18F is Hardly a Waste of Money

18F, a Federal agency that works as a tech consultancy internal to the Federal government, was recently criticized in The Washington Post based on an internal assessment from the GSA. Both the opinion piece and the report took a dim view of 18F, which was created to bring Silicon Valley talent and methods to government digital projects. They highlighted what a money-waster and rule-breaker 18F is, implying that they are little more than another government boondoggle. But comparing the actual data against 18F’s output, I see another narrative entirely.

Let’s start with the thrust of the Post’s piece: 18F is a money-loser. They are $31.66 million in the red since their inception in March 2014. But that cost requires some context. I calculate that they account for about 0.000027% of Federal outlays throughout their existence. To compare, 0.000027% of the average American household’s expenses in 2015 is about 15 cents. If you were trying get a grip on your finances, would you start with something that literally costs you a nickle and dime? I’d call that a rounding error, but it would be an insult to rounding errors. It’s a number that, at the scale of the Federal government, is truly beneath notice.

Would I like to see 18F achieve complete cost recovery? Sure. Will I be angry if they don’t, and rant about the need to shut them down? Nope. For context, the government paid $1.7 billion to outside contractors for healthcare.gov, a site which didn’t work at launch. That was a boondoggle. Imagine if all of 18F’s projects had been given to those same contractors. How much larger would that $31.66 million deficit be then? If 18F can successfully complete similar projects for a tiny fraction of the cost, that is a win for taxpayers.

The Post also suggested that much of 18F’s work is wasteful, citing as an example “727 hours on a logo change”. That statement is a lie: the GSA report clearly states that, since March 2014, 18F has spent a total of 727 hours on all branding — of which their logo is one part. The nonprofit I work for has a tenth of 18F’s staff and revenues, and we probably spend just as much effort— if not more — on maintaining our brand. And it’s hardly wasteful; our reputation directly impacts our effectiveness and ability to raise funds. I’m sure 18F staff waste time occasionally, because all humans do. But I doubt that positioning themselves as a top solutions-provider to Federal agencies and a top employer for talented programmers is wasteful.

Arguably the most damning section of the GSA report regards work performed for other Federal agencies before formal agreements were finalized. 18F did complete a lot of work without any agreements, which hurt their ability to bill those other agencies. Half of all 18F projects included work begun before agreements were finalized, and 14% of projects included at least 100 hours of work performed before a final agreement.

Government-issue ugly visualization of 18F’s work performed without completed agreements. Source: GSA OIG report.

This part of the report struck me as quite serious, and suggestive of mismanagement. But the report immediately, and perhaps unintentionally, puts this behavior into a very forgiving context:

We asked 18F personnel why work was performed before the agreements were fully executed. The 18F Agreements Lead responded that “…the agreement process takes a significant amount of time to complete, between 35 and 65 days per agreement. This is due to reviews by GSAOGC as well as an [sic] prolonged signature process in other agencies. [T]he speed of business and the need for 18F services is often immediate, requiring business units to make decisions about losing clients, and potential ability to recover costs, or starting work without an agreement in place.”

So 18F has repeatedly faced a choice: do their jobs, or do paperwork for a couple of months. I applaud 18F here for doing what they set out to do: fixing government IT, damn the bureaucracy.

America has been an innovation leader for a century. It’s embarrassing when our government IT infrastructure is decades behind and barely functional. As a citizen, we should all demand better. Having seen what 18F can do, I want them to keep going. Some people won’t be happy with what they are doing, including inflexible bureaucrats and price-gouging contractors. But for the sake of us ordinary citizens, I hope than these special interests fail to stop the modernization of our digital infrastructure.

Note: I have no affiliation with 18F, don’t know anyone who works there, and am not affiliated with any other government agency. I’m just a fan of tech that doesn’t suck.