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Tech Takes Washington

How 18F Is Working to Help Digitize US Government Services

In 2014, the Obama administration announced that tech startups would work more closely with the government. A little bit of Silicon Valley was entering the bureaucracy of Washington, DC, and the goal of tech workers was to make sure that digital disasters like, the glitchy Obamacare website, would be a thing of the past.

One of these companies, 18F, operates like its own business within the government. Other government agencies are its clients, and they pay 18F to streamline their notoriously clunky websites—making obscure information and open-sourced data more accessible for the everyday citizen. Since its launch, the nearly 200-person group of designers, developers, and researchers has taken on projects like revamping the Federal Election Commission website and data banks, or designing college scorecards for the Department of Education.


Hillary Hartley, deputy executive director and co-founder of 18F, was tapped to help shape and launch the company after scoring the prestigious Presidential Innovation Fellowship. Here, the bicoastal leader explains the importance of digital strategy in government and how 18F will fare as Donald Trump starts his presidency.

VICE: President Obama supported 18F. How did his views on tech influence the organization?

Hillary Hartley: The president was very supportive of digital strategy and digital transformation. On his first day in office, he put out a memo about transparency, and it sent a signal that he was going to approach things a bit differently. It's clear he's personally invested in this effort, and that he gets it.

What will happen to 18F with the change in administration? Has there been talk about that transition?

The bottom line is very little will change in the foreseeable future. We are inside the General Services Administration, which is very supportive of us. We operate like a business, and we charge our partners hourly rates. We don't get appropriations from Congress; we're not funded by any outside entity. I expect very little to change.

What was the atmosphere at 18F after the election?

I think it varied, but we are civil servants. We are here to keep working no matter who is in the White House. We all came here because there was an incredible opportunity to serve to make our government more efficient. The problems we've been working on will be there no matter the administration.


I know that 18F has pushed for open-sourced data. Have you found it hard to stay transparent when working with government agencies?

It's been interesting because we really haven't. I have a feeling that the folks who have worked with us are self-selecting to an extent—they're ready to take that leap. But even folks who didn't necessarily come into it eyes wide-open—we've been able to talk to them about why we work this way and why we think this way. The benefits of open source, at least for the government, are really unfathomable. Everything we've built so far could be repurposed, not only for every agency, but also for every city, every state.

When I think about government digital projects gone wrong, I think of What's an example of a project that has done well?

I think there have been a few, at least inside 18F. We've had enormous impact in a few different areas. Working with the Federal Election Commission, we helped them build their first API [application program interface] to all of their open data. They've had open data for a while, but it's been locked up in spreadsheets. Convincing them to work in the open and build beta.fec transparently in front of the public has been kind of an amazing change. One of the biggest game-changers is something we've built for ourselves: the US web-design standards. A group of us inside this 18F and United States Digital Service ecosystem [decided] that there's no consistency, no standards, no common look and feel to government websites. Without that, there's a sense of security and trustworthiness that goes away.

The San Francisco tech scene and DC seem very different. What's the biggest difference in the culture?

The biggest difference is really the culture we've been able to build, which is centered on the idea of impact, of making a difference for your country. When our former commissioner was asked in a hearing why she was able to hire top tech talent, she said, in a word, "patriotism." I think she's right. We're not building something that's a flash in the pan or something that serves billions of people like Facebook. We are here for a very specific mission, and it draws a certain type of person who wants to be involved in that.

A version of this story appeared in the February issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

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