The GSA's Inspector General is not so sure about those 18F Slackbots - Technical.ly DC

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Nov. 1, 2016 12:24 pm

The GSA’s Inspector General is not so sure about those 18F Slackbots

In a new report, the OIG is concerned that 18F is losing money, creating inaccurate financial projections and not billing correctly. It's quite the read.

At the 18F offices back in 2014.

(Photo by Lalita Clozel)

The Office of the Inspector General at the General Services Administration is concerned about the number of non-billable hours worked by 18F employees. Well, that and some other things.

In a recent evaluation prompted by “concerns expressed to us by several senior GSA officials about the management of 18F,” the OIG takes a stern look at the agency’s practices and finds some cause for concern. The report makes for quite a read.

The OIG’s biggest concern is that “18F has not developed a viable plan to achieve full cost recovery.” In fact, despite the fact that cost recovery is one of the foundational points of 18F’s creation, the “business inside the federal government” is operating with an increasing deficit. According to the OIG, this is likely because 18F is miscalculating financial projections, has hired a bunch of people or is letting those people spend too much time on non-billable projects. Or perhaps a combination of all three.

On the financial projections charge, for example, 18F projected $84.18 million in revenue for FY 2016. However, now in the third quarter, the agency has generated just just $27.82 million. The OIG seems skeptical that 18F will be able to make up the difference in the quarter that remains.

As for staff, the OIG notes that “18F has continued to hire staff despite underperforming revenues.” Indeed, the agency now has 201 full-time employees, up from just 33 after launch.

The 18F logo redesign. (Screenshot)

The 18F logo redesign. (Screenshot)

And now we get to the interesting section of the report — non-billable activities.

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According to the OIG investigation (using data from 18F’s internal timekeeping system), 18F employees spend over half their time working on things that are not billable to a paying client. This non-billable time includes time spent doing things like redesigning the 18F logo (which the OIG doesn’t seem to think was worth the estimated $140,104) and building all those Slackbots for internal communication and culture.

From the report:

18F staff reportedly spent about 20 hours, valued at an estimated $4,148, on the creation of two “bots” (digital conversation agents that interact with a service, application, or website). In one instance, an 18F staff member customized a “bot” for use in 18F interoffice communications on Slack, an online messaging and collaboration application. The “Slackbot” polices a user’s text for the pronouns “guys,” “guyz,” and “dudes.” When the bot detects these pronouns, it prompts the user to consider replacing the pronoun with an option, like “team.”

Ho boy.

The evaluation also found issues in 18F’s inter- and intra-agency agreements and a number of billing errors. All in all, the report offers seven recommendations for GSA leadership, all of which essentially amount to please fix this and find a way to make money.

A response from David Shive, CIO at GSA, acknowledges all of the recommendations while maintaining that “18F has demonstrated the value of a modern approach to delivering technology.”

He’s got a point — 18F has brought a cool, modern civic hacking ethos to the federal government (and, might we just say, those Slackbots are a big part of this). But the OIG’s reprimands are valuable food for thought, too — there’s a new administration coming and, in order to survive, 18F is going to have to prove its worth. And that, potentially, means in financial terms as well as “cultural” gains.

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