Today was my last day at 18F, the startup-like agency inside the U.S General Services Administration I joined back in September 2014. When I joined I wrote: “Working with a team of talented individuals to create a more open, transparent, and accessible government is a cause close to my heart.” That’s still true. It’s also true that, four years in, nobody has used their political clout or tenure to shut it down as was foretold to me by a former colleague.
It might be easy to see my leaving as politically driven by the administration change. It is not. While there are more politically appointed individuals overseeing 18F and TTS’s work than when I started, any notion that the organization was taken over by the White House, or that they are now expected to be White House loyalists, is overblown. We took an oath to protect and uphold the Constitution and that includes the 14th Amendment which promises equal protection under the law. No American should see their government services degraded just because the people who deliver it happen to disagree with the people setting the policy. There’s a broader academic argument but it’s not for this post.
I’m leaving because my term is almost up and when I look back on it, it’s kind of staggering how much I’ve gotten to work on over the last 3 years, 4 months, and 9 days at 18F.
I was part of the team that figured out what the 18F website needed to do for people and rebuilt it basically from scratch to better serve the agencies trying to work with us. I didn’t do much (any?) of the building, but my team knocked it out of the park.
I helped the team that implemented the United States’ first open data law write about how they got every federal agency in the government to report spending data in the same way. It’s called the DATA Act, and it was a massive undertaking. See their work: https://beta.usaspending.gov/#/ and learn more about it: https://18f.gsa.gov/tags/data-act/
More recently I worked with the cloud.gov team build a Platform as a Service designed to comply with federal policy. It’s the first fully open source product to be authorized by FedRAMP. For the layperson reading this, it’s a big damn deal. FedRAMP is the federal cloud services equivalent to a boundary waters outfitter telling you to go with the WeNoNah canoe. You still need to decide if it’s right for you but it’s a strong endorsement.
I learned a lot about how government contracting works, enough to know that I’ll never come close to knowing everything. I scratched the surface working with the team behind CALC, a market research tool that helps contracting officers determine a fair market price for professional services.
And then there’s all the things that happened while I was at 18F. Even if I didn’t get to help build or write about them, it was inspiring to be on the same team as those folks.
The federal government employs some of the most talented individuals I’ve ever worked with. They’re motivated by honest and passionate service to the American public. That was what I signed onto when I joined in 2014 and, though many of the faces behind it have changed, that spirit remains.
As for me, I’m off to Automattic where I’ll continue working for a passionate, open source team helping WordPress.com customers have a great experience with a product I’m passionate about. WordPress helps people around the world tell their story, whether it’s an individual food blogger or a major newspaper.
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.
Jekyll has become one of my favorite things lately. At 18F we’re using it to power our website but also our Hub project which includes serving up snippets, our weekly team updates submitted by Google Form, as well as a tremendous amount of information that is a mix of pages restricted to our team and some that is public. The Hub uses Prose to allow people less comfortable with GitHub and Markdown to edit Jekyll pages with something closer to a What you See is What You Get (WYSIWYG) interface than a typical markdown document has. Prose is a great tool, and I’m not just saying that because we use it. But for many static sites haven’t quite gone far enough, and that’s okay.
Early adopters like static sites a lot. People who bought one of the first Blackberries or used WordPress in 2006, for example, might like static site generators a lot. People who like Markdown or other markup languages enjoy static site generators. And some appreciate the simplicity of configuration found in static sites, especially the lack of a database. For many people like me it is a refreshing focus on writing without the complications of The Admin UI that have plagued even the best CMS platforms.
An example of these complications? I recently helped my wife with some settings on her blog and was reminded how confusing the WordPress Admin can be. Where do you think you should go to set your front page to display a page instead of latest posts? Settings > General? Settings > Writing? Settings > Media? The answer: None of the above. It’s Settings > Reading. I guess when I think about it that makes sense, you’re changing a setting that changes the experience for someone reading your site.
At the same time, there are still some things that a CMS does really well that static site generators
lack. At least to me, Jekyll’s simplicity is a feature that forces me to think about the value of, for example, a tag archive or automatic image formatting before implementing it. With a CMS these features are there waiting for you to use or extend. WordPress for example provides a really simple API to extend the WYSIWYG interface with ‘shortcodes.’ All of this comes in handy when you need to create a blog post with images floated left and right and center, or when building that tag archive (easy as it may
be) means taking away time from publishing real content.
If I’m not a developer, needing to become one or hire one just to start writing a blog post is a pretty high barrier to entry. Feeling like I need to become one just to write a blog post is even higher. The reason I became a developer in the first place was that in 2006 when I needed to reboot my college radio station’s website WordPress was insanely easy to install and configure and gave us almost everything we needed (with the right theme and plugins), and in 2009 when I built the first version of HarmsBoone.org and International Underground I didn’t need to learn much beyond CSS and a few WordPress methods. When I eventually needed to know more it was still a fairly low barrier to entry and we always had a website that everybody could edit. In particular, Child themeing is particularly useful for learning WordPress on the fly.
Static sites, for all their simplicies and technical advantages, still have a pretty high barrier to entry, especially if you need to overcome the limitations GitHub pages puts on Jekyll sites. And to be fair, WordPress has significant (read: 8-10 year) head start over Jekyll plus the entire WordPress Core and Automattic teams nurturing the developer base.
Nevertheless, without lowering that bar and adding some of those features it will be really hard to get broader adoption among people who want a Just Start Writing Already. For many, logging in to the WordPress Admin and using the WYSIWYG either to write or to paste in copied text will always be preferable to editing monospaced text with strange formatting signals around it, even if there are buttons to help them out. (Let’s not belittle the bar-lowering power or Prose, Dillinger, and other Markdown helpers, though, for some they may be exactly the right tool.)
It will remain preferable even if they rely on a bookmark in their browser, or an icon on their desktop to get them to the admin screen. Clicking “Preview” will be preferable to navigating to running a shell command and then heading to localhost:4000 because what’s a localhost? What’s that colon all about? And what’s so special about 4000? And clicking “Publish” will definitely be preferable over committing a git workflow to memory.
These are problems Static Site Generators can solve, and part of what makes them beautiful is how they are malleable to each user’s needs. And if you put
a developer on the comms team you’ll be able to build the site you need on the platform that works because you’ll ask your users what they need and how they work. If your users need to
copy and paste blog posts from Google Docs, give them that. If they want a WYSIWYG editor for writing and collaborating on posts, give them that. If the need the full WordPress UI, give them that. I’m not trying to sound flippant. Building a WYSIWYG on top of Jekyll would be a difficult problem, but it’s not
impossible. Using Google Drive as a CMS will also take work, it’s not impossible. Building GUI applications to abstract away the command line is difficult, but not impossible.
There are hundreds of content management
systems and static site generators operating on nearly every language in existence (including FORTRAN). And there are WordPress plugins for nearly everything imaginable at this point, and usually there are three of four of them to choose from. Your mileage will almost certainly vary from one solution to another but go with the solution that will make your content creators most comfortable.
When I left my last job the company threw one last happy hour for me—a typical send-off for that firm. While we were mingling around the bar my co-workers were asking me how I was feeling about the move. Earlier that week someone on my account asked me if I felt any “trepidation” about going to the GSA and for the most part people were supportive and congratulatory.
At the happy hour, though, one of the company’s newer employees told my wife something interesting: “Unlike most people,” he said, “I actually became more conservative during college.” He went on to say he was an economics major and became enchanted with incentives and determined that, lacking them federal employees have no reason to do good work. And then he came right out and told me he thought that the ideals behind 18F were good and geniune but eventually I was going to be working on something great and a GS15 would show up and arbitrarily end it.
He basically told me I was absolutely, undoubtedly, and quickly headed for
That line stuck with me on my first day at the GSA, though, because it wasn’t just him who said things like this. The colleague who asked if I had any trepidations told me he spent a summer working for the GSA essentially inventorying the government issued furnituring for embassy residences. The details were a bit murky but I got the sense he didn’t take the job very seriously when the punchline turned out that a woman at one of the residences answered the door in her underwear. People would talk about our colleagues at the CFPB like they were riding out their careers, set for a life of doing nothing and getting paid to do it. I can’t count how many times I heard someone say our colleagues intentionally did shoddy work or had lower standards because they were government employees.
“That kind of work would never be tolerated if there was money at stake.”
That attitude was so pervasive that I was a bit nervous going into day one
that, despite all signs to the contrary, they were right. I was determined to
prove them wrong, and the incredibly talented, passionate team I work with has only fueled my conviction that public servants—be they teachers, software developers, or bank inspectors—are some of the most passionate, dedicated people in the workforce. If anything, I’ve had more GS15s tell us to keep up the great work than otherwise.
All this is to say, if you think bureaucracy is hard, you’re right. If you think bureaucracy can be used to unproductive ends, you’re right. But if you think it has to be that way and will never change: you’re flat wrong. The government is a big ship and it’s going to take more than one 18F to change it, but the progress we’ve made inside the GSA is real. We managed to hire a team of more than 70, take on a smattering of projects that are either live or in beta stage with more on their way. And it’s all being done by public servants.
To that colleague, incentives pretty much exclusively meant money: raises, bonuses, stock options, what have you. And that’s great but we do things every day that are not driven by earning more money. We are not all walking around with carrots in front of our faces and sticks at our back. At least in government, we’re driven by different motives: improving the lives of everyday Americans by making their interactions with government easier, more efficient, and with a greater chance of success motivates us. Saving taxpayer money motivates us. Disproving all the prejudices people have of government work motivates us. Who needs incentives to do that?