Why Congress Needs to Take a Long, Hard Look at 18F

How many Presidential Innovation Fellows does it take to type 18F?

That may not sound like a serious question, but I can guarantee the anger of taxpayers and lawmakers will be real when they learn that it took a small team of designers from the General Services Administration’s 18F an entire weekend to come up with the following change to the digital service team’s logo.

18F logosIt gets worse. This so-called weekend “brandathon,” as it came to be known, began with an organization-wide workshop on 18F’s core values. “After this workshop, several design studios, and hours of work, the branding team had an initial set of deliverables to share with the rest of 18F,” wrote 18F designers Kate Garklavs and Jennifer Thibault in a mind-numbing 826-word blog posted Thursday to the 18F website.

This is what 18F calls “agile branding.” The weekend design “brandathon” took place last August—nine months ago.

Eric Ronne, one of 18F’s digital designers who participated in the summer work session, summed up the experience as follows: “At 18F we’re always changing and improving government interactions for our users. We iterate constantly here, and now we’ve iterated on our logo, too,” he said. “Our goal was to refresh the mark while nodding to the past, to create a straightforward update that’s accessible, bold, modern, and flexible.”

As if spending a weekend of design hours and nine months of internal back-and-forth discussions wasn’t enough to come up with this epic feat of Photoshop 101, the well-compensated digital branding innovators at 18F also spent time creating a collection of images featuring the new logo and inspirational messaging, “the optimism of which is central to our brand,” according to the blog post.

18F sky photo2“These images, which team members use as desktop art, weren’t exactly the highest priority ‘need’ item, but they were a fast way to show the team how the new system could begin to flex in more exciting ways than just templates,” wrote Garklavs and Thibault.

And this epic waste of tax dollars isn’t over. “We plan to create infographic templates for our social media accounts. And eventually, we’ll restructure and restyle our website, another outfit that we’ve outgrown since we started in March 2014,” they wrote.

I’m all for digital services in government, and for improving government services through technology and innovation. But the amount of time, effort, and money that GSA dedicated to changing a font in Photoshop is an obscene misappropriation of government resources. This type of maddening waste is exactly why so many observers in and out of government have come to question the purpose, mission, and value of 18F.

The innovators at 18F would be wise to “iterate” on something more difficult and of more importance to the American people. If they don’t start doing that soon, then the days of the 18F experiment in government are surely numbered.