Stock Options? Don’t Need ’Em! I’m Coding For Uncle Sam

Washington plans to rob the private sector of a 500-people elite tech squad from all over Silicon Valley by the end of 2016 — here is how and why

Washington is catching up on reforming the way government uses computer technology and connectivity. Moonshot advances have transformed every aspect of society but government. As much as better delivery of information technology and agency problems were not in the top handful of presidential issues for a long time, they soon became too big to ignore. In October 2013, the failure of dysfunctional Healthcare.gov became the lead story on news channels. The original estimate from the Congressional Budget Office had been that 7 million people would enroll, but given the circumstances if only 4 million did, it would be considered a success. “Healthcare.gov had just launched and it wasn’t going too great. […] If it couldn’t be fixed, then it would be a catastrophe for the policy, with the 2014 election coming and the unpopular law having failed to launch. [Our] honest assessment [was that] the whole […] site was overpriced by hundreds of millions of dollars and did not work at all” [2] explained a member of the tech squad. It took 8 seconds to respond to a mouse click. The site miscategorized minors in Louisiana as incarcerated prisoners and thus as ineligible for health care. It crashed so often that no one was able to complete an application. The failure threatened not only the controversial Affordable Care Act but the legacy of the Obama administration, while costing taxpayers no less than $300 million.

healthcare-gov

To combat the top-down and inflexible mindset that locked federal IT into obsolete practices and caution, the US Digital Service (USDS, consulting) and 18F (coding) [3] were created in 2015. Funded by Congress’ omnibus $20 million spending bill, the White House startup “paired top technology talent with the best public servants”. [4] The goal was to fix problems, build products, and consult for government agencies to help improve the country’s most important digital services. The challenge was that contractors had been hired to work only on discrete pieces of the puzzle but none dealt with overall performance issues. No contractor had been made responsible for ensuring that Healthcare.gov was operational. [5] The other real foe was combating risk aversion. Government was trained to not do things differently because really bad consequences could occur when something different failed.

time-code-redBecause this is such a large industry to disrupt, President Obama’s 2016 budget included a total of $105 million to replicate the USDS team inside of the 24 major agencies, for a total of around 500 people. The organization sits in the Office of Management and Budget, reporting to US Chief Information Officer. As a world-class technology coalition inside government, the USDS helps agencies by introducing Silicon Valley’s competitive best practices – nimbleness, speed, risk-taking, experimentation, relentless testing and agile problem-solving.

The Healthcare.gov’s rescue plan led the government to parachute top tech talent into other high-impact projects like the Affordable Care Act, veterans’ affairs, social security, student loans, and immigration. [6] The biggest priority at Veterans Affairs was creating a disability evaluation tool for vets applying for benefits. At Immigration, it was helping Homeland Security make the I-90 process - how to get a replacement green card - into an online application process. To actually apply to the system it used to cost about $400 per application, it took end user fees and 6 months’ wait time, and by the end, the paper application had traveled the globe no less than 6 times. I-90 was the first functioning release that had existed on this project in almost 7 years. Previous results had been behind schedule and slower than paper on a $1.2 billion contract. [5]

 

emojisBeyond the burst-seeking culture that goes with non-bureaucratic white boards and DJ equipment, the active ingredient for USDS’ success lies in the squad’s ruthless mission of hanging on to public service. The Healthcare.gov experience showed Silicon Valley that status quo was no longer an option. “Some are working right now on another app for people to share pictures of food or a social network for dogs. Your country has a better use for your talents. […] All of these are design and information processing problems, matters of life or death to millions of citizens and things you can fix if you choose to.” [2] In this market economy, technology talents are crucial capital. Allocating one’s resources is a personal choice or a collective responsibility. Washington offers an opportunity for true impact through digital disruption. Increasing numbers of engineers and designers care more for challenges and chances to influence real problems and change the way the government is operated more than for money and free food at work. Eventually it will become a point of pride. If a nerd [7] is really the best of the best, then at some point he or she will rejoice in being asked to “transform the world’s biggest bureaucracies”. [8]

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Sources:

[1] Backchannel, Stock Options? Don’t Need ’Em! I’m Coding For Uncle Sam!

[2] Mikey Dickerson to SXSW: Why We Need You In Government speech

[3] Washington Post, The White House Launches US Digital Service With Healthcare.gov Fixer At The Helm

[4] https://www.whitehouse.gov/participate/united-states-digital-service

[5] Wired, America’s Tech Guru Steps Down—But He’s Not Done Rebooting the Government

[6] Business Insider, How the White house plans to poach 500 recruits

[7] https://twitter.com/usds

[8] TechCrunch, Uncle Sam wants you to hack the Pentagon

 

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7 thoughts on “Stock Options? Don’t Need ’Em! I’m Coding For Uncle Sam

  1. I had the opportunity to be in a USDS and 18F recruiting session once at a conference and the energy was really amazing. (I was with a colleague and if you want a first hand account, he wrote a great post about it: http://geoffreylitt.com/2015/10/07/cfa-summit.html). Your points are spot on: their plug was that instead of using your skills to create the next “SoLoMo” app or build the next adtech platform, come solve real problems and make the world a better place. While a lot of great people from Silicon Valley are leaving to join organizations like 18F, USDS or Code for America, it will be interesting to see if this has a significant brain drain on talent in the valley and whether government can really continue to compete with the big names for talent.

  2. This is an exciting development and I hope they are successful! I’m curious though how the government is going about competing for top tech talent against tech employers. Many technology employers are fighting over technical talent and competing through sizable base compensation, lucrative equity packages, attractive perks (e.g., onsite massages, free lunch and dinner, etc.). I also wonder how the government can adapt to ensure that the type of culture that these employees have become used to can be replicated, at least the positive parts, while still working harmoniously with the standards that the government is used to. There definitely is room for friction between the two cultures and their respective approaches – for instance the technologists may lean more towards moving quickly and learning from efforts that are live while the traditional public sector employees may lean towards extensive discussion, planning, and seeking buy-in, resulting in ultimately slower roll-outs. In case you haven’t read it, President Obama raised some interesting points about how government even differs from the business world in its approach and considerations (http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-obama-silicon-valley-20161017-snap-story.html) – this sentiment likely extends further towards the technology sector in particular.

  3. Thanks for posting this – I love “civic tech” and have even considered it as a career. We’re seeing similar movements in a lot of major cities around the U.S., such as Boston and New York City. I have a couple concerns about this movement that temper my optimism. First, it is *incredibly* important that digital-focused startups in government like these have sufficient autonomy and consistency across administrations. The problem with being part of a political institution is that funding is subject to volatility from shifts in administration. Philadelphia went through a mayoral transition and completely turned over its innovation team within the new mayor’s first 100 days. In addition, there’s a tendency for these digital innovations to be managed by the same people who install IT infrastructure — old-school folks who worry mostly about security and haven’t embraced the true values of the digital revolution: agile, iterative, customer-centric design.

  4. Thanks for this post! I have been following the USDS since its creation and hope that it continues to get the funding it deserves in the future. One concern I have always had with the program is top talent recruitment. While it’s nice to say that people would be willing to settle for lower wages for the good of “public service”, I fear that not having the right financial incentives in place will ultimately be a major barrier. Even for top private industry CTOs and CIOs, taken recruitment and retention is one of the biggest top of mind issues: http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/winning-the-battle-for-technology-talent. One of the issues McKinsey addresses in this article is “career staleness.” How do you keep creative and driven people excited about their job? Rotations are one way many companies do this. I could imagine rotational partnerships with the USDS as an effective and impactful way to solve talent acquisition and retention issues in both the private and public sector. Imagine if the best coders at Google were empowered to take a one year sabbatical to work for the USDS. The government would benefit from a constant influx of fresh, innovative thinkers and companies would have a unique value proposition for their employees. Further, the rotation of talent would help USDS avoid the big bureaucratic feelings of other large governmental organizations.

  5. I agree with prior comments that recruitment is key. I’m less worried about the financial package – what has motivated high-performing people in the past to go into government has been a sense of duty (at least in theory). I think the same can apply for tech-minded folks. What worries me is that the government bureaucracy is so far from the fast-paced world of tech that it will be hard to retain talented people. Caroline’s proposal of company rotations into government is compelling, but I think for really impactful innovation you need a talented group of people for a more extended period of time.

    I think one creative way to attract people is for the government to create an organization that sits out of the normal command and control structure of the government, where it can steer clear from government bureaucracy yet benefit form government dollars. It’s a bold organization structure, but one I think we need to stay ahead in a digital world.

  6. I had the privilege to work with a Naval officer who worked with USDS appointed people while at a government agency. He mentioned the program and talked about both the benefits and challenges. On the plus side, the Silicon Valley coders were “wizards” in their ability to code and solve problems. However, the challenging part was for the other people that had to work with them. Specifically, he said their entry in the office was contentious because they were being paid 3x more than others holding similar positions in the office. The high wage is the only way they would come to do Public Service, but this frustrated many of the public servants because they had worked for much longer in the government yet were being paid less. Anyways, his insights helped highlight the cultural challenges when combing employees from different organizations. One method to potentially entice coders to work for the government is to have their original companies guarantee their positions after the one-year commitment, or even have them stay permanently located in California and then alternate weeks between working remotely and traveling to Washington, DC.

  7. I am happy to see that the U.S. Government evolved in this instance from a slow-moving bureaucracy to a rapid solution-finding task force mentality. As our world continues to move into the digital space, it is going to be key for our governments to quickly adapt to the changing environment. One example of an organization that still needs to mend itself in this regard is the Veterans Administration. Some of its most important digital presences remain antiquated and are badly in need of renovation. Perhaps it’s time to get the USDS and 18F on the job.

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