public service innovators will be able to provide cutting-edge support for our federal partners that reduces cost and improves service," said Tangherlini.

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.