To Hack the Bureaucracy, Federal IT Fix-It Shop First Needs to Hack Hiring


The incubator has plans to grow bigger in the next year.

The recently launched innovation accelerator and fix-it shop for federal IT problems, 18F, is all about helping agencies develop better software and services.

But Greg Godbout, the executive director of 18F, uses a different phrase to describe the office’s mission: Hacking the bureaucracy.

And from launching the office and staffing up over just a few short months, that agile vision has continually driven the innovation hub nestled within the General Services Administration headquarters.

Before 18F launched in March, it bypassed the traditional prelude of “hours and hours of conversations and meetings over months to decide,” Godbout said.

“Like, it was just ‘let’s get started!’” said Godbout, who spoke Oct. 27 at the Executive Leadership Conference in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The idea was to quickly scale a pilot and embrace a lean startup mentality, focusing on nimble approaches to solve pressing technology problems in government, he said.

Still, the idea was quickly greeted by a divided camp.  

“There were tons of requests to ‘wait, hold on - this is dangerous!’" Godbout recalled. "I can’t tell you how many times I heard the word ‘dangerous.’ I don’t feel dangerous - I have a limp; I can’t be dangerous.”

The skeleton crew of 2 and 1/2 staffers -- one part timer -- hit the ground running, tackling head-on hiring and releasing software “not because they were easy, but in fact we saw those two as the hardest obstacles,” Godbout said.

“With innovation, don’t start with the easy stuff; if you’re going to get started, tackle things you think are going to be your biggest problems because you really want to fail early,” he said. “And we felt if we didn’t hire quickly, we wouldn’t be successful if we couldn’t do rapid releases of software in a continuous deployment environment."

By late May, the recruiting process was fully off the ground and staff had expanded to 14. Today, 18F has 95 innovators and houses the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, Godbout said.

But in true startup fashion, expect that number to increase -- fast.

“There are plans for tremendous growth in the next year and we have 12, moving quickly on 14, agency clients we’re working with, all adopting these innovative methodologies like agile, lean startup and user-centric design,” Godbout said. 

The goal is to get hiring down to six weeks or, in the best-case scenario, four weeks. But that tight timeline could be too tall of an order even for this bureaucracy-hacking unit.

“I really don’t know if it’s possible, but we’ll see,” Godbout said.

(Image via venimo/