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US digital government gets its own GDS at 18th and F

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan March 19, 2014
The US government now has its very own version of the UK's Government Digital Service and that’s a very, very good thing to be able to boast.

When the UK government decided it needed its own internal digital service, it called it the Government Digital Service (GDS) - which, as the saying goes, does what it says on the tin. We’re simple souls at heart this side of the Pond.

Over in Washington though, the advent of the US government equivalent has an altogether funkier and possibly more groovy digital agency sounding name: 18f.

Why’s it called that? We’ll come back to that later, but the important point is that the US government now has its very own GDS and that’s a very, very good thing to be able to boast.

Based within the US General Services Administration (GSA) - just as GDS is housed under the equivalent UK Cabinet Office structure - 18f will house a team of expert developers who will build Web services for government agencies, prototypes for projects and tools that can be reused across the US government.

The staff is made up of Washington insiders and external design and development recruits from the private sector - 15 in total for now, but with scope to grow to 65 under the current budget - who report in Dave McClure, associate administrator of GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

His boss GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini says that 18f will:

"make the government's digital services simple, effective, and easier to use for the American people.

"This service delivery program will make GSA the home of the government's digital incubator.

“By using lessons from our nation's top technology startups, these public service innovators will be able to provide cutting-edge support for our federal partners that reduces cost and improves service."

18th and F, Washington DC

That’s the official party line. On its blog, here’s how 18F pitches itself:

18F builds effective, user-centric digital services focused on the interaction between government and the people and businesses it serves. We help agencies deliver on their mission through the development of digital and web services. Our newly formed organization, within the General Services Administration, encompasses the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and an in-house digital delivery team.

18F is a startup within GSA — the agency responsible for government procurement — giving us the power to make small changes with big effect. We’re doers, recruited from industry and the most innovative corners of public service, who are passionate about “hacking” bureaucracy to drive efficiency, transparency, and savings for government agencies and the American people.

We make easy things easy, and hard things possible.

Again, it’s a lot more ‘out there and digital’ perhaps than some of the messaging around GDS in the UK which has noted its undoubted successes with due British reserve and quiet modesty.

But then we’re talking a different cultural approach to essentially the same mission. So it is that 18f job titles include API Agent, Counter Agent and Free Agent. Not seeing that one replicated at GDS UK...

Mission entirely possible

But away from the ‘start-up in government’ branding, what is the mission when boiled down to practical deliverables? It 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.
  • Offer digital tools and services that result in governmentwide reuse and savings, allowing agencies to reinvest in their core missions.
  • Provide effective user-centered services focused on the interaction between government and the public it serves.

There is one important caveat - again mirroring GDS in the UK. No-one in government actually needs to use 18f’s services. It’s opt-in carrot, not centrally wielded big stick.

(18f is distinct incidentally from the legislation being pushed by Democrat Representatives Anna Eshoo and Gerry Connolly that would give the US government CTO responsibility for streamlining IT procurement and create an office that would be required to participate in the development of large-scale federal websites. That legislation is based around a big stick approach from a supervising authority.)

In many respects of course the carrot approach is very sensible. Getting client engagement is priceless when it comes to delivering successful projects.

That said, there’s a salutary warning from the UK that old habits die hard in the form of the Universal Credit social benefits overhaul, where GDS’ attempts to assist the in-house systems delivery team were allegedly rebuffed, leaving that flagship IT initiative floundering and subject to massive criticism from legislators across the UK Parliament.

So how will 18f ‘win business’ across the US government? What’s the sales pitch? According to the team:

Agencies should see 18F as a new way to procure, build and deliver innovative technology, digital services, and public-facing applications.

We operate using three models: for you, with you, or by you. We can build your solution for you; work with your team and provide additional expertise or core capacity; or consult on how to build or buy user-centric interfaces most effectively.

18F’s team of experts is here to help.

After all, we all share the same goal of delivering incredible, easy-to-use digital services for the people and businesses we serve.

One would certainly hope so...


As a big fan of GDS in the UK, I like the US sales pitch. It seems compelling enough to me to warrant attention.

But then I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool ‘buy from Microsoft, Oracle and IBM and get Accenture to glue it together’ Federal CIO of the sort that’s already been so willing to put barriers up in the face of the Cloud First mandate imposed from on high by the Obama administration.

GDS in the UK has been one of the most important components in driving innovation in the delivery of citizen-facing government services and has staged a quiet revolution in terms of the way public sector IT investment and deployment is viewed.

I wish 18f the best of luck in achieving similar successes.

Oh and the name? It’s an address. The GSA is housed on the junction of 18th and F in Washington.

But you'd already guessed that, hadn't you?

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