Backpacks, bean bags and blue jeans: My take on ‘tech titans,’ 18F and USDS

Two semi-retired government employees still have a bone to pick with 18F and USDS.

Photo of Luke Fretwell By Luke Fretwell · February 22, 2021

Apparently, in 2021, there are people who still refuse to recognize the holistic, energetic and sustainable impact 18F and the U.S. Digital Services has — and continues to have — on keeping the federal government digital services industry and profession relevant and attractive to highly-qualified designers, developers, product and project managers and anyone generally interested in well-functioning U.S. Government technology.

In “Two tech titans take on 18F and USDS,” FCW columnist Steve Kelman shares a conversation he had with Ed and Bob, two semi-retired government employees, who still have a bone to pick with 18F and USDS.

Reading the post is frustrating, because the comments are not only dismissive of a professional movement that worked — and is still working — to proactively and intentionally address very immediate technology and cultural needs the federal government hadn’t — and still hasn’t — effectively acknowledged before the point of USDS and 18F’s emergence. It also revives a toxic us-versus-them, old-versus-new mindset that is time we fully retire if the U.S. Government is going to get things done when it comes to addressing its technology problem.

Excerpts from the conversation:

The first salvo came from Ed: “It can be useful to have easily accessible expertise available to government agencies when they need AND want it. But what happened with 18F and USDS is that these efforts got stood up with great senior level talent that cost a lot of money to maintain and it turned out that most agencies actually needed more mid level technical skills. As always happens after all the hype and back-patting folks started to notice all the non-reimbursable costs of these efforts and the politicals decided they needed to require their use whether or not the agencies wanted or needed them. There are many examples of 18F showing up at an agency to solve a perceived problem without any understanding of the underlying issues causing all manner of problems while they cry, ‘innovation’ and hand huge bills to the agency for their troubles. So while the idea may sound ‘innovative,’ to some in practice it is a train wreck.”

Then Bob came in: “I watched this train wreck with background at GSA and from the agencies’ viewpoint. They had no business case, no idea of agency business requirements and a willingness to sponge off the profitable parts of GSA who make a living. What they had going for them was political wannabes up the line who wanted to claim they made the government innovative and cool. They ran up deficits and wrote articles claiming to transforming government. It’s easier to claim it. Doing it is hard. To add insult to injury they banded with other ne’r do wells to insult those who made the place go and depicted themselves as innovators. They also promoted their kind to senior positions over those who had brought home the bacon.”

“They became known as the b’s. Backpacks, bean bags and blue jeans,” Bob wrote. “Their space looked like an airport at spring break. The mix was unproductive and divisive. I seldom went through that area but it was clear they were making a point that they wanted to be different.”

Bob’s parting shot: “Grow up, get rid of the jeans, make your rates competitive and learn what your customers are facing. And you might have a chance.”

In a thoughtful response, Alan Thomas wrote a great counter to Ed and Bob’s thinking:

What’s the moral of this story? Standing up a new organization within a government agency is hard. Culture and people matter a lot, and authority and resources must be aligned. Bob and Ed accurately portrayed some of the dysfunction and distrust that I saw in the summer of 2017. Fortunately, the story didn’t end there.

Did everybody always get along and was everything perfect? Of course not, but these digital consultants provide real value as evidenced by the pipeline of work 18F and TTS are performing for agency partners. Everyone just needs to remember that whether you wear a suit or a hoodie, the mission matters most.

While there’s a lot to unpack from Ed and Bob’s comments, and I don’t have the bandwidth I’d like to counter them in a deeper and constructive manner, it’s important to say something because, while these comments should be disregarded, they probably reflect the thinking of other Eds and Bobs working within the federal government technology ecosystem and continue to cause a bureaucratic headache for 18F and USDS.

For better or worse, 18F’s mandate was to be financially sustainable, which isn’t something asked of most government organizations, but this appeared to be the stipulation for its continued existence. Because the timeline was unrealistic, smart people found a bureaucratic hack to instill a different mindset into federal government digital thinking the best way they could. This provided an easy attack foundation for legacy government bureaucracy technology titans, as well as parts of the federal government vendor community who feared 18F and USDS would eat away at their business opportunities.

Steve, Bob and Ed had the wrong conversation.

Rather than how 18F or USDS billed or the way they managed projects or whether they wore jeans is not the right context for constructive discussion on how to change U.S. Government digital services.

The conversation that should be had is the one about the overarching role 18F and USDS has played on the culture of U.S. Government digital services ecosystem, and the one they should continue to play.

More than any other federal agency, 18F and USDS (and their agency offshoots) have had the most impact on the progress the U.S. Government has made with digital services.

18F and USDS:

  • Defined and socialized a systems thinking approach to federal digital government
  • Effectively explained the problems (agile, procurement, culture) and the solutions
  • Built scalable digital tools and policy (U.S. Web Design System, TechFAR)
  • Set a foundation for improvement (what appears to now be the Digital Dashboard)
  • Encouraged a culture of openness and documentation (handbook, guides)
  • Ignited so much more that is now digital within the federal government that can’t be quantified or properly documented in one post

Unfortunately, they can’t invoice for any of that.

If it could, millions of Americans who knew more about their contributions would gladly divert their taxpayer money for more of it.

The onus shouldn’t be on 18F or USDS to validate their existence. The amazing people who go to work for these organizations shouldn’t be continuously subjected to old world, tired thinking. It’s time to move on from that.

The onus is on real government ‘tech titans’ who display true leadership and courage — inside and outside the Beltway and bureaucracy — to recognize and support these efforts, because they’re the best option we have at the moment to truly change how government delivers digital services at the pace of today’s needs.

If you’re not willing to do this, it’s time for you to retire.

This work by GovFresh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is founder of GovFresh. He is the co-founder and CEO of ProudCity.

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