Here Are 4 Ways Obama’s Tech Startup Spent Taxpayer Money

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Thomas Phippen Associate Editor
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President Barack Obama’s tech-savvy startup that is supposed to teach other government agencies how to make better websites and digital products caught the attention of a government watchdog this week.

The agency, called 18F, was supposed to sell its services to other government bodies and pay for itself, comparable to a Silicon Valley startup for the federal government.

But 18F is unable to live up to its financial goals due to inaccurate financial planning and potentially unnecessary internal projects, according to a new audit report from the Government Services Administration Office Inspector General (OIG) released Monday.

The inspector general provided a list of some of the internal, non-billable projects 18F staff completed:

  • 18F made flash cards that “define 18F’s agile development approach and build a shared vocabulary among 18F staff and federal agencies,” an activity that took 1,413 hours and cost $235,950. The agency blogged about the flash cards, explaining that informal research “showed that 18F teammates who received cards were slightly more knowledgeable and comfortable with methods than a control group whose members didn’t receive cards.”

    Screenshot: 18F/GSA

    Screenshot: 18F/GSA

  • 18F developed a new time-card system to track employee work called Tock. Staff spent approximately 245 hours, estimated to cost about $43,971, to build the system, which made a big splash in the agency. “Before Tock, I used to hate Mondays,” one employee commented. Of course 18F blogged about creating Tock, and another team member commented that “Tock has made accurate reporting of how we spend our time at work much easier.”
  • The agency championed their accomplishments “through blog posts, websites, social media accounts, and speaking events,” costing the agency $2.34 million. In the blog post announcing the new logo, for instance, 18F explains how it created “inspirational messaging, the optimism of which is central to our brand.”screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-6-32-40-pm

Image: Screenshot of Government Accountability Office report

  •  Employees created a “bot” in the popular messaging program Slack to police gender-specific language. If someone typed pronouns like “guys,” “guyz,” or “dudes” on the internal messaging board, the bot would automatically suggest replacing such terms with “team.” “Even though many people see ‘guys’ as a harmless, genderless word, not everybody does,” according to 18F’s blog about the project. 18F spent only 20 hours on the project, worth about $4,148.
Image: Screenshot of Government Accountability Office report

Image: Screenshot of Government Accountability Office report

18F ended the fiscal year 2015 with $22.26 million in revenue, which is $10.32 million less than the projected $32.58 million the agency projected, according to the report.

The OIG uncovered communications about financial projections from February 2016, in which 18F’s director of operations said, “to be frank, there are some of us that don’t give rip about the losses.”

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