New agency with funky name wants to make federal government IT more agile

18F, a startup embedded within the U.S. General Services Administration, offers itself as an 'agile coach' to tech-heavy federal agencies.

The U.S. General Services Administration has a new unit, 18F, which is pushing for agile software development practices across the world's biggest bureaucracy -- the federal government.  The question is, can the tail wag the dog? Can a small, determined feisty agency introduce agile principles to guide development and purchasing within a $82-billion-a-year IT behemoth?

Washington DC Wahington Monument Under Construction Photo by Joe McKendrick April 2013
Photo: Joe McKendrick

18F, a digital services agency and technology incubator within the General Services Administration, draws its expertise from the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and a digital delivery team. The agency is named for its address, at 18th and F streets in Washington, D.C. "We’re doers, recruited from the most innovative corners of industry and the public sector, who are passionate about 'hacking' bureaucracy to drive efficiency, transparency, and savings for government agencies and the American people," according to the agency's website.

In a recent post, FedScoop's Billy Mitchell reported on a recent talk by Greg Godbout, executive director of 18F, who outlined 18F's mission to introduce radical change to well-entrenched and costly IT practices within government entities. As he is quoted as saying:

“The central purpose is to be like an agile coach or a solution architect, to look at software inside the federal government and go, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. We’re gonna bring in a design-thinking team first. Before we go to procurement with this, we’re going to really make sure we’re at least kind of getting this right. Oh, and by the way, all the contracts you’re going to engage in are going to allow for pivots and allow for real agile work to occur."

The agency says its mission is to "partner with agencies to deliver high quality in-house digital services using agile methodologies pioneered by top technology startups; rapidly deploy working prototypes using lean startup principles to get a desired product into a customer’s hands faster;" and "offer digital tools and services that result in government-wide reuse and savings, allowing agencies to reinvest in their core missions."

18F adds that it is providing hands-on consulting services to federal program managers and other leaders who need assistance in designing and managing software acquisitions that use development techniques such as agile, lean, and open source.

The huge, sprawling federal government with its myriad of legacy systems is certainly ferrtile ground for agile practices. 18F is a step in the right direction.

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