How One Agency is Teaching the Agile Gospel to the U.S. Government

Taking on perhaps the biggest IT challenge of all—pulling the federal bureaucracy into the 21st century.

At big organizations, decision making can be a paralyzing endeavor. According to research from McKinsey, the number of decision makers has risen at most companies, and the process has become more complex than ever—so much so that 72% of senior executives say that bad strategic decisions are as frequent as good ones. When you pair these decision-making obstacles with legacy software tools that just don’t cut it anymore, you’ve got a recipe for decaying technology infrastructure.

And these problems aren’t specific to the private sector. The public sector suffers, too.

In 2012, President Obama launched a program called the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF), an initiative designed to “bring the principles, values and practices of the innovation economy into government.”

It was a move that was decidedly overdue.

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With $80 billion spent yearly on government IT, the move to modernize an organization that still uses floppy disks is an obvious one, given that 75% of that sum is said to fund the maintenance of decaying legacy systems.

Enter 18F, a digital services agency within the federal government that has a mission to fix government IT.

“The public should expect as much from their government’s digital technology as they expect from the commercial services they use, and we want to help [government] agencies raise the bar,” says Rebecca Piazza, Acting Executive Director at 18F.

As part of the General Services Administration, 18F is an internal consulting group that works with other government agencies to improve IT operations across the board. That may include upgrading legacy systems and improving websites, but increasingly it also involves implementing modern agile development and operations practices.

“We want our partners to leave our engagements with additional tools and practices that they can apply to future technology efforts even after we’re gone,” Piazza says.

A New Day for Government Data

The U.S. government as an agile organization? It’s happening, promises Piazza, who points to the implementation of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) as one of 18F’s biggest successes to date. The DATA Act required federal agencies to adopt a common data standard in order to improve interagency communication and data sharing. 18F helped to rapidly develop that standard and implement it across the federal government.

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“We did this work side by side with multiple agencies and a vendor team,” says Piazza, “making the DATA Act implementation one of the largest government-wide agile projects ever undertaken. It’s a fantastic example of a government agency creating value for the public beyond legal requirements by talking to end users and using that to shape what’s delivered.”

Shaking Up Startup Funding

The work of 18F has made a difference in other areas of government, as well. If you’ve ever searched for startup funding, you might have encountered the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research (NSF SBIR) group, which provides funding to tech startups and small businesses. 18F spent eight months working with the NSF to revamp and relaunch the NSF SBIR site, rebranding it as “America's Seed Fund.” 18F redesigned the site to use language more familiar to small business owners and venture capitalists, and simplified the request for proposal process to attract more applications, Piazza says.

It may be a small organization but 18F’s work is meaningful.

“We're a small office of about 150 people, so we’re never going to be able to modernize government technology on our own,” Piazza says. “What we can do is be a ‘multiplier,’ finding those people who are championing change in their agencies and partnering with them to help them with tools, processes or the top cover they need to succeed.”

Christopher Null
By Christopher Null | December 18, 2017

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