10x is a stage-gated internal investment program for the United States government, modeled on modern venture capital practices, that funds the exploration and development of new product ideas, sourced from civil servants, to significantly improve how the government uses technology to serve the public good.
10x is a stage-gated investment program for the United States government. Its mission is to fund the exploration and development of new project ideas sourced from civil servants across the federal landscape that significantly improve how the government uses technology to serve the public good. The name comes from the idea that the program aims to deliver ten times the value of the initial investment — 10x — as measured through cost savings, improved efficiencies, or scale of impact.
10x looks for ideas with evidence of a clear description of a problem that technology could address, alignment with current government-wide priorities, and the potential for positive impact on multiple government agencies or a broad portion of the American public. The 10x program hires teams to investigate these ideas, develop the most promising projects into products and services, and support them until 10x can find a permanent home for them within its own agency, the General Services Administration (GSA), or another federal agency.
10x uses a four-phase investment process, modeled on modern venture capital practices, where the amount of funding increases at each phase only if the project has proved to be successful up to that point. At each stage of the process, the idea, product, or service is evaluated to determine whether the next phase of funding is warranted, continuously balancing risk with potential benefits.
The initial barrier to entry is low: to get started, 10x asks federal employees to submit three sentences of context on the problem area and how technology might help to address it. The 10x team then selects the most promising ideas and hires a team of researchers and strategists to investigate and develop a better understanding of the dimensions of the problem.
The four phases are:
- Phase 1, Investigation. A small team answers the question “Is this a bad idea?” by developing a high-level understanding of potential opportunities and challenges, and in particular any significant roadblocks that might be too difficult to overcome.
- Phase 2, Discovery. The team answers the question “Is this a good idea?” by developing an understanding of the idea’s potential, considering problem statement, industries impacted, product and market fit, finances, timeline, regulatory environment, and how the product might scale.
- Phase 3, Development. The team answers the question “Will anyone use this?” by developing a functional minimally viable product (MVP) with at least one active agency customer, including estimates for the cost and effort required to build and maintain a fully viable product.
- Phase 4, Scale. The team answers the question “Will everyone use this?” by deploying additional funding to increase the number of people using the product and to determine a method for ongoing financing and maintenance.
Alongside the funding provided, the 10x team provides guidance, oversight, acquisition vehicles, and advice to idea authors and project teams, equipping them with the necessary tools to help each project reach its potential.
10x provides resources to projects attempting to solve significant issues inside the government that might not otherwise have been addressed. As individuals on the front lines of a huge workforce, federal employees have significant exposure to the challenges facing the government that could potentially be solved through a new technology or service but often have little to no access to any means to explore or execute on their ideas to address these issues. The 10x program was explicitly designed to bridge this gap by providing these resources, financial and otherwise, to civil servants who apply.
10x aims to provide job satisfaction and fulfill a sense of duty for any civil servant who sees a way to further their agency’s mission through the development of a particular product or service. Civil servants who recommend an idea to the 10x program have the option to participate in and support the development of that product as part of their own career development.
10x introduces concepts of adaptation, agility, and experimentation to federal agencies, demonstrating how a structured, lightweight process can be used to manage the risks — financial and otherwise — associated with iteratively testing out new ideas. In particular, 10x showcases how this iterative approach can successfully operate in alignment with the traditional top-down appropriated budgeting process used by the government.
The 10x team works to identify how a successful project might be sustained within the government, ultimately reducing its reliance on funding from the 10x program. 10x ensures that agency partners who agree to house a 10x product or service over the long-term have the necessary knowledge, procedures, relationships, and funding structures in place to allow the project to thrive and continue to grow once it has graduated from the 10x process into a more traditional agency environment.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The traditional way the US government budgets for new technology or new technology programs is to specify a lump sum of money for a project or projects to be spent over a period of months or years. This approach is often ineffective, resulting in continuing to spend money even after an agency or the project team determines that the project should not continue, simply because the budget already exists.
In contrast, 10x attempts to spend the smallest possible amount of funding necessary at every stage of a project to determine whether or not it’s worth pursuing. Only one or two of every ten projects selected for initial funding will actually make their way into design and development work, and even those projects must be able to prove they are delivering clear value in order to continue to receive funding. This iterative approach to investing allows 10x to save money while ensuring the products and services produced meet a real, verifiable need in the federal environment.
What is the current status of your innovation?
Now in its third full year of implementation, the 10x program is constantly iterating to improve how it delivers value. Increasingly, 10x is clustering its investments to allow them to build off prior research and leverage prior partnerships. Rather than requiring all new projects to “start from zero,” 10x is curating a collection of knowledge within several prominent government technology problem spaces in order to speed research and development for projects operating in these areas.
Effective programmatic outreach to agencies allows 10x to intake ideas from new, different sources and ensures 10x projects are more easily able to find research and implementation partners. Approximately one-tenth of all federal agencies have applied to the 10x program to date. New approaches to outreach to increase this number include project lightning talks, leveraging technology communities of practice, and identifying champions throughout government to serve as signal boosters.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Several US government agencies worked with 10x to develop the structures necessary to allow the program to function. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) developed the regulatory structure to allow us to spend appropriated funds in this way, while the General Service Administration (GSA)’s Office of General Counsel helped us develop an innovative contractual approach to allow us to legally work with other agencies to determine how to spend these funds to address their problems.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
10x addresses issues affecting a wide range of stakeholders. Civil servants and agencies get resources to address problems directly affecting them. Organizations that receive federal funds benefit from 10x projects that significantly improved funding delivery and reporting. Vendors have used 10x-funded projects to reduce costs associated with delivering new technology for the federal government. All projects are open-source, allowing any individual to fork code or content for their own use.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Since 2015, 10x has received over 750 idea submissions from over 100 federal agencies. From these, 10x has funded 176 projects, generating a wide variety of products and services, including open-source tools and infrastructure, websites, research reports, playbooks, and training programs.
Projects of note include:
- The Eligibility APIs Initiative, a set of shared web services to help states increase data quality and efficiency and reduce duplication of effort when making eligibility determinations for human services programs.
- The U.S. Data Federation, which makes it easier for the government to validate and aggregate data from disparate sources via API and web interfaces. Several agencies are piloting the tool to streamline their data management efforts.
- The U.S. Web Design System, which makes it easier for agencies to build accessible, mobile-friendly government websites. It was recently codified into legislation as part of the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act.
Challenges and Failures
As the number of 10x-funded projects has grown, internal staffing constraints have created instances where projects experienced significant downtime between phases, leading to a loss of momentum and time spent onboarding a new team. As a result, 10x established and awarded an agile software development contract to a private-sector vendor. By combining the staff availability of the new service provider with internal support, 10x has been able to reduce this inefficiency.
10x has challenges in finding long-term “owners” for its outputs. 10x provides seed funding with the goal of finding a permanent steward for a product or service elsewhere in government. Due to funding constraints and the timing of budget cycles, this can sometimes be a difficult barrier to overcome. 10x is working with its project teams to manage this risk and also working with agencies to locate alternate funding streams outside of traditional budgeting processes agency partners can use to support 10x projects.
Conditions for Success
10x benefits from several enabling factors, including its supporting infrastructure and the culture of its partner organizations.
10x’s funding source, the Digital Services Fund, has a broad mandate to be used for new, good for government products and services, as well as a flexible structure that allows 10x to invest funds in a broad range of projects outside of the year in which funding was appropriated, reducing the pressure to spend all funding in a particular fiscal year.
10x regularly partners with several organizations located inside the federal government to execute on projects, including 18F, a technology consulting team; Census xD, a data science team; and the Office of Evaluation Science, a behavioral science team.
10x would not be successful without significant support from leadership within 10x’s own agency. Most importantly, 10x’s agency partners appreciate and adopt the risk mitigation and human-centered approaches to problem solving inherent in the 10x process.
The 10x model was designed with an eye towards replication by other government organizations both in the United States and internationally. Within the federal government, 10x’s incremental funding approach was used as inspiration for the governance of the U.S. Technology Modernization Fund (TMF), established by Congress in 2017. The Canadian Digital Service (CDS) announced in May 2019 that it was launching a new technology funding model, styled after 10x and others.
Other domestic and international governments have been actively reaching out to 10x to learn how to adapt the 10x model to their environments. 10x is working to better document the process and procedures it uses to help make the program as easily replicable and adaptable as possible.
The 10x program did not spring to life fully formed. It is the result of a number of experiments over several years prior to the official program launch, each designed to test different approaches to surfacing and funding new ideas. 10x is the result of accumulated lessons learned from these prior iterations.
The initial prototype for a larger investment strategy to develop new products and services, the Great Pitch, launched in May 2015 as a one-time-only startup-style pitch competition. Since then, 10x has gone through several more iterations, with changes and tweaks to the format to identify the most effective management strategies.
In just five years, 10x has revolutionized technology investments in the federal government. Over these years, 10x has learned several lessons:
- Develop an investment thesis. Prior to 2019, 10x had no defined thesis or investment areas. Ideas were scattered, and it was difficult to find common threads of work. Developing an investment thesis has made it easier for both 10x and for individuals applying for 10x funding to understand what is required by the program.
- Successful projects have defined outcome metrics. In previous iterations, project teams were not held accountable for milestones, nor were there consequences for failing to deliver. As a result, many projects either never launched or became protracted and often ran over budget. The current 10x model has defined requirements for outcome metrics, though there is significant flexibility given to each team to determine the metrics to which they will be held accountable.
- Clearly communicate the criteria used to evaluate ideas. This helps people understand why or why not their idea was selected and ensure a consistent approach among different evaluators.
- Have a consistent team make funding decisions. Subject matter experts are useful influencers but ultimately funding decisions should be made by those individuals charged with governing the fund.