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When you think of the federal government and computers, your mind may go straight to the botched rollout of healthcare.gov. But the government is upping its game and changing the way it develops and designs software systems. There's a new chief technology officer hired from Google, and new agencies have been launched aimed at bringing a more Silicon Valley-ish approach to government IT. NPR's Brian Naylor reports on one of those agencies. It's called 18F.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: 18F is actually part of the GSA, the General Services Administration, and is at GSA headquarters located at - wait for it - 18th and F streets in Washington. It's an open space, with nary a government-issued cubicle in sight.
GREG GODBOUT: It's our attempt to make an office look a little bit like a coffeehouse, I guess, (laughter) would describe it.
NAYLOR: Greg Godbout shows me around. He's 18F's executive director and co-founder.
GODBOUT: We've got couches, tables. I work at a table, not a desk. We do have desks - just some people prefer it, particularly the designers for the larger graphics. We have an open space, glass, lots of visibility to the outside world.
NAYLOR: No ping-pong table, though.
GODBOUT: No, not yet. Actually, we - I think the government won't permit provide that for us.
NAYLOR: Not to worry, 18F's software designers are pooling their resources for a foosball table. Most of Godbout's team of 100 works here on what they call a production floor. Others are scattered at sites, including in San Francisco, Seattle and Denver. The idea, Godbout says, is to bring to the government some of the digital magic that we use every day to chat with friends and shop and share photos.
GODBOUT: So essentially, the way you would book a vacation in your own life and the easiness of research and doing that should be the way you would interact with your government, right?
NAYLOR: 18F is working with a number of different federal departments. One of the biggest projects it's taken on is redesigning the website for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That's the agency that processes applications from people hoping to become citizens and those covered under the president's executive actions who hope to obtain work permits.
GODBOUT: I like to think of it as it's the online Statue of Liberty, right? At some point in our nation's history, we were romantic enough to have this Statue of Liberty - this idea of, you know, how do we present ourselves to people coming to America? Well, our digital process should be that beautiful, too.
NAYLOR: As part of another project for the Federal Election Commission, Lindsay Young is designing an online interface that will make it easier for citizens to track how much money political candidates raise and spend.
LINDSAY YOUNG: I really do believe in the mission. And I think it's about empowering other people, so it's making sure that the people that use this website are getting what they need out of it.
NAYLOR: And that's one of the biggest challenges Godbout and his team face - changing the mindset among federal bureaucrats about software. 18F is focused on user-centered design as opposed to stakeholder-centered design, meaning software design for what the agency thinks it needs rather than the person using it.
GODBOUT: User-centered design work versus stakeholder- centered design is really very revolutionary inside the federal government, and it causes a lot of pain as we insist that people work this way.
NAYLOR: It's clearly an uphill battle. Surf government websites, and you'll find few that seem designed to provide users easy access to anything useful. 18F and U.S. Digital Services, the White House agency that's coordinating government-wide efforts to modernize its IT systems, are planning to hire some 200 programmers in hopes of changing that. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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