Autumn in lake country

The colors are starting to change on the trees already. Not everybody knows this but some pine trees drop their needles, too. In fact, according to my cursory research most do drop their needles somewhat regularly. Danielle has a great story from one of her college professors, a noted tree expert in Minnesota, who got a frantic call from someone who was worried her pine tree was dying because it dropped its needles. By the time he could get in touch to say that no, this is a normal thing white pines do almost every year, she had already cut it down.

We’re basically in prime white pine territory and all the trees have a autumnal mix of green and brown needles. The biking and hiking trails are already beginning to accumulate needles and within a few weeks, I’m sure, they will be covered with that beautiful mix of brown, golden, red, and yellow.

A white pine with its limbs stripped on one side

My bike needs new brakes, not the pads but the actual cantilevers that squeeze the wheel. They’re supposed to pull evenly on both sides but the internals of the hardware on mine rusted through and it only pulls on the left side and I think it’s putting my wheel out of true. So in lieu of biking I’ve been trying to go for long walks every day. On Tuesday I took a familiar route to one I’ve been riding, along the bike trail that follows County C up toward Sayner. Only this time I took a left at the sign for the Plum Creek Public Fishing Grounds.

I thought maybe there’d be a trail following the creek but if there was one I couldn’t find it. About half a mile after turning off of C the road turns dirt and stretches seemingly forever northward, uninhabited except for a large house tucked maybe a mile and a half down the road and some kind of machine shed in the backyard. Eventually Plum Creek Avenue turns east and meets back with the bike trail.

A grove of birch trees

I’m not the fastest biker but I normally ride this three mile stretch about 11 miles an hour faster than I walked it and it’s pretty incredible to take in this kind of nature when you’re moving more slowly. You notice things. Like how the white pines seem to turn color from the bottom up and from the outside in; the pine cones seem to emerge as the needles disappear. Like the yellow to green cascade produced when the sunset hits a stand of birch trees. Or the undergrowth visible beneath a stand of pines.

Forests are such complex systems. After a long day of working for the government, arguably one of the more complex systems humans have ever created, it’s humbling and therapeutic to observe such a magnificent system living beyond our control. The forest will never stop – unless, of course, we stop it.

This week I’m grateful for forests, public land, and conservation.

Sunset on plum creek

One Year of 18F

A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting with some amazing public servants working for Minnesota’s Hennepin County government. I talked a little about 18F but most of our time was spent learning about the work they were doing for the public and taxpayers they served. One program that stuck out as particularly interesting was presented by someone from public works who showed the results of a program designed to help consumers make decisions based on whether businesses recycle, compost, or donate unused food to local shelters or farms. This project included an iconathon with the Noun Project “focused on developing badges of honor that reward local businesses for participating in recycling programs.”

Why start a reflection on my first year at 18F with a story about local government? Because, much like the agencies we work with, this county has a crew of public servants doing great work for the people without something like 18F being involved. They are starting to create a “Center for Innovation and Excellence,” it will be interesting to watch that program develop.

I came to 18F after about a year and a half as a contractor at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). There I was lucky to work with a team of brilliant, talented designers and technologists who were all moving the agency forward with the American consumer in mind first. There was a certain imperialism to working as a contractor and I hoped that going to 18F would help me feel more mission-driven, and closer to the goal of making government that is responsive and accountable to the public. One thing I’ve really homed in on over the last year is service. We talk about service a lot at 18F. Maybe more than any single other thing, and not in terms of availability of an application or database “service” (though we do talk about that) but in terms of our roles as public servants.

I think a lot about Pedagogy of the Opressed when I think about 18F. Not because the agencies we work for are oppressed in any sense, but for the lessons it contains for helping, listening, and teaching. We work in service to other agencies and to that end, we’re all in this public service game together. It’s rare that we come into a problem somebody hasn’t thought about before. It’s less rare, but still kind of rare, that we encounter one somebody doesn’t already have a solution for. The rarest of all: A problem nobody has tried to solve before. Like the teacher to Friere’s students, we have an opportunity for cooperation, collaboration, and unity when we start working with an agency. Find the people that already have insight and wisdom about their own situation, empower them, and help them realize their vision: The best work we do starts here.

That mentality seeps into every decision we make. How do we help Interior design a program to get every 4th grader on national lands? We design it so that 4th graders can use it. How do we help people immigrate to the United States? We could build a wall. Or we could build the process around the needs, education, and goals of people trying to do it. How do we help build trust with the public interacting with government services? By providing an easy way for agencies to see how they meeting best practices like HTTPS on the web. Some of these are big projects, some smaller, but all of them help the agency we’re serving achieve their goals by engaging the public more directly and effectively.

The truth of the matter is: The bright future is one where we don’t need 18F to do all that but as long as we do, we’re glad to be here serving.