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Building Obama's lean startup in America's biggest bureaucracy

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Elaine Chen Innovation Consultant, Senior Lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management

What do you do when tasked with making the US government work like a lean startup? "Just start," advises Hillary Hartley. Or, as we say in startup country: "JFDI."

Hartley is the cofounder and deputy executive director of 18F, a government organization that causes quite a bit of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, it's a team firmly embedded within the 11,495-person General Services Administration (GSA), with a $23.9 billion operating budget. Yet its website explains that it's "built in the spirit of America's top tech startups."

Launching a lean startup in the federal government

18F is one of the "Obama lean startups" created under the leadership of former US Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, who was tasked with the mission of remaking the aging and in many cases woefully outdated digital infrastructure underneath the government. The big idea behind 18F is to leverage world-class designers, developers, and product specialists from the tech industry to do projects with government agencies and show them how to work like lean startups.

18F is a digital consultancy that both builds and implements tools and services for government agencies. They consult with agencies to help them define technology projects and select the best contractors to do the work, such as the Agile Delivery Services BPA, a blanket purchase agreement to help agencies find higher-quality professional services, or 18F Consulting, which provides design thinking and technical acumen on a short-term basis to help agencies acquire better software.

No easy task: Making government agile, fast

The amazing thing about 18F and the U.S Digital Service (another Obama lean startup), is how it gets any work done at all. "Government," "agile," and "fast" aren't exactly synonymous. As Hartley mentioned in a panel hosted by Todd Park at the 2014 Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco, the founding members of 18F quickly realized they had two immediate challenges: hiring and software deployment.

The normal hiring process can take six to nine months from the time a candidate applies for a job to the time the candidate is offered that job. The amount of time it takes for a software prototype to be approved to go live for user testing (deployment) generally hovers around six to 14 months. For 18F to deliver on its mission of changing how the government builds and buys technology services, it needs to be able to perform these tasks as quickly as a company in the private sector. This means they had to cut lead times down to weeks.

How did they do it? By working within the rules to find inventive ways to get things done. Hartley mentioned how they gained traction quickly: "It is OK to hack your way around the rules, but you have to stay aligned with them. And as soon as something works, formalize it, memorialize it, so that it can be reused, not only by your team but also by other teams." For example, WIRED reports they were able to cut the hiring time by a whopping 70 percent by finding an uncommonly used rule within the federal hiring process.

Disruption needs champions

For this, they needed air cover. Just like an innovative team trying to do something disruptive inside a large organization, they need internal champions who encourage and support them and can connect them to key stakeholders. 18F's biggest champion was none other than former GSA Chief Dan Tangherlini, the one who encouraged them to "JFDI."

Now, for any innovative team to succeed, it needs innovators. Where would they get the talent and could they afford it? It turns out that the draw of meaningful work, having an impact on society, and helping to change the government a little bit at a time is alluring enough to attract top talent from the private sector. These technologists are not necessarily going to stay in Washington forever. Rather, they're recruited for a "tour of duty": a two-year contract or however long it takes for them to make a difference.

The reason this method works is that the "tour of duty" is already how the tech workforce thinks and works in the private sector, as Reid Hoffman explains in his bestselling book, The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age. Megan Smith, the current United States chief technology officer and former Googler, explained to Fast Company, "What I think this does is really provide a third option. In addition to joining a friend's startup or a big company, there's now Washington."

Incubation and intrapreneurship

18F is an example of an incubation approach to fostering intrapreneurship. They started with a small team that was physically separate from the agencies they serve. By staying independent, they were able to invent their own processes and organizational structures. For example, by default they open source all their work on Github—a practice that is probably a historic first from a government agency that develops code. They also embraced a user-centered design ethos and tested their minimum viable products (MVPs) early and often—an approach that the first attempt at the healthcare.gov site clearly did not embrace.

18F and its sister agency, the U.S. Digital Service, led by Mikey Dickerson and Haley Van Dyck, who also led the tiger team that fixed the Healthcare.gov website in six weeks, have only been around for a short time. The leaders of these initiatives have goals that go far beyond the projects they are working on. Their real goal is to change how government works, and to help different agencies learn a new way of working, so they can "do more faster" like lean startups.

When the White House has your back

Right now, they have the ultimate air cover to make an impact. This is a key initiative backed by President Obama, who personally helped recruit some of the tech elite to join this effort. Will they have enough time to make a difference before Obama's term ends? Will the next president continue to support this initiative? If everything comes to an end by December 2016, would the "Obama techies" have done enough?

In the end, we don't need to look beyond these technical teams' current achievements. The open enrollment period for Healthcare.gov this year came and went with nothing for anyone to notice or write about, thanks to the U.S. Digital Service. The new online services developed by 18F are textbook examples of user-centered design and excellent usability. Many agencies are learning about lean startup and agile development methodologies through consulting engagements with 18F. If these teams stopped what they're doing tomorrow, they would already be able to look back on many areas where they made a difference.

In the grand scheme of things, government being as vast as it is, what a few hundred people can achieve in a couple years may not seem significant. Yet, this is how change happens: one person at a time, one interaction at a time, one project at a time.

As Hartley says: "Change is possible. Just get started."

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