NextGov

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.

How to not be the next USAspending.gov

USAspending.gov

Source: USAspending.gov

Rightfully so, there’s somewhat of a backlash to the newly re-designed USAspending.gov that launched today.

The site has never really lived up to its potential, but hopefully this will begin to change now that it has moved beyond past issues and could get support from 18F and U.S. Digital Services.

NextGov has a short historical overview of the vendor issues related to its storied past, FierceGovernmentIT’s Molly Bernhart Walker has a great post with respect to the release’s impact on businesses who rely on the service as part of their core offerings, as does Washington Free Beacon’s Elizabeth Harrington related to the impact on transparency.

Regardless of the vendor drama and complexity around delivering data specific to USAspending, here is a simple formula for any government working on the release of a new public-facing website:

  • Data first, design second. Regardless of what the site looks like, the data should be publicly accessible via an application programming interface or bulk download. Every government website that launches from here on out should have a data strategy and execution plan before a web design and development one, and this includes a legal understanding that no vendor can ever claim ownership of government data.
  • Open the analytics. It’s important for everyone (internal and external stakeholders) to have access to the same information to understand how well a site is performing and have visibility into current user behavior. This aids in the next point.
  • Get public feedback. Getting feedback based on expert opinion, whether it’s on the particular subject matter of the website or general digital strategy, a public request for information is essential. Per the above point, it’s important for everyone to have access to the analytics to help drive feedback, as well as realize when that feedback is right or wrong.
  • Go into beta. It’s unclear to me why this is rarely done, but having a beta version of the website allows for a softer launch that takes into account early feedback and is a foundation for the next two points. You’re not going to deal with a major public outcry if it took four weeks to build something and are constantly iterating over the days, weeks and months after the initial launch.
  • Get public feedback on the beta. Most government agencies launch public betas but fail to publicly display or respond to feedback so that others can see and comment. Using GitHub issues is a great way to do this, because those comments can be easily baked into the next point.
  • Make changes based on analytics and public feedback. This eliminates internal decisions to include unnecessary features, like homepage sliders or photos of the mayor in the header, and instead focus on real user needs.
  • Make the source code publicly-available at all times. I can’t believe we’re still having this conversation, but code developed for government purposes should be accessible, commentable and contributable at all times.
  • Provide a public roadmap. A roadmap allows the public to have insight into what is currently being developed or considered for development. This shouldn’t be overthought, but more of insight into the focus for the next four weeks. This lets those not directly involved understand what they can expect in the next release without being surprised by a radically new design.
  • Regularly and publicly document updates. Blogging what’s been done and why is important in effectively communicating new changes. GOV.UK does a great job of this. Currently, we see this in the form of nothing or an obscure accepted pull request or code push on GitHub. Never underestimate the importance of the narrative.

The history behind USAspending.gov is an interesting anecdote on building a complex, data-focused website. The previous vendor-related drama and data complexity make it somewhat unique, but by no means should it or any other government website be hindered by a simple, iterative approach for introducing a new citizen-focused, public-facing digital service.