As 18F defends itself against IT firms worried about their commercial interests, insiders say the digital services group is confronting an internal struggle deeply entrenched within its parent organization at the General Services Administration.
Multiple sources connected to 18F report that the group of former Silicon Valley tech innovators — that helps agencies buy, build and share technology — is grappling with opposition from GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service (FAS), the division managing funding for 18F. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, an authority inside 18F reported that FAS has on multiple occasions sought to defund the program due to some of its private-sector tactics, charging that while 18F strives to improve government purchasing and technology development, the group is also disrupting traditional procedures.
FAS Commissioner Thomas Sharp, appointed in 2013 from the U.S. Treasury and before that at IBM, declined an interview to elaborate on the agency's position or what oversight measures FAS has taken on 18F. FAS Deputy Commissioner Kevin Youel Page likewise declined to comment.
Alternatively, the GSA issued a broadly worded statement that underscored GSA’s mission — to manage federal real estate, acquisitions and technology for the federal government — and defined the relationship between FAS and GSA’s recently organized Technology Transformation Service (TTS), a technology modernization wing of GSA that houses 18F in addition to other innovation programs like the Presidential Innovation Fellows and the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technology.
“The Technology Transformation Service was built to serve as a testing ground for emerging technologies across government,” the GSA said in the statement. “FAS both supports TTS by meeting its external procurement needs and leverages the buying power of the government to provide proven technology solutions for federal agencies.”
In an exclusive interview with Government Technology, former GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini, currently president of federal services at the tech startup SeamlessDocs, said ever since 18F was founded in 2014, FAS has shown resistance.
“I'm even willing to say on the record, as the former administrator of GSA, and the person who launched 18F, that there was, shall we say, constructive tension between FAS and 18F, entirely because 18F was being funded out of the FAS,” Tangherlini said.
“Another mission to be funded out of the same amount of resources is always going to be an imposition, and frankly, that's how FAS always felt about 18F — as a bit of an imposition.”
Tangherlini said his worry for 18F, and innovation programs like it, is that the federal government’s risk-averse nature, and proclivity for tradition, will discourage top talent from entering civil service. The roster at 18F — and the U.S. Digital Service, its sister organization, that offers IT consulting in teams at the White House and agencies — boasts expertise from Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and a host of other leading tech companies. The allure for these technologists to enter government isn’t a federal salary they could easily surpass in the private sector. The willingness comes from an ambition — as idealistic as it might sound — to enhance and rethink the systems and tools used by government to serve citizens.
“I’m really concerned about whether the powers that oppose innovation and experimentation, that are deeply rooted in the oversight bureaucracy of government, are the ones that make it not fun or interesting or exciting for people to sacrifice some part of their careers to go and provide public service,” Tangherlini said. “I think that that would be a massive disservice.”
An assessment of 18F, presented by the U.S. Government Accountability Office at a House oversight hearing in June, supports the positive influence 18F has had with a survey that documents that a majority of 18F’s major projects were well received.
Of its 32 projects, 23 project managers were either extremely satisfied or moderately satisfied with outcomes, three were moderately dissatisfied, and five did not respond to the survey. These projects included work to help veterans receive their federal benefits through the Veteran Affairs Website and, working alongside USDS, to help the Department of Homeland Security process immigration and naturalization applications efficiently. This is in addition to 18F's work creating low-cost procurement methods for the federal government via its micro-purchasing initiative, that let government freelance low-cost coding jobs, and its Agile Blanket Purchase Agreement that enables startups and other innovative open-source tech companies to compete for federal contracts.
“People are deeply satisfied with the work that 18F is doing, and while they have not yet broken even, and certainly not turned a profit, this is an internal government agency and we're talking about a federal government that spends from $60 to $90 billion a year on IT,” Tangherlini said.
A prominent concern at the House hearing, organized jointly by the House Subcommittees of Government Operations and Information Technology, was the fact that 18F is currently operating in the red. Within FAS, the group is supposed to cover its cost through revenue generated from the federal agencies it serves. In 2014, 18F cost the government $8.6 million, in 2015 it cost $9.5 million, and in 2016, it’s projected to cost $14.9 million with positive revenues expected for 2019.
Tangherlini argues that, while 18F will have to eventually cover its costs, if legislators consider the measured and unmeasured savings 18F provides, these expenses are negligible.
The GAO report is rife with examples of multi-million-dollar failed projects, costly endeavors that might have ended differently with 18F and USDS help.
There is the Office of Personnel Management’s Retirement Systems Modernization program, which was canceled in 2011 after costing approximately $231 million — the agency’s third attempt to automate the processing of federal employee retirement claims. The VA had a Scheduling Replacement Project that was eliminated in 2009, after spending roughly $127 million over nine years with no results. And of course, there was Healthcare.gov, the beleaguered health insurance exchange that 18F and USDS had to fix following its disastrous initial launch.
Even so, savings are hard to quantify. If a multi-million-dollar project costs what it was originally estimated to, how does 18F prove to legislators and oversight committees that the project would likely have failed — and the funds lost — without their support?
Apart from these financial challenges, other Washington, D.C., insiders say 18F is sometimes a victim of its own success. Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and director of the Center for Data Innovation, an affiliate of ITIF, said he is a strong supporter of what the group is doing but has noticed there is a real rift between 18F and other federal IT workers.
“If you’re not 18F, people are sometimes like, ‘Well, you’re not part of the A-Team,’ and there has also been kind of an age bias that has ruffled some feathers ...” Castro said. “I think the goal should be to figure out what are the lessons that we can learn from 18F that we can use to expand across the entire government.”