In Defense of 18F—Because Inaction Also Has a Cost
Procurement doesn’t grab many headlines, but it is critical to the nation’s future.
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There is a cost to inactivity and conforming with traditions that fail us again and again. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the newly appointed national security adviser, saw this in Iraq in the mid-2000s and almost ended his career by defying the established strategy of keeping soldiers in firm bases on the edges of cities where they seemed to be safe. He had the courage to push forward and prove the program that would become the blueprint for the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq.
McMaster’s strategy of community engagement took soldiers out of strong bases on the outskirts of Iraqi cities and redeployed them inside the towns. At first blush, this put them at far greater risk, but what soldiers lost in thick walls, they more than made up for in awareness, agility and a web of interpersonal connection with community members that ultimately kept them safer and allowed them to achieve their mission. McMaster knew there was more risk from the accepted wisdom and the victory required radical change.
Today, government procurement reform is at a similar moment. While procurement doesn’t grab headlines the way combat in Iraq does, it is critical to the nation’s future. Simply put: If the U.S. government continues to be decades behind the state-of-the-art and to pay excessive prices for platforms that underperform, we will only have ourselves to blame for dozens of future Office of Personnel Management-style breaches and substandard services to America’s veterans, elderly and to every other American who receives support from a federal program (e.g. all of us).
Our procurement process prevents the government from moving quickly and responding effectively to the challenges our nation faces, while our strategic rivals, unencumbered by procurement rules, are nimbly buying the best of American industry and spurring the creation of market-changing technology.
Following the failure, and national embarrassment, of HealthCare.gov, the White House set up a procurement innovation cell inside the General Services Administration called 18F. Like any new organization charged to play David to the established Goliath, it had to rely on speed and ingenuity to make up for its small size. And perhaps in its haste and earnest desire to reform the system, the unit ran afoul of some regulations, perhaps not surprising for an organization set up as a reaction to an overabundance of regulation.
The critics of 18F have been quick to point out violations, but we—the Eastern Foundry team—have not heard how those violations hurt the nation. We may never know if there was any damage from installing Slack on a government system, but there is a cost to opposing innovation and forcing reform to move at the pace of government acquisition.
18F was created out of a massive procurement failure, and it has moved mountains to help agencies and the nation avoid such costly errors. We need more organizations inside the government whose job it is to push these boundaries. 18F did not go rogue; it was given a mission and knew if it had followed every rule, it would still be an idea on a whiteboard. By prioritizing mission accomplishment and impact over adherence to strict and often outdated regulations, 18F found success.
If there is lasting damage to 18F, it will be a self-inflicted wound. But the greater danger is that every other procurement officer in the U.S. government will see that the price of innovation and daring is an inspector general investigation, damning headlines and damaged careers. If that is the lesson of the 18F experiment, all we have to look forward to is an exodus of talent from government and decades of massively time-consuming and expensive but regulatorily “safe” procurements that fails us again and again.