GSA’s 18F applies agile approach to hiring as part of growth strategy

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The General Services Administration’s 18F innovation lab is moving out of the start-up phase and into the small business stage. The growth of 18F can be tied to looking at common roadblocks in government a little differently.

Since its official launch in March with 14 employees, Greg Godbout, the executive director of 18F, said the innovation lab has brought on 86 more employees for a total of 100. And 18F did so by applying the same approach it uses to fix technology programs to improve the federal hiring process at GSA.

“We did an agile business process, reengineering project,” Godbout said after a panel Wednesday at the 50th annual TechAmerica Foundation Vision conference in Falls Church, Virginia. “It really was us working directly with GSA’s human resources department and breaking down what are the goals we want to shoot for, how do we approve that. Like any agile movement, it was a cross-functional team all delivering to one goal. Not each group enforcing their own function, but using their function to deliver one outcome, one desired result.”

That one desired result was cutting the time it took bring on new employees. 18F now can bring on a new employee in eight weeks, down from the 6-to-9 months that GSA was averaging. Godbout said 18F continues to work on that cross functional team to reduce the hiring time with a goal of getting it down to four weeks.

“I envision in the future many channels in which we hire and bring people through different processes,” he said. “All of it is just consistently dedicating the resource and time that it takes to improve these processes.”

Godbout said 18F reengineered the hiring process not with special authorities or permissions, but by looking at what already was done in other agencies and borrowing it.

“When we went about doing this, this was going to happen. It wasn’t a matter of, ‘Well, we will give it a try.’ We needed this in order to be an organization. The treatment we got was clearance from above. It was OK to try things. It is OK to tinker with things and even fail a little bit,” he said. “The first employees we brought through the system we tried with live fire, if you will. We told the first employees going through this was going to be perfect. We are going to bring them through and see what happens.”

Consulting services now available

Godbout said 18F’s hiring approach now has spread across GSA and they are sharing it with other agencies as well.

Across the government, the focus on hiring reform has dropped the average time to 87 days as of 2012 from 122 days in 2009. The Office of Personnel Management has not updated the governmentwide average in more than two years.

The improved hiring process was necessary because 18F also is expanding the types of services it offers.

Godbout said 18F will launch three pilots as part of its new consulting services this fall.

“Our goal, and we are just piloting this so it’s in its infancy, is to put a solution architect, or what we sometimes call an agile Sherpa, to help agencies make the decisions behind how do they break down a larger system down into modules and then buy those smaller pieces. There are all sorts of complex decisions that go into it,” he said. “Sometimes we will build little pilots to show the direction we think we want to go in, and work with the agencies to do that. We are very big on user-centered design so maybe we engage a design-thinking team early on to really encapsulate what the system should do to be successful to users. All of these tools or methodologies would be at the ability of that Sherpa to work with the agencies and show how they could do that, and then eventually get to the moment where you are buying the service. The focus is a lot on it upfront before you are ready to buy.”

Godbout said he wasn’t ready to talk about the pilots in more detail, but the ideas include shorter contracts, developing a statement of objectives and not a traditional request for proposals and helping the agencies understand what they are buying and who they are buying it for.

“I feel like the universe of projects that would qualify under 18F consulting would be very large. Sometimes it’s going to be small software projects or small business process reengineering projects. The ones we are focusing on are mid-to-large sized actual projects,” he said. “But again, we are coming at it as a modular, break-it-down into smaller pieces. We are not taking over the whole thing. We are coming in as an adviser to hopefully help them successfully break them into modules so you start seeing results earlier and you take small, mitigated risks upfront as opposed to waiting for some long term delivery.”

Godbout said 18F can come in as a third-party trusted adviser with “no skin in the game.” He said the biggest challenge over the last seven months has been getting people to change or at least consider changing their approaches.

Surveying the end user

One of 18F’s mantras is user-centered design. Godbout said 18F has experienced on several occasions program or project managers promising they know what the user wants only to find out later how much they were off-base. Too often, he said agencies are focused on stakeholder-centered design, which is a different concept than user-centered. The stakeholders include the users, but also the financial management, technology, acquisition and others, who in the end really matter a lot less than the end user.

Godbout said in one instance where this exact situation occurred and 18F instead of listening to the program folks did a survey of the users.

“One of the best quotes we got from that feedback was ‘If you build this functionality, we will not use this vehicle,'” he said. “We asked what they wanted and they gave us a great list, and now we will spend the next year building what the users want. That’s where we need to get to.”

Godbout said the change in culture has to come from understanding the user’s needs, but also knowing the success of your system depends on your customer’s acceptance of that new technology.

He said user-centered design really is an immersion in understanding all the users.

Over the last seven months, 18F has faced some criticism about whether it’s encroaching into the turf traditionally held by government contractors — providing expertise and consulting services.

Godbout said he’s heard those concerns and emphasizes that 18F isn’t ever going to replace the role industry plays in helping agencies meet their missions.

“We don’t successfully transform the way the federal government builds and buys IT without industry. I don’t see how that path exists. Of course, industry has to be involved and frankly, they will be involved in majority of it because of the sheer size of the marketplace that we are talking about and the work that needs to get done,” he said. “There are a lot of program offices throughout the federal government that want to use these methodologies. We want to open up the door by changing the infrastructure inside the federal government so they can go out and buy these methodologies or get them from us.”

He said the need to change federal acquisition is just too big for 18F or any one organization to handle.

But Godbout said 18F has one distinct advantage over industry.

“Being inside the government allows us the ability to work with government agencies from the inside to start preparing for the expectation of what does it mean to be user-centered,” he said. “What does it mean to be truly agile? You can’t use that same contract that you’ve been using. We have to change some things before something becomes a RFP. So, I think any healthy organization should be able to make the built versus buy decision. How can you go into the world with only one choice? If you know how to build it, you will know how to buy it.”

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