18F

Transforming U.S. government services in a digital world

Photo: General Services Administration Office of Communications

Photo: General Services Administration Office of Communications

18F has developed a framework for how it helps agencies with digital transformation efforts and has created a deck, “Transforming U.S. government services in a digital world,” that offers a blueprint for others looking to do this on their own.

18F’s Chris Cairns shares more about the work around this effort.

What’s the background on this service and how did it come about?

The founders of 18F, including myself, believed we could further advance an agency’s digital transformation effort by embedding technology consultants inside their organization. By shipping a cross-functional team, we could help them foster the right conditions for changing their culture around technology, particularly with regards to how they acquire and leverage it.

Several conditions had to be in place for 18F to emerge and work the way we do. GSA was an ideal incubator for 18F and our approach to transforming government technology. GSA’s Office of the Chief Information Officer worked with us to make it easy to work collaboratively and virtually — an important element since much of our team is distributed across the country. GSA’s central office gave us an ideal work environment with open-space facilities and modern technology. Most importantly, we had the backing and support of “enlightened leadership,” who ultimately empowered us.

From our experience, it’s the critical foundational pieces that will help agencies unleash the benefits of fast, agile, human-centered teams and succeed in adopting modern management and digital delivery practices. It’s a lot of plumbing work and we’re here to help. We’re bringing government-wide learning, talent, tools, and culture to build and sustain digital capacity inside agencies.

Who’s using the service now and how are those engagements going?

The service is primarily targeted at Chief Information Officer (CIO) organizations. CIOs are one of the most critical actors in an agency’s journey toward becoming a digital-first organization. An agency is digital first when it habitually makes appropriate use of modern practices and digital technologies to deliver services that are easy, delightful, and secure to use.

We started experimenting with many of the elements of this service nearly two years ago with agencies such as TSA and DOL. We pivoted what we learned from those engagements into a comprehensive transformation solution framework, which is what this slide deck represents. After receiving positive and enthusiastic feedback from over 10 technology executives, we have begun piloting the service with a few CIO organizations.

18F cannot drive an agency’s digital transformation. Ultimately, that responsibility falls on the agencies and their industry partners. Our aim is to help kickstart that process and support them along the way through a comprehensive digital transformation framework.

What are your plans for the future of this?

True to the agile spirit of 18F, we’re going to focus on delivering value to our initial pilot clients and then taking what we learn to make the necessary adjustments. The digitization of government services is inevitable and with the right guidance and tools, federal agencies can more effectively serve their users, the American people. The future of government services is filled with potential and we look forward to working with industry and our partners at the federal and local level to make these ambitions a reality.

Learn more.

Transforming digital government

Photo: The White House

Photo: The White House

Earlier this year, 18F released a preliminary report on “what makes modern digital practices ‘stick’ within a government entity.”

The findings provide an excellent overview of what constitutes digital government transformation, challenges and best practices for implementation.

From the report:

Characteristics

  1. People at all levels feel connected to the agency’s mission, have a sense of purpose, and are empowered with the autonomy to act on that purpose.
  2. The agency chooses and manages technology effectively in the service of its larger mission.
  3. The agency is capable of and committed to practicing continuous improvement.

Barriers

  • Extreme technical debt, heavy enough to prevent small engineering teams from choosing their tools and doing rapid, iterative releases.
  • Difficulty concretizing the benefits of transformation. We don’t say quantifying, because that’s the problem: many benefits are clear, but qualitative in nature. This makes it hard to get buy-in for ongoing work.
  • Teams that can’t make project decisions without leadership approval. This costs time and effort for both management and staff, and makes it hard for transformative practices to become the norm.
  • Failure to connect directly to users (whether they’re employees or the public). It’s harder to muster the will to seek out the most impactful practices when you don’t have a picture of the impacted people in your mind.

Best practices

  • Establishing constant feedback loops with users, often created by early, somewhat risky releases. These are powerful drivers of engagement at every possible level of the organization.
  • Building cross-functional teams of substantial duration. Subject matter experts working side by side with technical specialists for months or years rather than weeks, and all being treated as full project team members.
  • Using community organizing techniques to bring staff on board (like monthly meetings, office hours, councils). When it comes down to it, transformation is a long process of getting people on board and supporting them in hard work. This takes non-judgmental spaces to learn, celebrate small and large wins, and get support from teammates and management.
  • Referring to authoritative guidance, like the TechFAR Handbook, FITARA, the Open Data Policy (OMB Memorandum M-13-13), and the U.S. Digital Services Playbook, helps tech-savvy managers make non-technical leadership comfortable allowing experiments in new practices.

Full report: “Best practices in government digital transformation

The seeds of a federal government software-as-as-service digital platform?

Photo: White House

Photo: White House

With the release of a new identity management platform, 18F is slowly culling together all the requisite pieces for an easy-to-deploy, cloud-based federal government web management platform.

These include:

  • cloud.gov (“A platform by government developers, for government developers.”)
  • login.gov (“Improving access to government services through a shared authentication platform”)
  • Federalist (“Federalist is a unified interface for publishing static government websites.”)

These components, coupled with the U.S. Web Standards that will allow for a common look and feel front-end theme and templates, the Digital Analytics Program for metrics, its work on security and HTTPS, the General Service Administration (via 18F) is on its way to becoming a full-scale software-as-a-service platform that makes it easy for agencies to launch and maintain web services in-house.

Phaedra Chrousos retrospects federal government digital service

Photo: General Services Administration Office of Communications

Photo: General Services Administration Office of Communications

After two years of helping lay a new foundation for how the federal government buys, builds and delivers government digital services, Technology Transformation Service Commissioner Phaedra Chrousos announced she is stepping down.

“The creation of the Technology Transformation Service would have not been possible without her vision and leadership,” wrote General Services Administration Administrator Denise Turner Roth. “She helped scale 18F from a “minimum viable product” to an organization that agencies recognize as a critical partner in delivering services to the American public.”

I asked Chrousos to share some parting thoughts.

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a startup entrepreneur turned political appointee that came into government for a short tour of duty and has been asked to take on a few different roles and titles along the way – three in two years to be exact! My latest role was helping stand up the Technology Transformation Service and my latest title is that of commissioner of that service.

What is the Technology Transformation Service and why is it important?

TTS is home to an evolving arsenal of products and services that federal agencies can use in the massive undertaking that’s underway to repair, rebuild and modernize the government’s technology.

TTS v1.0 is a purposefully experimental organization that permanently houses the Presidential Innovation Fellows, 18F, and the Office of Citizen Services, which holds products and programs like data.gov, the Web Design Standards and FedRAMP. It looks and feels like a startup that’s starting to scale – so it’s always pushing boundaries and feels creatively messy as new processes are continually put in place to support its growth.

TTS v2.0 will be a larger, more powerful, focused arsenal of products and services that are still constantly evolving to meet the needs of chief information officers across federal, state and local governments. Hopefully it will still feel like a startup in spirit, but as an ecosystem it’s reached a certain level of maturity.

Your Twitter bio, “We can’t win the future with a government of the past.” What’s government of the past?

When it comes to technology, it feels like the government of the past is absolutely everywhere.

The invisible infrastructure that supports our government and ultimately serves the American public is very fragmented, mostly clunky, often broken and sometimes insecure. As someone coming into government with no previous knowledge of how it operates behind the scenes, it was not just eye opening, but also quite alarming. Then I caught a glimpse of the $80 billion annual price tag associated with all of it – just for the federal government alone – and basically fell out of my chair.

And government of the future?

It’s pretty simple.

The government of the future is one that leverages technology to provide easy to use, secure and effective services to the American public. It’s a government that uses modern technology methodologies to not only get to better outcomes, but also dramatically decrease the cost of technology for the American taxpayer so that a good part of that $80 billion can be better spent on just about anything else.

Let’s do a retrospective. What are the wins?

The biggest wins are the people that make up TTS – they come in to serve as Presidential Innovation Fellows, part of the 18F tech bench, and product managers in the Office of Citizen Services.

Many incredible, talented technologists and innovators leave their lives behind in both the public and private sector every month to join this ecosystem. They join in large part because their patriotism that inspires them to rise to the government’s mission to serve the American public. They also join in some small part because we can offer them an environment that rewards new ideas and experimentation and feels more like a startup than the rest of government.

They are the ones that move the government forward every day.

What’s the biggest hurdle?

Believe it or not, it’s the government itself.

It’s designed in every possible way to reward risk aversion and discourage any kind of experimentation that by definition requires failing small, fast and often. Of course, that’s probably for great reason – most government organizations and services have not only reached maturity but also have a tremendous amount to lose if something goes wrong.

Unfortunately, the effort to modernize government technology is relatively nascent and needs to go through this very important experimental phase. It’s the only way we’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t.

And how are you addressing this?

We’ve taken a few very thoughtful steps to create a safe, experimental space for the team so that they can feel free to test out new ideas in a way that accommodates for failure.

Things like: standing up a monthly ideation and funding process (“the great pitch”) that anyone can pitch ideas to; creating a regular, transparent and inclusive review process for all our products and services; maintaining a flat organization so that those that are working closest with our government partners are not the ones farthest from the decision making; encouraging people to stand up and participate in thematic learning and working groups.

Finally, socializing the idea that failing small, fast and often is not only ok, but necessary – and doing that over and over again.

Changing the government of the past has to take its toll. Personally, how do you handle this?

There’s something about being on a two year sprint rather than a decade long marathon that has made this all not just doable but very exciting.

I liken it to being on a campaign or launching a startup – there’s a lot of work to be done, a very close camaraderie with colleagues, and if all goes to plan, there is usually a well deserved vacation waiting at the end.

I do really admire those that can go on for longer, and especially those that dedicate their lives to it. They deserve a tremendous amount of recognition and respect for moving the government forward despite extraordinary obstacles to execution.

For those who want to win the future, what can they do?

Come in for a tour of duty in the government – a year, two years, a decade – it doesn’t matter. I would love to live in a world where we ask the people we meet where they did their tour of duty in government with the same frequency that we ask where they went to college.

Connect with Chrousos on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Government IT lobbyists play key role in blocking federal technology innovation

Photo: Architect of the Capitol

Photo: Architect of the Capitol

Government Technology’s Jason Shueh finally brings to light the core impetus surrounding backlash against 18F efforts to fix federal government technology development and procurement practices.

From Shueh’s reporting, “IT Showdown: Tech Giants Face Off Against 18F“:

At a House subcommittee hearing on June 10, lobbyists from the IT Alliance for Public Sector (ITAPS) and the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) alleged that 18F is hindering profits by acting as both a procurement policymaker and as a tech competitor inside the General Services Administration (GSA). The two groups assert a conflict of interest, and in testimony, have submitted a list of grievances and recommendations intended to curtail 18F’s authority.

Rightfully so, many are frustrated with the impact vendor lobbying efforts could have on the future of a critical program actually making a difference in changing federal technology operations. Of note are the Hacker News comments discussing this story.

Since the failure of a proper launch for HealthCare.gov, negative sentiments against big government IT vendors have become more prominent. It’s interesting to see this group starting to be associated with other old line industries that, rather than changing with the times, have resorted to lobbying against a small program like 18F to remain relevant.

Full story: IT Showdown: Tech Giants Face Off Against 18F

GAO needs a better digital strategy. Here’s how 18F and USDS can help.

gao.gov

Source: gao.gov

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report on the fiscal and administrative state of 18F and the U.S. Digital Service, both established to make federal government digital services work better for users, and it appears the agency could use some help from the two on its own website, gao.gov.

Here are four ways GAO’s digital operations must be rebooted to meet the needs of today’s web user, and how 18F and USDS helped us better understand all of this.

HTTPS

The GAO website is not secure for users visiting gao.gov.

As 18F has emphasized, HTTPS protects visitor privacy with a secure, encrypted connection and is an important practice for .gov domains to adhere to.

The move to HTTS for all .gov websites began more than a year ago, yet gao.gov still remains unencrypted.

Fortunately for GAO, 18F and USDS created a number of HTTPS resources for governments and agencies having difficulty understanding its importance and quickly adopting it.

Mobile-friendly

The GAO website is not mobile-friendly.

Whether it’s a phone, tablet or laptop, gao.gov doesn’t adapt to the device you’re using. As billions of people around the world are now using mobile devices to access information, it’s requisite that all government websites are mobile-friendly so their services are accessible to everyone.

Fortunately for GAO, 18F and USDS created the U.S. Web Design Standards that makes it easy for anyone creating government websites to build mobile-friendly sites (including accessible color schemes, which GAO does a mediocre job on).

Update:

Alex Howard notes that GAO has a separate mobile version (launched in 2010) of its website and an app (launched in 2012). While these were great technological enhancements at the time, they no longer meet today’s standards around responsive design and streamlined development practices.

Rather than building one site that adapts to all devices, GAO has created two development environments and duplicated development costs.

While an app is certainly mobile, it doesn’t qualify in this case, as it’s a secondary outlet to the website.

Open data

GAO does not have a comprehensive open data strategy.

While the site provides a great list of RSS feeds, not all reports are in data-friendly formats (all are, however, in PDFs). There also appears to be no public application programming interface (however Sunlight Foundation has created one via its Sunlight Congress API).

Unsurprisingly, GAO’s report on 18F and USDS isn’t available through an open, accessible, digital format.

Fortunately for GAO, while not directly created by 18F or USDS, but done by many who now serve in each, there is Project Open Data to help it get started on executing an effective open data strategy.

Analytics

GAO doesn’t participate in the federal government’s Digital Analytics Program.

As the agency that provides oversight on federal government activities, it would be great to have more transparency into its website analytics.

Given that gao.gov is already using Google Analytics, and familiar with its tools, this is easily resolved with a simple snippet of code provided by DAP.

Thoughts

I get nervous when policymakers take a myopic approach to assessing technology, especially in a politically charged environment like Washington, D.C., where there are behind-the-scenes personal and business relationships that impact motivations around critiquing new initiatives like 18F and USDS.

I especially get nervous when an agency charged with overseeing federal government technology practices fails the digital test.

If GAO is serious about modernizing its own digital strategy, 18F and USDS can surely help.

Cloud.gov is FedRAMP Ready, moves feds closer to internally deploying tech projects faster

cloud.govIn a Hacker News post, the cloud.gov team shares that the platform has attained FedRAMP Ready status, moving it closer to operating as a full-service cloud provider for federal technology projects.

The team responsible for the project is hosting an open “Ask Me Anything” style question and answer session, and the post has already unearthed a number of conversations around hiring and the nuances of federal government operations related to cloud deployment.

From cloud.gov product lead Bret Mogilefsky:

I’m the product lead on cloud.gov… Thanks for noticing us! There are other Cloud Foundry deployments, but what makes cloud.gov special is the focus on ensuring federal agencies are actually able to use it. Federal compliance for a cloud service provider is a tough bar to clear, and without it most agencies are simply unable to take advantage of capabilities the rest of the world now takes for granted. That in turn impedes improvements in the many services the government has to offer. We’ve just reached the “FedRAMP Ready” status, which is a signifier of confidence that cloud.gov will make it through the exhaustive auditing process to come. Best of all, everything were doing is open source, including all the compliance work, so others will be able to follow in our footsteps. AMA!

Once cloud.gov achieves full FedRAMP status, coupled with the internal open source and agile/DevOps development environment they’ve created, the opportunities for 18F to help agencies quickly and fully deploy projects are endless.

“18F is going to be a model Cloud Service Provider (CSP) in the federal space,” Mogilefsky said in a May interview with Cloud Foundry. “Cloud.gov is only part of the equation.”

Have questions or comments for the cloud.gov team? Ask them anything.

Measuring 18F’s value

18FAccording to NextGov, the Government Accountability Office is working on a report related to 18F’s financial operations, and the tone of the article reads as if the current status is less than optimistic.

From NextGov:

The unit, which operates on a fee-for-service basis, has struggled to balance revenue and spending since its founding in 2014 and is currently facing a projected fiscal 2016 shortfall of nearly $15 million, according to a draft GAO audit.

While 18F’s quarterly revenue has grown three-fold since its inception, its expenses have outpaced revenue. 18F is currently spending an average of more than $1 million per month more than it recovers from the use of its personnel and programs. In fiscal 2016, 18F is projected to receive approximately $33 million for its services, but will spend almost $48 million.

I’ve mentioned before my thoughts on giving it time to incubate and hope GAO doesn’t focus solely on deconstructing 18F’s work in a skewed negative light, adding fuel to the government technology peanut gallery’s fire.

Of course, GAO has an important obligation to ensure agencies are operating ethically and fiscally responsible, the tendency to focus primarily on financial shortcomings without taking into account the potential and unrealized added value can be harmful.

Unfortunately, there’s no reliable way to holistically quantify the innovation and entrepreneurial contributions 18F has made, including unpaid work that’s been re-purposed by other cities or helped make citizens safer when accessing federal government websites.

It’s very easy, especially in a political environment, and especially for a high-profile organization like 18F, to be critical of its operations. There are a long list of items I’d like to see GAO look into and, right now, 18F isn’t one of them.

I’ve always admired GAO’s work and, hopefully, its assessment is fair and doesn’t reflect the tone of the article (the author of whom I also admire).

Every Silicon Valley startup that sees 18F’s revenue-expenditures ratio and customer adoption rate over the past years would be envious.

As I’ve said before, let’s give 18F some space.

Update

I just received the following message from Atlantic Media (NextGov’s parent company):

As you continue to report on the contentious inspector general audit that revealed the Obama administration’s tech-consulting team 18F may have caused a data breach, I wanted to flag another investigation—this one by the Government Accountability Office— that will shine a light on 18F’s finances.

In a NextGov exclusive, Frank Konkel finds that 18F, which operates on a fee-for service basis, has struggled to balance revenue and spending since its founding in 2014 and is currently facing a projected fiscal 2016 shortfall of nearly $15 million, according to a draft GAO audit. Per its own projections, 18F is not expected to break even until at least fiscal 2018 and according to a source familiar with the draft GAO audit, the report is critical of 18F’s cost-recovery plan, saying it lacks specific goals and measures.

The full report is available here: http://www.nextgov.com/cio-briefing/2016/06/18f-tech-team-struggles-balance-its-books-soon-be-released-report-shows/128780/

I don’t want to turn this into a bigger issue than it is, or that they’re making, but to get an email “exclusive” with the subject “President Obama’s highly praised tech team is actually losing A LOT of money” is frustrating to see.

While $15 million is a lot of money, I just think journalistic and investigator general time would be best spent on programs that are impacting millions of people who depend on federal government services that costs hundreds of millions (and billions) of dollars and show no hope for progress or success.

18F doesn’t fit into that category. In fact, my bet is that 18F is helping the federal government (and those it serves) save time and money by introducing more sustainable, agile processes, and I hope costs savings is also accounted for in the report.

It’s important for media outlets like NextGov and agencies like GAO to pursue and shed light on oversight issues, but this just feels small potatoes in the bigger scheme of government technology things.

Feds want to build better digital ‘front doors’ to government

Federal Front Door

Source: labs.usa.gov

Borrowing from Code for America’s Digital Front Door project, the federal government is riffing on the concept so that it can better assist those seeking government services.

The Federal Front Door, “an initiative to improve public-government interactions across the board,” is led by USAGov and 18F, who have been interviewing Americans “about the good, the bad, and the ugly of interacting with their federal government.”

From GSA:

“This project won’t necessarily build new front doors; it’s about learning ways to improve our existing ones. We won’t be rolling out lots of new websites for interacting with the government, but instead we’ll be figuring out ways we can simplify, streamline, and improve people’s interactions with the current ones (especially ones that interact with multiple agencies).”

USAgov and 18F released a report (and methodology background) of its findings.

The gist of the findings:

“People want the government to treat them with respect. As they interact with various agencies, they want clear communication, insight into the processes they’re entering into, and the ability to quickly and easily access the information they need.”

Beta government

West Carrollton BETA

West Carrollton BETA

For those unfamiliar with the concept of beta, it’s a term used in software development to push a public prototype to get design and functionality feedback, as well as test and report technical bugs before launching the project as an official service.

Standard operating procedure for government digital services is to create an extensive specifications document and develop a waterfall project management strategy for executing. Once the project is finalized internally, it’s released to the public as-is without any intention of collaboration or feedback from those who will actually use the service.

Beta has eliminated the fear associated with a big launch. Knowing that beta is the beginning of a collaborative process eases that fear and creates a feedback culture that is much-needed in digital government innovation.

More and more, particularly at the federal level, such as Vets.gov, government is releasing web-based projects this way, even openly and proactively discussing the beta as part of an on-going, iterative process. Locally, larger cities such as Boston are also going beta.

Beta as described in 18F’s “Project Stage Definitions“:

Stage and test working software on the public web for use by a subset of the target audience. Implement changes based on user behavior and feedback. Resolve policy compliance or technical integration issues. Define and then validate statistically significant metrics for improvement.

GOV.UK:

The objective of this phase is to build a fully working prototype which you test with users. You’ll continuously improve on the prototype until it’s ready to go live, replacing or integrating with any existing services.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:

This beta release of Vets.gov is just a beginning. We’ve launched it with deep content in the two benefit categories you’ve told us mean the most to you: disability and education. There are many more to come. We’ll be adding new information and tools ongoing. But we wanted to get vets.gov in front of you now, as we build it, so you can tell us what’s working for you and what isn’t.

At ProudCity, we’ve launched our first city beta and, as a government service provider, we’ve learned a great deal about traditional blockers to innovation, and how we can help overcome them. It’s exciting to work with governments who embrace the beta mindset, especially knowing the end product, particularly for true software-as-a-service offerings, will only get better over time.

If you work inside government, demand beta from your digital services providers and bake it into your acquisition process. If you have the luxury of an internal development team, begin building the culture and communications strategy for deploying this.

There are internal, cultural, procurement and process issues governments must address, but ultimately it’s worth redefining the way services are delivered, and these obstacles are easier to overcome than you might imagine, and will be as more governments adopt the concept of beta.

Beta government is the new standard.