How 18F Is Innovating the Oldest Organization in the Country: The U.S. Government

Lean Startup Case Study: 18F’s Strategies for Innovating the U.S. Government

Lean Startup Co. shares innovation case studies, tactics, and strategies from entrepreneurs who’ve used Lean Startup in their organizations.

The following profile of 18F was written by Rachel Balik after interviewing co-founder Hillary Hartley during Lean Startup Week 21016 in San Francisco.

For many of today’s most successful startups, regulation is the antithesis of innovation. They view government as a roadblock that must be circumvented or combatted. Outside of technology, the perception isn’t much better. A 2015 study from the Pew Research Center reported that only 20 percent of Americans felt that government programs were well run.

It’s easy to criticize, but in reality, the U.S. Government simply suffers from a problem that plagues many large, private companies that are 50, 100, or 200 years old: inertia. This should not be confused with laziness; it’s not easy to change process or culture in a giant organization. However, there are people willing to try, and many of them have flocked to 18F, a digital services agency within the U.S. Government that aims to drive innovation across federal agencies by helping them to go Lean.

“We call ourselves bureaucracy hackers,” says Hillary Hartley, deputy executive director and co-founder of 18F. 18F’s mission is to help agencies shift away from ingrained processes and move towards a model that’s not only more efficient, but delivers more effective user experiences. They achieve this by introducing change slowly, using nimble practices to drive change in both process and deliverables. Leveraging and introducing Lean Startup methodology has enabled them to chip away at outdated practices, and more importantly, to help the U.S. Government develop user-centered products that meet the needs of the citizens they’re trying to help.

Whether it’s the U.S. government or any other corporate giant, trying to “turn the Titanic” is no easy task. But there are few pillars to consider when trying to implement change.

Ignite a Culture Shift

At an organization as old and established as the U.S. Government, it’s not just process and technology that need to change, but some of the ideas and assumptions around those practices. For example, as the government began adopting more up-to date technology, stakeholders didn’t always understand how and if they complied with old standards. Hartley says she once heard the objection that “you can’t put the cloud in an evidence bag.” Thus, when driving a change, there’s also an element of education and showing that new technology can meet the same requirements the government has always had.

This might also mean adopting a cross-functional mentality that involves getting all the stakeholders in a room together. So, rather than meet with just technologists, 18F might meet with lawyers at the same time, to ensure that everyone’s requirements are addressed. Once everyone is comfortable with the technology and how it will be used, it’s much easier to shift an organization’s overall culture towards innovation.

Find Advocates

There’s a perception that the government is inefficient, and that’s often attributed to government employees. In reality, the infamous red tape is more about organizational habits and processes than employees, who recognize inefficiencies and want to solve for them. Public servants are here because it’s an amazing mission,” says Hartley. Many of them recognize that a shift in approach is required if they want to achieve their goals. Knowing that, 18F looks for strong advocates within an agency to help them drive innovation.

“You need a champion for any big change,” says Hartley. A champion not only serves as an advocate, but also has critical insider insight into how things work at the ground level. “We rely on them.” Often, an advocate is someone in leadership, such as a CIO, but it can be anyone who recognizes that there’s an opportunity to shift their approach.

“Most people come to us because they’ve hit a blocker,” says Hartley. Once a problem has been identified, that person is motivated to fix it, and usually, so are others within that agency. The next big challenge is figuring out how to communicate that problem and make a clear, objective case for solving it.

Become User Centric

A common challenge for government agencies is fear of change, which often translates into a few key stakeholders making big decisions that seem safe. That methodology is a real impediment to innovation, so 18F is transparent from the start that they are “going to push back on stakeholder design.” For example, just because a website has always had a picture of the governor doesn’t mean it actually resonates with users. In all likelihood, says Hartley, there are stakeholders who just want to get something up online, so it’s easy for them to do what’s always been done.

That design might also have been “good enough” in the past, but a core principle of the Lean Startup methodology is being user focused. Rather than tell stakeholders why something isn’t successful, 18F shows them with research, information, and data.

Show Don’t Tell

Changing long-standing practices or strong ideas “takes a certain openness” from the client, says Hartley. A “show don’t tell” approach often makes the issue easier to describe — and less emotional. In one case Hartley described, 18F consulted for a program manager who was hurrying to push out a certain tool. 18F did customer research and found that the prospective users weren’t particularly interested in the proposed tool, but they all agreed on a completely different tool that would help users significantly.

The team at 18F presented that research to the program manager with the clear message, “your users are not going to use what you build.” Being receptive to that type of information isn’t always easy, especially when there are tight deadlines and multiple stakeholders. But in this case, the program manager made the decision to build what the users said they wanted, rather than stick with the original plan.

Inspiring a Movement

Given 18F’s potential for impact, it’s no surprise that the organization is not only inspiring change within the government, it’s also inspiring tech and startup employees to become government employees by joining 18F. “People don’t assume that there is a team inside government that is using agile, doing user centered design,” says Hartley. But once they find out about it, they are eager to be a part of it.

It’s not only good for the government, but it’s also a clear message that even the most ingrained processes and regulations can be iterated and innovated.