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18F Co-Founder on Why Tech Transcends Party Politics

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Aaron Snow began what would become a four-year term of government service as a member of the inaugural Presidential Innovation Fellows in 2013 and will end it in an advisory role at the General Services Administration, offering guidance to the new head of the Technology Transformation Service, Rob Cook.

In the time between, Snow co-founded 18F, one of the Obama administration’s digital service wings, and served as its executive director through an expansion that both increased its relevancy to the rest of the federal government and scrutiny from overseers.

In an email to staff in October announcing his transition to an advisory role, GSA Administrator Denise Turner Roth said “perhaps no one has been more instrumental in establishing this organization than Aaron Snow,” reflecting the magnitude of Snow’s behind-the-scenes impact.

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Nextgov caught up with Snow last week to discuss his time at 18F, where the organization is headed amid the presidential transition and how 18F plans to continue impacting government in the coming year. In the interview, Snow, who previously practiced law, co-founded a software company and served as a program manager at Microsoft, called his work at 18F the “most fulfilling, rewarding and certainly the hardest job” he’s ever had.

The rest of that interview is below.

Nextgov: What is your current role now at 18F?

Snow: My job is to advise Rob [Cook], to help him get the lay of the land, which he is doing very well and quickly, by the way. He’s been around the block, very apropos for TTS in a lot of ways. He comes from a place where engineers help craft and deliver stories, and that’s not so different from what we do at TTS when we’re doing it well. The world of storytelling and the world of building stories around user experiences, I think, are very close to each other.

He also was at Pixar from the very beginning and saw and led it through tremendous growth, and so he knows the pitfalls and potholes along the way as you grow and the needs of your organization change—how you communicate with your teams and how you organize as they change—as all of that continues to be refactored as you grow. He’s also been through a merger with a larger, more traditional organization when Disney bought Pixar.

Nextgov: There was a bit of a mixed reaction in the Beltway regarding Rob’s hiring, with some suggesting GSA should have hired someone within the government. What is your take?

Snow: I think we got a guy who can do it all, I really do. I think he’s the right pick. If we were hiring a CIO, it might have been different. But this organization needs to stay at the forefront of how government can use technology in new, transformative ways—hence the name—and I think it’s always worth looking outside the traditional channels for people who have the skill, talent and experience to be able to bring new ideas to bear but who also know how to manage large, complex environments.

Government is a unique environment,but it is learnable. And we got a guy with tremendous experience and vision and he’s led a large organization in the business world. Not to say we couldn’t have done great with someone from [within government], but we got a great one.

Nextgov: Digital service teams like 18F and the U.S. Digital Service are very much part of President Obama’s tech legacy. Do you think 18F is in a position now where it will remain with a new administration coming in?

Snow: Yes, absolutely. There are things government needs to get better in the technology space that are absolutely independent of partisan politics. Nobody on either side of the aisle doesn’t want to help [Veterans Affairs Department] serve veterans better than it does today, and some of that involves technology. Nobody on either side of aisle doesn’t want [Transportation Security Administration] to save money by moving systems to more secure, less expensive cloud.

I could go on and on. Nobody wants government to overspend and be underserved for their technology dollars and that is what we are here for. We’re here to help. It’s literally our mission statement: to help federal agencies build and buy technology.

Nextgov: So 18F will be around in a Trump administration?

Snow: The U.S. Digital Service and 18F are going to be around. We have saved the government many, many times our total cost. The people serving at USDS and 18F love their country, they want its government to be better at serving the public and they bring a set of skills that this government has not seen before at this scale and combination. To me, it’s not a partisan idea.

I’m sure this and every new administration will want to pivot and tweak how they approach technology and the use of it to serve the public in government, but these two organizations—and I would add the Presidential Innovation Fellows, too—all those organizations have accomplished a great deal that any political party would be proud of and happy with.

Nextgov: 18F’s finances have come into question through separate reports from GSA’s inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, though both concluded 18F wasn’t balancing its expenses with revenue. GSA executives have argued in the past that 18F’s value to government should be about more than its budget. How do you explain 18F’s value to government?

Snow: It is difficult to measure the impact of transformative change. There aren’t always dollars and cents, or hard numbers to tell your story—that is rare. To a certain extent, and this will sound backwards, some of the outcomes are not quantifiable. If I ask you to tell me the value in dollars of the smartphone as an innovation in our world, you could come up with some dollar numbers using many measures. The fact is, none of that will capture what the smartphone has done to the economy of world. If you can measure it in dollars, it may not be transformative change, it’s probably incremental change. Nevertheless, there is a dollars impact and I think we can take a reasonable shot at it.

Nextgov: Are the financials improving?

Snow: It’s getting better. We have spent essentially a year now developing the business and calibrating our operations to get closer and closer to breaking even.

Nextgov: Some contractors feel as though 18F competes with them for work and have been critical of its efforts. What’s your interaction with the vendor community been like?

Snow: There will always be a few voices afraid of change and defending the status quo that benefits them. But most vendors don’t feel that way in my experience, and most vendors are excited to be able to do work with government the way they do work with their private-sector clients. They’re excited to bring their government work into the modern users-first, lean and agile tools and technologies world. And they’re excited to work with us on how to streamline the process of getting products and [software-as-a-service] offerings approved for government purchase and use, and streamlining and simplifying the process of how government enters into contracts for digital services.

I think by and large, to the extent there are voices that are adverse to us, I think they don’t have a clear picture of how we’re trying to interact with them—which we’ve said before is probably at least our fault as much as anybody’s. The vendor community is integral to our story.

Nextgov: A large chunk of 18F’s workforce are on civil service tours of duty who came in during the Obama administration. This presidential campaign was particularly divisive. Will existing personnel at organizations like 18F want to stay on and continue their tours? Do you think you’ll still get the same talent filling in the pipeline with a new president and administration?

Snow: Everybody has to follow their own compass. I think the vast majority of people who have come to do this work recognize how much of it transcends politics and remains important and independent of the political. We have always anticipated there would be a little more attrition now than there has been.

Frankly, the attrition rate has been much lower than we ever thought it would be given how difficult government work is to our recruits. We anticipated more attrition during the presidential transition regardless of who won because it’s a change, period. A different president may have different priorities with tech, and also because a sizable number of folks on the team are in or are entering their third year of service out of four years.

But honestly, there are a lot more options for people who want to serve the public this way than there were a year ago [digital service teams within federal, state and local agencies; academia, nonprofit and civic tech organizations]. There are a ton of choices now for folks who want to serve this way. There is lots of work to do that is not political.

Nextgov: How would you characterize your time in government?

Snow: It’s been the most rewarding, fulfilling professional experience of my life. I was excited three and a half years ago about becoming a Presidential Innovation Fellow. I was excited about coming in and being able to make a small dent in six months, and the opportunity that other people and serendipity of afforded us to make a deeper dent has been an incredible honor. I’m sure I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and then some, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a job this hard, either. It’s the most fulfilling, rewarding and certainly the hardest job I’ve ever had.

As this team evolves, everyone found the thing they could do to help the most. [Former 18F Director] Greg Godbout was the startup leader you need. [Deputy Executive Director] Hillary Hartley has the outreach and communications experience. Other folks were digging in and building things and drumming up business and finding new ways to help and inventing products and services.

Nextgov: What was your specialty?

Snow: Finding the thing that needs getting done and getting it done.

Nextgov: What’s next for you?

Snow: My four-year term is up in June. I view my job as helping Rob—not that he seems to need that much help—sift through and understand TTS and the [government] world. And from the point of view of an initially invested co-founder, I want to make sure 18F is still in a good place post-transition and getting better all the time and to the extent I can, help them search for and name the next executive director of 18F. If I can help do those things, I will feel like I’ve succeeded with the handoff.

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