Welcome from Aaron
Hi! I’m Aaron Snow. I’m the Executive Director of 18F. Being the Executive Director basically means I help our Talent Team hire great people like you, and then try to get everyone else — including myself — the heck out of your way.
I was one of the co-founders of 18F, which got its start almost two years ago. At the time, I was a Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF) working on “Innovative Contracting Tools.” Because the Fellowship is only six to 12 months long, our first thinking about 18F was simply to create a more permanent landing pad for PIF projects that needed more time (and support) to grow their roots or spread their wings. It was also a place for PIFs who wanted to stay in government and finish projects they couldn’t finish during their fellowships.
Then Mike Bracken visited, and we started thinking more broadly. Many people, in various corners of the federal government, had been kicking around the idea of doing a U.S. version of the UK’s Government Digital Service, but a couple things were happening simultaneously:
- We had PIFs who wanted to stay on.
- The PIF program was “operationally homed” at GSA, which is to say, even though it’s a “Presidential” program and the U.S. CTO’s office started it and is involved, its day-to-day operations are run out of GSA. PIFs are GSA employees.
- The GSA had a $3 billion revolving fund called the Acquisition Services Fund, which it can spend on many things, including the development of new IT services for the rest of government.
- Dan Tangherlini, then the GSA Administrator, wanted to build a lasting technology and innovation service at GSA.
- The PIFs, even though they were on six- and 12-month tours as PIFs, were actually four-year “term” appointees who had already been through the hiring gauntlet.
A few people managed to put all of the above together in their heads and figure out that we could simply “keep” the PIFs as GSA employees (that is, not terminate them), fund them using the Acquisition Services Fund (ASF), and call them a team and let them go do stuff (so long as that stuff included a plan to recover their costs; more on this below).
Then came the challenge of naming ourselves. We went through a bunch of names — “gov-X” and “x.gov” were popular but got rejected. So we locked ourselves in a room for three hours until we’d come up with a couple alternatives we liked. The only one that wasn’t rejected (by either us or GSA’s legal counsel) was 18F.
The fact that we’re funded by the ASF is the reason why we’re a fee-for-service team. Some folks in government thought this would be problematic, but I think it’s become clear that this requirement has turned out to be much more blessing than curse: It lets us grow unchecked by anything but market demand and our ability to hire terrific people like yourselves; it makes our agency partners “put skin in the game” by committing to pay (the best customers are paying customers, they say in the startup world); it insulates us from the annual Congressional appropriations process; and it provides a very straightforward bottom line metric that, while blunt, is a reasonable measure of the demand for what we do.
This will sound simplistic, but at the 20K-foot level, either we go out and try to get projects, or the project proposals come to us. We haven’t done a lot of proactive business development in the past, in part because we’ve been inundated with demand (more than 200 proposals in the last six months, including some terrific projects). That said, doing our own business development is something we’re aggressively working on because we also want to be owners of our fate.
Either way, we put every project through the same paces: We evaluate the relevance of the project to our priorities (more on that below); we do our best to measure value and impact; and we scrutinize the project and the agency for viability.
Our goal is to teach the agencies how we fish. Our theory of change is that cultural change — away from anxiety and fear and compliance, and toward experimentation and acceptance of modern methodologies — is better cultivated with carrots than with sticks. We make our case by shipping — over and over, at high quality, quickly, and inexpensively — to demonstrate that our methods are the ones most people should be using most of the time. If we think an agency is going to be simply unable to bend to agile methodology, or empower a product owner to make decisions on a highly involved, weekly basis, or develop in the open, then we push on the agency about those issues. If they can’t respond, we don’t take the project.
18F doesn’t have specific, policy-driven priorities the way most government program offices do. Our authorizing document states simply that “18F is a program within the Office of Citizen Services, Innovative Technologies, and 18F (OCSIT/18F), with a mission of helping the federal government deliver modern digital services.”
This is my view: We have a common mission to help our government get better at serving the public. There are particular ways we can do that with technology and the change management that we can shuttle in the door when we’re talking about how to design and implement technology. But we’re not tied to any specific types of services, projects, clients, portfolios, or even methodologies. We remain agile and experimental. We’re not tied to a single business model. We believe that the best way to solve big problems is to find passionate, talented people; provision them; and let do find great things.
I tend to view our work through the lens of who our customers are. Broadly speaking, I think we have four types of customers:
- First, we help build and buy elements of the “federal front door” — things that directly serve the public, but that may not be specific to any single agency. One of our aims is to help government’s online presence speak with one voice, not a hundred fragmented agency voices.
- Second, we help build and buy tools and provide other means of support for federal employees that help them better serve the public.
- Third — and this is really a subset of the second — we help build and buy tools and services and other assets that help the federal digital community do the first two things.
- Lastly, there are projects we take for our various stakeholders. We take one-off agency projects for a variety of reasons: because nobody else can deliver (often because of time constraints); because it’s important to one of those stakeholders (including all the various parts of the White House, the GSA itself, and so on); because we think it will be an “exemplar” for others to learn from; or because we think it will yield highly reusable assets.