Digital Swat Team Director: Don't Expect Us to Change Your Life Overnight

The federal government’s digital swat team known as 18F is a “change management office,” its executive director and co-founder said Monday.

“The government’s biggest digital service problems are not rocket science problems but culture problems,” the product of “deep waves over time” like the Grand Canyon, Aaron Snow told an audience of industry and agency technologists at the Igniting Innovation Awards presentations from the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council.

The kind of change that transforms government practices into government services that affect people’s lives “does not happen in bursts or epiphanies,” Snow said, “but in little steps.”

18F, which began as a huddle of presidential Innovation Fellows, has swelled from 15 members in March 2014 to 175 specialists housed in the General Services Administration but with outposts in 15 cities. It has worked with 40 agencies—including all 24 departments, Snow said, helping streamline such projects as the redesigned Federal Election Commission public website and the USA.gov informational portal, spreading best practices in modern website design and launching such information technology development platforms as Cloud.gov.

“We’re an odd duck—a fee for service contractor inside government,” using money not from legislative appropriations but from GSA’s revolving fund, that “we pay back, with written agreements with agencies,” Snow said. “At first I thought this was an albatross, but it keeps us accountable. The best government customer is a paying customer.”

Snow recalls being instructed by former White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park to do inside the government what the private sector would do and “blow away the barriers.” Hence Snow worked with GSA’s Human Resources office to accelerate hiring, having now reduced average IT hiring times from six months to 10-12 weeks, he said. He also asked GSA’s CIO to accelerate the compliance process that allows new vendor software on federal computers—that’s been cut from anywhere from six to 14 months down to  weeks or even a couple of days.

“We’ve been called cocky but we’re not that way,” Snow said. “The current civil servants are passionate, dedicated, talented tenacious employees and it starts with them.”

The change process, however, he described as an “uphill battle,” due to risk-averseness. He pointed to a “stigma, shame and anxiety of getting in trouble for having done it wrong for so long.” There is natural resistance as things begin to move from “exotic suspicious things to become things you couldn’t live without.”

18F’ers have learned that “delivery is the strategy, show don’t tell,” Snow said. “Demos do more to change mindsets than PowerPoint.” He admitted to a certain degree of “bureaucratic hacking,” or “reassessing rules” inside the agencies.

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