Obama's Tech Reforms Are Now Permanent


Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

On Tuesday, some of President Obama’s most sweeping reforms to how the government builds websites and other kinds of digital infrastructure moved much closer to becoming permanent.

It’s a big step for the White House, which since 2013 has erected several provisional institutions meant to avert another Healthcare.gov-style debacle. But it’s also a slightly wonky step, so before I get to the news itself, here’s why it’s important.

As far as day-to-day work of actually running a country goes, “government technology services” like Healthcare.gov are both critical and banal. Like going to the post office, they’re how the promise of government turns into lived experience. For many people, buying health insurance isn’t only one of the few interactions they’ll have with the government in a year. It’s also one of the biggest financial decisions they’ll make.

When President Obama was elected, he promised to update and modernize how the federal government approached technology. It was a vintage Obama pitch: optimistic, non-partisan, and focused on improving the quality of governance.

Since then, his team found success building some small, new projects, like the petition site We the People. But it also often failed with heftier projects, like the national health-insurance exchange or the digital infrastructure for Veterans Affairs.

To handle these missteps, the White House launched some new programs. The Presidential Innovation Fellows program, started in the fall of 2012, attempted just to get more tech-industry vets into various government agencies for a year.

More than a year later, the administration founded 18F, a “technology consulting firm” within the government. It worked with career bureaucrats throughout the government on the digital problems that confounded them. Sometimes, it built websites itself; sometimes, it helped federal employees better run a design and development process.

18F—named for the corner of 18th Street and F Street, the intersection where its office is located in D.C.—had a particularly ingenious funding structure. Because 18F always worked for other agencies, it received all of its funds from them too. Essentially, 18F was a government agency that acted like an external contractor. That meant that Congress never had to send it funds directly—it could work off funds appropriated for, e.g., the departments of Veterans Affairs or Health and Human Services.

Since its launch in April 2014, 18F has grown rapidly. Its employees number in the hundreds. (Somewhat infamously, they represent a sizable chunk of all the designers and developers in D.C.)

The Obama administration launched another high-profile program too, called the U.S. Digital Service, but that was effectively a small office within the White House, and it isn’t affected by the week’s news.

Speaking of which, here’s what’s happening: The General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency that helps other parts of the government acquire buildings and office supplies, will form what is effectively a major new sub-agency, the Technology Transformation Service.

18F and the Presidential Innovation Fellows, already housed in GSA, will be dissolved into this new service. It will sit on an equal tier with the GSA’s two other sub-branches, which handle real estate and acquisitions.

Just because 18F will now be permanent doesn’t mean it will thrive. The newly structured GSA branch will face new challenges, which I hope to touch on in a future story. First, a future administration could axe the new branch. Second, 18F’s distinctive organizational culture—its ethos of problem solving within the government—must outlast its institutional absorption. But if the move stays permanent, and the group’s culture proves resilient, this will signify one more way that the Obama administration has changed the functioning of American government.