Let Your Internal Innovation Efforts Breathe

A federal government agency that has more in common with startup culture than bureaucracy is raising some eyebrows from watchdogs. But is the real problem with this skunkworks project cultural incompatibility?

Yeah, I’m sure you’ve heard, no surprises here—today is Election Day. The finish line is in sight.

I’ll leave the race-calling to the prognosticators, but I do want to point out a topic that will be a large point of discussion in the weeks to come: Whoever gets into the White House is going to directly put his or her impression on the agencies and policy approaches that make up the executive branch.

We’ve seen quite a bit of this during Barack Obama’s two terms in office, in which his administration’s many arms have been responsible for the implementation of the various programs that have been passed on his watch.

One of those arms is the digital agency 18F, a forward-thinking agency within the General Services Administration (GSA) that is attempting to implement lean startup strategies throughout the government. Perhaps one of the things 18F is best known for, which I wrote about last year, is the U.S. Web Design Standards, which are meant to allow even tiny parts of the government to put together a website with a clean, consistent look.

An Unusual Approach Under Scrutiny

The problem is, 18F’s approach—which evokes Silicon Valley startup culture—isn’t compatible with the way that the federal government, with its internal checks and balances, operates.

Last month, that point finely revealed itself in the form of an Inspector General report analyzing 18F’s activity [PDF]. As Federal News Radio reporter Jason Miller notes, the report was not as bad as it could have been. But it did find a firm that was hiring and spending beyond its means and doing more internal work than it was billable client work. In fact, the report chided the agency for once stating that “non-billable work is the cultural lifeblood of 18F.”

The hiring and budget issues I’ll set aside, but the nonbillable work issue I think acutely exposes the cultural differences I mention above. Since its launch, the agency has spent a lot of time and money conducting outreach—essentially content-marketing its mission to other agencies and the world—and building out internal products designed to do things like track time and reinforce its agile development process.

The agency, in the two years since its launch, also worked on its branding, at an estimated cost of $140,104. One commentator writing about the report, Joe Davidson of The Washington Post, incorrectly characterized this as spending “727 hours on a logo change.” (Anyone who has ever done branding knows that a logo is only one tiny part of a broader branding project, especially for a new agency that has a lot of bases to cover).

And perhaps most unusual of all is the fact that 18F was called out for allowing employees to spend a total of 20 hours to build a series of bots for its Slack network.

The report recommended that “internal 18F projects have appropriate supervisory review.”

Expectations, Considered

To outsiders, this might seem like an immensely wasteful agency, but I think at least some of the problem might be cultural fit.

Washington Technology blogger Nick Wakeman appeared to have the same thought on this matter that I did—that the expectations of the report are somewhat out of whack with the mission trying to be fulfilled.

“As I read the IG report, I was struck by one overriding thought—18F is very much the trendy startup it was modeled to be,” Wakeman wrote. “It’s lost money. It has plenty of positive spin. It’s suffering real growing pains as more people clamor for what it provides.”

In an interview with FedScoop, GSA Administrator Denise Turner Roth effectively agreed, noting that while there was certainly room to rework the balance of billable work at 18F, it shouldn’t come at the cost of the innovation being created by the agency.

“18F in its short existence has showed how it can help the federal government and federal agencies, and how important its mission is,” Roth told the website. “But certainly, like other startups, it’s not perfect. It has room to grow and areas to work on.”

Billable or not, 18F is breathing some fresh air into the stuffy old public sector.

Association Considerations

Learning about the saga of 18F and the criticism it has faced in recent months from government watchdogs, I’m struck at the philosophy differences that are clearly apparent from the report versus how the agency has built itself culturally.

If you’re running a skunkworks project at your association, it’s important to give that innovation room to breathe and work. If you immediately expect results, you may stifle its potential.

And sometimes, going into the red in the short run might be a path to going in the black down the road. Back in March, I highlighted the startup firm Crew, which used a free-photo site called Unsplash to build buzz for itself. As Crew themselves admit, Unsplash is a hugely expensive site to run, costing nearly $18,000 a month to manage.

It’s an expensive, completely nonbillable, sunk cost. But it works for the firm’s much larger goal: It gets people talking about Crew’s freelancer-for-rent service, which is where they make their money.

To me, that’s the lesson that should be gathered from a situation like 18F. No, it’s not cheap. No, it doesn’t look like the rest of the federal government. But on the other hand, it shouldn’t—it’s intended to be a change agent. If the government ever wants to learn from it, it needs to loosen the leash.

If your association is trying to shake things up from a cultural or innovation perspective, you need to do the same. The bottom line shouldn’t be the only line that matters if you’re trying to change the world.

The 18F offices, as they looked upon the agency's 2014 launch. (Ted Eytan/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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