The four-phase program is looking to test, fund and build federal employees’ ideas for using tech to improve their agencies.
Federal employees working in the trenches day in and day out have lots of ideas about how to make their agencies and programs better—and some of those ideas are really good.
In the federal technology space, administration officials wanted a way to solicit those ideas, test their viability and fund them, where appropriate, without wasting lots of time and money. Through a succession of events and funding pilots, 10x was established, a division of the Technology Transformation Service in the General Services Administration designed to find and fund the best ideas in government.
10x was born out of a concept called “The Great Pitch,” which started as a single-day event in 2015 hosted by GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, which would later become TTS. That event evolved into a rolling program designed to give quick investment determinations—usually within a month—and resulted in successful programs like Login.gov, Code.gov and the U.S. Web Design Standards.
In January 2017, the newly established TTS created an incubation hub that was renamed 10x at the start of the 2018 fiscal year.
Now, the four-phase program is in full swing, with officials actively asking federal employees to send any and all ideas that would use technology to improve the federal government.
“This program is designed to find, fund, grow and sustain new technology products and services,” Nico Papafil, 10x acting lead director, told Nextgov in an interview. “In other words, we incubate and accelerate great proposals to help move government IT forward.”
The team solicits ideas through a Google Form that tries to make the process as simple as possible.
“We literally ask for two or three sentences on a problem they want to solve,” in what the team has come to call it “10x Mad Libs,” said 10x Project Coordinator Will Cahoe.
According to Cahoe, the problem statement breaks down into about four fill-in-the-blanks: “I have observed ‘blank’ problem; I hypothesize that if we do ‘blank’ it will result in ‘blank’ benefit for ‘this group of people.’”
Once an idea is accepted for consideration, it enters a four-phased, tiered funding process. At each phase, the team starts with a basic question:
Phase I, Investigation: Is this a bad idea?
$20,000, 2-3 weeks
The first phase begins with determining whether the idea is viable and whether there is a verifiable need across government.
Phase II, Discovery: Is this a good idea?
$175,000, 8-12 weeks
The second phase looks at the current market and regulatory environments, as well as whether the idea is scalable.
Phase III, Development: Will anyone use this?
$650,000, 3-4 months
The team brings in technical expertise from other areas, such as partners at 18F and the Census Experimental Data Group or contractors, to develop a minimum viable product for testing. This phase also answers questions around what it will take to build and sustain related systems and which federal office or program will own the project after the four-phase process.
Phase IV, Scale: Will everyone use this?
$1.28 million, 1 year
The final phase looks to add more user groups and increase beta testing of the product to ensure it can scale.
The program is funded out of the Digital Services Fund, established by the Office of Management and Budget as part of the Federal Citizen Services Fund to support efforts to improve online services. With that in mind, 10x projects come with two major stipulations: the team can only fund cross-agency projects with broader impact and cannot offer funding to projects that have other appropriated funds.
“We put this agile process in place for an alternative to how government traditionally buys and builds technology,” Papafil said. “This way we can mitigate the risks as projects move forward and only the most promising ideas will receive large investments.”
About a third of projects advance from phase to phase.
“So, say we have 50 Phase I projects, about 20—15 to 20—will move to Phase II. Out of those, about five to seven will move to Phase III. And then, about one will move to Phase IV in a given fiscal year,” Papafil said.
That “failure” rate is a good thing, he said, as a primary goal of 10x is to identify ideas that won’t work early enough to avoid spending lots of money. The team plans to begin publishing information about those projects, as well.
“One of our goals in the next few months is that we really want to publish and make public a lot of the research that comes out of these projects,” Cahoe said. “So, even if a project in Phase I concludes and the team says, ‘We do not recommend moving forward,’ we think that’s still a win, there’s still value to be had,” including what it would take to make the idea viable.
“I think it would be a real failure if an idea is unworkable and continues to get funding,” he added.
That said, the program has yet to have a project reach Phase IV under the 10x moniker, though Papafil and Cahoe said that could change soon. There are currently a handful of projects in the third phase, at least one of which they expect to reach Phase IV this year.
While only federal employees can submit ideas—the 10x website specifically states that ideas submitted by private citizens and organizations will not be considered—Papafil and Cahoe said they continue to get a healthy flow of suggestions, mostly from feds working on technology issues.
“There are definitely themes that we can identify in the ideas that are submitted to us,” Cahoe said. “A lot of the ideas that we receive come from people who are in that core federal technology community. So, a lot of the projects they give are around these problem spaces/opportunities that that community is passionate about.”
Recently, that buzz has been around artificial intelligence and how the government is going to use this emerging technology, he said.
“We get a lot of ideas asking, for example, can we use artificial intelligence to scan government websites for accessibility issues; can we use artificial intelligence to make sense of a lot of unstructured, qualitative comments,” and more, he said.
The team also gets a lot of ideas around new directives or legislation, such as the cross-agency priority goals in the President’s Management Agenda or the 21st Century IDEA Act, which gives agencies a congressional mandate to improve digital experiences.
Beyond those recurring themes, Cahoe said the team is looking for the unknown unknowns.
“One of the core principles that we always keep in mind is that the people across government who are best positioned to identify these technology problems are the federal employees at these agencies—at all levels of the agencies—who are on the front lines,” he said. “Projects that we want to hear about are problems that we have no idea exist.”