Uncle Sam launches 18F startup to lure tech workers

18F aims to attract programming talent to the U.S. government, but faces bureaucratic and practical roadblocks

Tech startups are typically scrappy stand-alone affairs created by a few people sharing desks in a loft space or a garage. But one venerable firm that's been around for more than 200 years has recently launched an in-house startup intended to draw tech talent into its larger fold.

The startup is nicknamed "18F," after its street address in Washington, D.C. The firm in question: the U.S. government.

According to the Huffington Post, 18F was founded in March of this year as a way to bolster Washington's native technical expertise. With more Americans turning to the Internet for government services of one kind or another, it makes sense to have more internal talent to rely on -- doubly so, it seems, in the wake of HealthCare.gov's botched rollout, which was built more by hard-lobbying contractors than it was by those prepared to test their work before deploying it.

Among 18F's initial projects is a resource site for college-age victims of sexual assault, NotAlone.gov. That site hints at how 18F projects are meant to be more than static resources, but live repositories of information. In NotAlone.gov's case, it includes a regularly updated map of which schools have resolved to address sexual violence issues on their campuses.

Government work has historically drawn only a small share of IT people into its fold. The vast majority (70 percent) of degree holders for computer or mathematical sciences go straight into for-profit enterprises, with barely 4 percent picking government work of any kind. Public-sector tech work is seen as hidebound and stodgy, riddled with regulations and slow to respond to changes, though it also is stable and has reasonable hours and a less hectic pace. While tech pay is tops for everything from entry-level work to CIOs, including government positions, private-sector tech jobs carry more appetizing perks for some, such as stock options.

Another reason for 18F's founding is to draw more programmers to agencies and government departments that normally don't attract such talent. The government agencies with the strongest tech talents tend to be those most closely associated with tech in some form (for example, the National Security Agency), but those that are less avowedly technical (such as the Veterans' Administration) aren't so well-equipped.

The hardest part may not be attracting the talent to 18F, but rather how 18F has to follow the same rules as any other government agency. That includes rules about hiring processes, security procedures for public-facing websites, and other hurdles a conventional startup or public-sector tech outfit wouldn't be anywhere as nearly hobbled by.

As the Post notes, the build-it-first culture of technology is radically dissimilar from the get-permission-first culture of Washington -- and there doesn't appear to be a quick fix. But government agencies have already been picking up the pace for IT as a cost-cutting measure, by adopting agile development methodologies and shorter product lifecycles; maybe the remaking of government IT from the inside out isn't as far-fetched as it might seem.

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