My Time with Barry
The glamorous life of a Presidential Innovation Fellow that went on to start the digital services movement in the United States government.
I had just landed in Singapore. My phone buzzed with emails received since I departed San Francisco about 24 hours ago. A quick skim, and one email caught my eye.
We work for the State Department and we’d like to consider you to be a Presidential Innovation Fellow. We need to talk to you in the next 24 hours if you want to be considered.
I quickly emailed back — one o’clock in the morning in Singapore is one in the afternoon in Washington DC — and confirmed a Skype call for the next night. I would be in Kuala Lumpur, extremely jet lagged. They could see me on Skype, but due to difficulties on their end, I couldn’t see them.
Most awkward interview ever.
The next morning I answered a bunch more questions on an iPad, stumbling through more awkwardness of writing long technical responses without a keyboard. I then jetted off to climb the tallest volcano in Indonesia, Mount Kerinci.
Two weeks later, I’m sitting in Busan, Korea on a Monday night enjoying a few makgeolli with old friends from Cornell. I see I have a missed call, from a 202 area code, and realize it must have something to do with DC.
My friend lends me his phone with unlimited Skype credit and I call the number. A woman asks me “Why haven’t you accepted your offer yet?” I asked, “what offer?”
Turns out that I did, indeed, get the job as a Presidential Innovation Fellow working with the State Department. And I received the verbal offer just 20 days before they needed me to start. I was told to pack my things and be in DC on June 17 — my birthday.
I joined the government in a leap of faith with no idea what I’d be working on. I figured that I’d get to meet really interesting people with a lot of passion, and in turn, work on some of the country’s most pressing issues.
I wasn’t wrong.
The Presidential Innovation Fellowship gives you access to the highest levels of government. And with this access comes a certain responsibility that you will only use this access when only necessary.
Everyone else complains about their government.
Here was a chance for me to actually do something about it.
At the end of our introductions, Todd Park stood on a chair, encouraging everyone to join him. And with that, nearly 200 people including Todd and Steven VanRoekel, the U.S. CIO, sang Happy Birthday to me. I’m pretty sure it will be hard for any birthday to ever top this one.
All of the PIFs started working on our agency projects — mine at the State Department. I was handed a bunch of incomprehensible documents by The White House. I sat in meetings with the State Department where they treated me like a contract software developer.
At the end of the first week, I confronted Todd Park about why I was here. Todd phrased the mission of my PIF project like this:
What if every federal employee was empowered just like a PIF?
The idea was to create an “Innovation Toolkit”, or a set of tools for 2 million federal employees to take on the huge responsibility of changing our government.
We first focused on getting State Department employees engaged. While many decisions in the federal government are made in Washington, 80% of the workforce is located outside the DC metro area. In the State Department, people were even more distributed. After all, they run all of the consulates and embassies around the world.
Organized by Matt Chessen, we decided to actually talk to the different parts of the State Department to figure out what they need. You may call this user-centered design, but in government it is a foreign concept. We narrowed in on foreign services officers — an incredibly educated workforce that performs visa and passport processing for their first few years — and figured we could connect them to offices without enough resources. Maybe someone needs a report on technology policy in Thailand. Or help translating documents in Arabic. There’s this untapped, really smart workforce out there and we weren’t using them.
We came up with an idea we nicknamed “Kickstarter for people’s time.” We would create a marketplace where employees post what they want to do, and others with similar interests could volunteer to help out. Instead of paying with dollars, you pay with your time. And in the process, you gain valuable professional development experience to further your career.
Together with fellow PIF Dain Miller, we went to work building such a marketplace. We nicknamed it “Midas ”, because after all, everything that federal employees do turns to gold, right? Plus no one was ennamored with the Innovation Toolkit name.
We met with more stakeholders, more country desks (who run operations in particular countries), and refined. We met with the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) at the White House, and we shared our ideas, progress, and demo with Todd Park.
Then the government shut down. And HealthCare.gov fell over.
During the October 2013 shutdown, only essential employees continued to report for duty. As a PIF on detail to the State Department, my status was determined by State which continued normal operations throughout the shutdown.
A number of agencies, like State, have lines of businesses that are not appropriated by Congress. Passports and visa services generate revenue for State, and they decided to continue to operate as normal until that funding ran out. During the last shutdown, passport offices shut and there was a major outcry from the public. In this shutdown, we had around 4 weeks of operating capital until State would have to furlough employees. So while most of the Presidential Innovation Fellows did not report for work, I was still on the clock.
The amazing thing about the shutdown is that the always-full calendars of essential personnel suddenly became free. Overnight, those of us still working had meetings lined up with senior leadership. The ones that later laid the groundwork for digital services in the U.S. government were with Administrator Dan Tangherlini and his staff. He wanted to know about our PIF projects and how the General Services Administration (GSA) could help. He also wanted to know what GSA could do to help agencies deliver better online services.
The idea of creating a group in the United States government that is dedicated to digital services is not new. The first round of Presidential Innovation Fellows developed a concept they called GovX. When Jen Pahlka joined OSTP as Deputy Chief Technology Officer, she envisioned a digital service modeled after the UK’s Government Digital Service. Despite well laid plans, both of these initiatives fell short because they lacked the funding to start a new group.
Starting a new initiative requires either a revenue stream (like the passport office) or a Congressional appropriation. As you can imagine, getting Congress to appropriate more money for The White House (and OSTP) on an idea unproven in the United States is like expecting Republicans to raise taxes. It just isn’t going to happen.
Getting money for a new government initiative requires an act of Congress.
What if agencies could use money in a revolving fund to invest in projects that lower costs for the government?
There was this urban legend going around the GSA. Apparently the Coast Guard wanted to buy a maintenance contract to restore their aging fleet. The GSA did the total cost of ownership analysis and realized that a cheaper option, over 10 years, is to buy new boats and dispose of the aging ones. But the Coast Guard didn’t have the capital. Using the Acquisition Services Fund (ASF), a revolving procurement fund, the GSA was able to purchase new boats and then charge the Coast Guard in installments.
The GSA is primarily responsible for building, maintaining, and leasing federal buildings. They also act as a procurement office where they can increase the buying power of the government by combining procurements from multiple agencies. They also run government-wide IT services, such as USA.gov. We then had a thought…
If the GSA already manages the government’s physical infrastructure
and procures products and services for agencies,
why doesn’t the GSA manage the government’s digital infrastructure?
This spurred a series of meetings and discussions during the shutdown. Those meetings took a look at procurement laws and the rules governing the ASF fund. GSA came to the conclusion that it could invest in a digital services offering that was cost reimbursable. To get it off the ground, it would need funding to hire people and set up operations. That money would be repaid over time as agencies contracted services from the GSA.
And with that, the first digital services office in the government was started. It was now December, 2013, and our employment agreements as PIFs were about to expire in a few short days.
After the shutdown, we got back to work on our PIF projects. We had just 8 weeks left in our fellowships, and lots to do. A group of PIFs in the GSA working on innovation in procurement — namely Greg Godbout, Robert Read, and Aaron Snow — ran with the idea of setting up a digital services office. At the time, the project was codenamed GovX (like Project X —ironically, an early codename for Walt Disney World).
Many of us were hired on 6 month employment agreements, which meant our time with the government was up on Tuesday, December 17. Throughout December 12th and 13th, a few of us were pulled aside by Lena Trudeau and asked if we’d like to stick around and join GovX. Lena was the associate commissioner for the Office of Strategic Innovations at GSA, and led GSA’s part in hosting the Presidential Innovation Fellows program (all of us were hired by GSA and then sent off to different agencies).
We agreed and kept working, past December 17th. The paperwork in government is slow, and we took it on faith that our employment agreements would be taken care of at some point. There was nothing to prove we were still government employees, and a few days later, we received official notification that our term in government had been extended.
Our first day, December 18th, we held a kickoff about our mission and values. Here’s what it said — bold text was emphasized/underlined on the white board:
GovX is a new service within the General Services Administration that builds effective, user-centric solutions focused on the interaction between government and the people and businesses it serves. Our mission is to rapidly deliver affordable, high quality solutions.
We defined our problem, strategy, and tactics. Garren Givens proposed a section called Theory of Change. Today, this line still resonates with me:
Innovation is not a product, it’s a way of thinking;
which means we must become a culture of innovation.
Now that we had an initial group of people, a funding source, and a mission, we needed a name. GovX was not anyone’s favorite. We switched it around to x.gov, which seemed super cool because it is a one letter top-level domain. Imagine your email being firstname.lastname@example.org.
We had a few criteria for picking a name:
- No acronyms. Everything in government is an acronym and we wanted something that sounded less bureaucratic.
- It should be memorable and feel fresh to potential hires. With the government’s salary scale and bureaucracy, it is hard enough to hire people. We need to let them know we weren’t going to run things like a traditional government office.
- It should look new and different to the other parts of government.
We called up the CEO of GovX and asked, “would you consider it a conflict if GSA used the name x.gov for a digital services offering to government agencies?” No CEO would ever say yes to someone using a similar name if asked, so of course he shot down x.gov. It was a sad day.
We had a brainstorming where we came up with these names:
We were struggling for more options when Lena said, “Don’t lots of tech companies name themselves after where they started? Like Cisco.”
I wrote 1800F on the board, after our address — 1800 F St NW, Washington. No, that’s too long. We’re at the corners of 18th & F streets. I deleted the zeros. 18F. We now had a final list of eighteen names.
We voted on the names. 18F wasn’t the first choice. GSA’s lawyers went off and did trademark and copyright searches on a dozen names.
The lawyers came back and said “everything is trademarked.”
Everything except 18F.
And with that, 18F was born. We seeded 18F with some initial projects, many from the Fellows program. The PIF projects emphasized breadth in their approach. This had the advantage of figuring out what works and what doesn’t. When we hit on something we want to scale, then a group like 18F may take it on.
You can think of PIF as a seed stage product.
18F is when you’re ready to scale it at Series A.
That was how I thought of it, reflecting back on my time building a venture-backed startup. Series A products are pretty close to finding product-market fit, whereas seed stage is about exploration.
You might be wondering what became of Midas. We launched a small pilot in the State Department and called it Crowdwork. While it wasn’t being used in a widespread way, we were now getting a ton of feedback from real users. In parallel, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched a program called FairTrade using Midas as the software platform.
In order to fully assess whether Midas would be a successful way to engage federal employees, we needed to test and iterate with real users for at least a few months. 18F decided to pick up the Midas project, and it joined other initial projects including but not limited to:
- MyUSA — a single account you can use to access your government services.
- Communicart — a system that combined the workflow for buying things and getting approvals into one lightweight system for federal employees.
- NotAlone.gov — a resource for students and universities to combat campus sexual assault.
- FBOpen — a single Google-like search engine to find federal procurement requests.
- The PIF Program itself — we decided that the administrative burden of the PIF program should be run out of 18F. The technology and policy leadership for the program comes from OSTP at The White House. GSA was already handling the program, so we figured the PIFs would be better supported if they were a part of 18F.
There were a bunch of other projects too. And we quickly realized two challenges:
- As we met with agencies about their digital challenges, they’d be like “wait, who are you guys?”, and
- When we would refer our friends to come work with us at 18F, they’d ask “where do we learn more?”.
We hadn’t told the rest of the world that 18F exists. Yet.
Aaron Snow, Hillary Hartley, and I kept saying after each meeting, “we really need a website.” People ask for more information, or even just to know if we’re a real organization, and have no where to go. In government, agencies were discounting us as a fad — “how do we know you’ll still be around when we need you?”
We’re a digital services team and we don’t even have a website.
The goal was to get something out there fast — my tech friends in retrospect will tell me how horrible our website was built. No tools, content management system, or even Jekyll. We used Tumblr for our blog posts and showed them on our homepage. The whole site was designed as one page. Over a year later, it is still just one page.
We quickly setup Twitter, with an homage to Ev’s first tweet:
On March 12th, we got out of another meeting about who we are. We were all frustrated the site hadn’t launched yet. We had a lot of very cool things on the site, but legal made us remove it. Concessions had been made and we were just waiting, and waiting. Lena said just launch it. We did.
You would never know how many people in government would notice the simple launch of a one page website. Turns out we needed a lot more approvals — from our Congressional affairs team, the Administrator’s office, the communications office, more from legal, and so forth.
We immediately pulled the site, and replace it with a Grace Hopper image. And this note on our Tumblr. Whoops.
We're truly gratified so many of you liked our sneak preview! We'll be back real soon. Happy #Web25!18fblog.tumblr.com
This is what the government is like. You think you’ve gone through all the bureaucracy, only to find one more step. There was a lively discussion for a few hours on Twitter — it was amazing how quickly the enthusiam about a digital startup in government spread.
On March 19, 2014, we officially launched. With press releases and GSA, and all the pomp and circumstance. We posted a Hello World.
What is 18F? A) A team of innovators, recruited from the private sector and public service.B) In-house designers…18fblog.tumblr.com
And some great minds to weighed in.
I went on to work for 18F for fourteen months. The original six months that I committed as a Presidential Innovation Fellow morphed into twenty months of service. More on 18F to come at another time.
You may be asking the question,
After 20 months in government, did I meet Barry?
Nope. When I joined, meeting Mr. Obama seemed like the end all. When I left, it didn’t matter one bit. I wasn’t there to meet Barry, I was there to change government for the better of all Americans.