Let’s give 18F some space


The questions and criticisms posed in MeriTalk CEO Steve O’Keeffe’s “WT18F?” blog post perfectly highlights the staid sentiments of yesterday’s approach to government technology — one that is comfortable with the status quo, unwilling to embrace change and quick to critique a much-needed experiment before it can properly get off the ground.

It also represents an unwillingness to judge and measure the status quo on the same standards it’s asking of 18F.

Part of this is based on fear — fear of being exposed that it hasn’t effectively adapted to modern technology practices and isn’t quite sure what to do. While it’s important that those with today’s skills mentor those with yesterday’s, that’s not 18F’s direct focus (see “chasm” below). As with anything in life, it’s important for those with yesterday’s skills be self-aware and proactive in learning and embracing today’s, especially when it pertains to technology.

Part of it is also driven by money and the comfortable place the traditional government technology community has held for decades. Seeing the reality shift in realtime is probably difficult. As O’Keefe notes, “Industry has real questions too. Companies feel 18F’s competing with the private sector – leveraging an unfair advantage to shill for work inside the government.”

Let’s be clear, however, that not all of industry is concerned about this. Those in private sector not entrenched in the past, that have baked in modern technology practices, such as open source and agile, are perfectly comfortable and excited that 18F is driving both a new approach to IT, but also a shift in its culture.

To better understand 18F’s methodology and its ideal client collaborator, one must understand Jeffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasmtechnology product adoption curve. 18F is best served in fulfilling its mission at a faster pace (and adding true, long-term value to citizens) by focusing on the “innovators” and “early adopters.” Any successful entrepreneur or product manager will vouch for this approach.

It’s important that critics of this new kind of experiment in government technology innovation (see “fear” and “money” above) realize they are at the end of the chasm (“late majority,” “laggards”).

Let’s also keep in mind that 18F is learning as they go in a very public way, unlike any other agency that’s been created before (and especially unlike any private sector vendor). Those who have worked in startup environments know this all too well. Ask any company (Apple, eBay, Twitter, Google) if they got it right the first time (or every time). Part of the beauty is that they didn’t.

Let’s also keep in mind, change doesn’t happen overnight, especially in government.

Especially in federal government.

Especially in federal government technology.

Here’s what former Department of Homeland Security Chief Information Officer Richard Spires has said about this:

“My experience in government has shown that the implementation of significant change takes two years, and the benefits of that change really being felt in year three and beyond.”

Trying to change decades of antiquated practices will take longer than the 12 months 18F has been in existence.

O’Keefe suggests that part of 18F’s problem is a public relations one, but 18F doesn’t need a PR machine. 18F needs some space.

The question to ask isn’t “WT18F?,” but whether “Is 18F trying to change the culture of federal government technology that is aligned with modern practices, and do they need space and time to do this, as well as more leaders in the government IT community to step forward and become innovators and early adopters?”

The answer to that question: “Yes.”

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh, co-founder/CEO of ProudCity and co-host of the podcast, The Government We Need. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.

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