Will Slack




Comparing USDS, 18F, and PIF

11 Feb 2021




This post seeks to contrast USDS, 18F, and the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program using public information, leveraging my experience working at 18F alongside PIFs and later at USDS. I won’t cover their shared aspects, but briefly, all three have staff appointed to term-limited positions, share a common goal of improving federal government tech capacity, and seek to elevate and empower their career civil servant partners - though they work from different angles, with different access, and require mastery of unique best practices and tactics.

I should also mention three orgs also doing cross-gov digital work: Technology Transformation Services (TTS) Solutions is mainly composed of career civil servants, and manages a variety of long-term services and platforms such as usa.gov, cloud.gov, data.gov, login.gov, and search.gov. The IT Modernization Centers of Excellence are set up in portfolios such as AI and IT Infrastructure Optimization. The Lab at OPM provides partners with design support, teaches workshops, and pursues other projects to further human-centered design in government via a model similar to 18F’s. These organizations all changed throughout Obama’s and Trump’s administrations, and while I have no inside information, there will likely be more change during this administration. If you’re interested in being part of that future, please apply!

To be abundantly explicit: this is my personal take and based entirely on public information. My work here has been mostly to draw everything together in one place after getting asked about this by recruits and others in the community.

Location

USDS and PIF hire for in-person roles in DC during non-pandemic times. 18F is remote-first and has blogged on best practices for distributed teams.

Funding

USDS is appropriated, meaning that Congress provides money in the federal budget that’s used to pay USDS staff, as is the case for most civil servants. 18F and PIF are funded by partner agencies that pay 18F and PIF for their services. (Lacking budgeted funding, they cannot legally work for free and need a formal mechanism to “recover costs.”) The implications of this key difference drive many of the details below.

Engagement style

USDS deploys teams into agencies to sit alongside partners; current feds will recognize a resemblance to a detail arrangement. USDSers work on projects that need their skillsets, and those needs often change during a project’s lifetime. That means the team at the end of an engagement might be totally different from the team that did the initial discovery. Pre-pandemic, USDSers commuted to agencies around the DC area, including two near Baltimore (you won’t have to go to Baltimore, but working on Medicare made it worth it for me!).

18F teams work projects a similar timeframe as USDS teams (people join/leave projects of varying length as needs change), but don’t typically get full backend access to agency e-mail & systems. Think of a consultancy model and you’re close.

PIFs are embedded within federal agencies as “entrepreneurs in residence” for 12 months, with the opportunity to extend for a total of 2 years. Unlike USDS and 18F’s regular hiring, PIF is a fellowship that recruits annual cohorts of 20-30 fellows. Some PIF projects span fellows and cohorts (i.e. VA software portfolio to deliver veterans’ benefits faster); others are fellow-specific (i.e. global entrepreneurship program to fight poverty with Millennium Challenge Corporation).

Parent agency

USDS is based in the Executive Office of the President, specifically in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which oversees executive branch agencies and assembles the yearly budget request for Congress’s consideration. Being part of “The White House” can make USDS seem intimidating, though it can also open doors. USDS’s office is in a converted 1870s town house once briefly occupied by President Theodore Roosevelt and has long term teams at agencies like the VA and Health and Human Services.

18F and PIF are based in the General Services Administration, a support agency for the executive branch (it manages large contracting vehicles and most federal real estate, largely funds itself by servicing other agencies). 18F and PIF have hoteled office space in GSA’s headquarters a block from the White House at 1800 F Street (the origin of 18F’s name). Both orgs (and the Solutions and CoE offices mentioned above) are part of the Technology Transformation Services superstructure at GSA.

How their approaches complement each other

When you combine the differences above, each organization ends up with unique benefits and access by virtue of their different approaches and methodologies.

  • Thanks to its White House ties, USDS has unique access to presidential priorities or sensitive Cabinet level programs, and being appropriated means it can spin up on projects immediately.
  • Thanks to its GSA ties, 18F can work with teams in the legistlative and judicial branches, as well as with independent regulatory agencies that keep at arm’s length from the White House like the Federal Election Commission. Bluntly, GSA’s mission has a distance and boring-ness that allows 18F to avoid a perception of executive encroachment on other branches.
  • Thanks to their “in residence” nature, PIFs can flexibly jump to other projects within their host agencies in a more “free agent” style over the course of their terms.

Collaboration tools and tech

USDS often works with agencies just getting started with cloud tooling such as Microsoft Teams, so a USDSer enjoys all of the same frustrations as their career civil servant partners when trying to collaborate on a document or access shared information. GSA uses GSuite across its enterprise (the GSA IT team made the agency a first-mover to cloud email in 2010), so 18F and PIF teams enjoy real-time collaboration on documents with anyone at GSA. Like USDS, PIF teams get equipment and e-mail addresses from the agencies where they are deployed - there can be significant friction if you try to work with one agency using a laptop from a different agency.

Engagement incubation

USDS’s appropriation allows it to jump into supporting an agency on a problem immediately, though work often starts with a discovery sprint. 18F must set up a formal financial agreement before working on an engagement, which requires sign-off from multiple partner officials on the funding source and in my experience, usually took over a month to execute. PIFs are deployed to agencies annually, and agencies submit projects for PIFs months in advance to be considered for that year’s class of fellows under a similar agreement to 18F’s. It’s also common for PIFs to flex to other special projects once they start at an agency, based on needs that come up throughout the year.

How projects are chosen

There is an overwhelming abundance of non-partisan digital problems to work on; you will never be bored with any of these groups. USDS explores projects aligning with its mission: to do the greatest good, for the greatest number, with the greatest need. 18F selects its work from the proposals it gets from possible partners, according to impact and skill fit. PIF works with its agency partners to identify projects of critical agency and/or national priority, and fellows also have the ability to work on their own special/collaborative projects during their tour.

Roles

USDS and 18F technical staff generally join an acquisition, design, engineering, or product-focused community of peers. USDS communities have widely varying backgrounds and skillsets; 18F tends to seek more specific skillsets to support its type of work. Like USDS, each PIF cohort is diverse in skillset and background, with specific recruiting for data science/AI, design, engineering, product, digital health, and digital strategy (i.e. digital advertising, entrepreneurship).

Long term ownership

None of the three provide support in perpetuity to specific project efforts; they succeed when their partner agencies successfully take over projects at the end of an engagement, like the VA coronavirus chatbot, HRSA’s telehealth.hhs.gov, or the FEC’s website and campaign finance report tooling.

On the other hand, USDS and 18F maintain reference materials like playbook.cio.gov and the TechFAR handbook for USDS and 18F’s guides, all of which (along with digital.gov) provide best practices, case studies, and reference points that agencies have adopted in internal policies. All three offices leverage long-term products and platforms within TTS solutions, such as cloud.gov, login.gov, Federalist, and the US Web Design System.

Working in the open

Open source is a core value at 18F explicitly named in agreements with partners, per an expansive open source policy; you can track most 18F work online today! When I was there, a lot of blogging was meant to provide roadmaps and case studies for other feds; working in the open was part of that strategy. For example, analytics.usa.gov’s code and design have been reused by cities and states across the US, with 18F sharing out lessons learned on its blog alongside the analytics team.

USDS and PIF’s work is often less public (or done under the banner or on the infrastructure of the partner agency), and open source may not have the same priority. Both do maintain many public code repos.

All of the orgs do write about their work publicly: USDS posts on Medium, 18F on its blog mentioned above, and PIF on digital.gov. 18F has written extensively and I encourage you to search its blog for authoritative commentary on many subjects.

Recent work

Learn more about USDS in the Spring 2020 USDS Impact Report. Learn more about 18F through their recent case studies. Learn more about PIF in the 2020 PIF Impact Report.

Thanks for reading! Please send me an issue, suggest an edit, or tweet at me if you have a unaddressed question or see a problem.


Leave a comment