18F's Aaron Snow says priority is change management, not digital

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez February 14, 2016
The US-version of the Government Digital Service here in the UK, 18F, seems to be learning from our mistakes and focusing on the cultural changes required to achieve transformation.

Aaron Snow
18F Executive Director, Aaron Snow

Britain’s Government Digital Service held its annual Sprint event last week, which had a distinctly different tone to previous years. There was far more focus on collaboration with government departments, whilst leaders speaking at the event also took the opportunity to dive deeper into the complicated topic of Government-as-a-Platform.

However, one of the highlights of the day was when Aaron Snow, Executive Director of 18F - the US version of GDS - took to the stage to provide some insight into how his agency is driving digital transformation through federal government agencies on the other side of the pond.

18F launched in March of 2014, so whilst it may have some catching up to do with GDS, it’s also arguable that it has had the benefit of learning from the UK’s mistakes. One of which I would perceive to be managing cultural change, something that remains a challenge for GDS, and which was the focus of Snow’s talk.

But first Snow took to the stage to pay tribute to the impact GDS has had on the US government. He said:

We see GDS very much as the older sibling organisation that has inspired in many, many ways. More than we have possibly been able to give back. But we hope to catch up and change that some day.


Whilst GDS has made a big impact across many levels of central government, I think it’s fair to say that, until recently, it’s motivational approach has been largely done via the use of a very blunt stick. It’s big personalities have isolated many civil servants, and external agencies, and it has arguably created a culture of ‘Us versus Them’.

That seems to be changing to a certain extent under new director Stephen Foreshew-Cain, who spent much of his time last week talking about the need for a more collaborative approach and how he’s ‘got the backs’ of government departments that need help.

But it seems that the US got wise to this earlier than we did in the UK, as Snow spoke to the need to bring civil servants with him on the journey through careful change management.

Snow said:

Transformation, that’s a word we use when we mean big change. It’s the home run. We don’t talk about doing a little bit of transformation, it’s serious business, it’s got gravitas. We don’t go to all this effort to make a little bit of change.

And we are not out to transform services just to have shiny new services, what we really mean is that we want to transform people’s lives. And to transform services that improve people’s lives, we have to transform some entrenched government practices.

We can really only do that in a lasting way by transforming the culture of service delivery. But big cultural transformation happens a little at a time. It happens when one person steps up and says ‘I think I will do this differently’. And then that allows another person to step up and then another and another.

The network effect

Snow spoke about how in the high tech consumer technology market, people talk about creating

United Kingdom and USA miniature flags
gradual cultural acceptance of new technologies. First you get the bleeding edge adopters who will try anything new; then if they like the technology, the early adopters take it on; this then leads to mass market adoption, which is followed by the laggards at the tail end, who are resistant to any sort of change.

He said:

Each group sets the precedent and creates the cultural acceptance and comfort level for the next group, until that foreign, exotic, suspicious thing has become that thing you never knew you couldn’t live without.

This is what 18F is working to accelerate, the move from bleeding edge to mass adoption for their way of building digital services (in the open, in an agile way, focused on user need, using open source). But Snow noted that this means taking people with him.

There are people who showed up long before us and who will be here far into the future. Civil servants that we partner with every day are passionate and dedicated and talented and tenacious, despite every caricature and stereotype. The culture change in government really starts with them.

Snow gave an example of a new procurement tool that needed to be built within one of the US agencies, where a guy named ‘Larry’ stood up and said he’d be up for letting 18F carry out some user research to see if his assumptions and gut instincts had been right about what was required.

As expected, they were not. But this didn’t stop Larry going ahead with 18F and building a procurement tool based on user needs. The creation of this tool received a huge amount of praise from its users and Snow says that Larry now tells everyone he can about the benefits of the 18F approach.

Here’s the network effect. Larry will now tell anyone who listens about user-centred design, agile and working in the open and how that got us from A to B.

Change management

Since 18F’s launch two years ago, it has grown from a team of 15 to a team of 175, with more than 100 agreements in place with more than 40 government agencies. It has grown from a small web services delivery team to an organisation with five separate business lines.

Snow describes how 18F is a bit of an “odd duck” in the US government, as it operates more like a private consultancy than a government office, in that it has no legislated money to fund 18f and instead is paid for out of investments by agencies. He adds that this is now critical to the cultural change required to drive digital service delivery through federal government.

So departments hire us to work with them and they sign written agreements that lay out how we will work together: putting users first, working in 2 week sprints, everything open source.

It’s turned out to be a blessing. It keeps us accountable, it keeps us seeking product market fit with our department customers and it’s a nice blunt measure of our own efficiency and performance. But mostly it’s great because it turns out that the best government customers are paying government customers.

Customers who have skin in the game, who understand and have to sign a document saying that they’re committing themselves and their office’s money to our way of working. And doing that catapults them into our theory of change. Culture change happens because we deliver it together, hand in hand, aligned. Not coerced.

Culture happens when we build trust and confidence in the methodologies that work. When we reduce anxiety of the new and unknown. When we serve up example after example of all them signalling: this is safe, you won’t get in trouble doing it this way. In fact this way is better, cheaper, faster and less risky. That’s how we spur adoption and ultimately transformation.

Finally, Snow noted that this isn’t really about digital at all. He said:

So here’s a secret, which you can’t tell anybody back home. 18F isn’t really a digital services office, we are a change management office disguised as a digital services office. Why do we play this game? Because it’s hard for most people to ask change managers for help, there’s stigma, shame, pride, anxiety. Am I going to be in trouble for doing it wrong all the time?

But it’s easy to invite the nerds into the room.

My take

I think there are some things GDS can learn from 18F and Snow after all…

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