Greg Boone

Tag: government

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.

Why analytics.usa.gov Matters

Last weeek I had the pleasure of helping 18F launch analytics.usa.gov, a public dashboard showing basic data about how many people are visiting government websites at any given moment. While we got a lot of attention for it, being featured on Gizmodo, the Washington Post (twice), and a bunch of other tech and government industry press. More surprising to me was how many people I knew that weren’t in either industry that heard about it and wanted to build one of their own. (You should, you can, here’s how)

Government websites at 8AM Eastern Time

Why does something like this matter? Gizmodo and The Post did a pretty good job of explaiing that. This dashboard shows, at a really raw level, which parts of the government ordinary citizens interact with every day. Even in the wee hours of the morning there are about as many people interacting with a government website as can fill the Packers Stadium in Green Bay. At the time Gizmodo picked it up, there were 150 people on government websites, which is large enough that no football stadium in the country could hold everyone. They also compared forecast.weather.gov’s normal traffic to what The Dress was able to accomplish and weather.gov destroyed The Dress by about 20 million.

One of my colleagues pointed out the weather.gov traffic was likely a lot of scrapers from news and weather organizations but that only reinforces how important these numbers are. As the Post put it, these numbers offer “an altogether different study of the population, one that highlights not just who we are, but what government services we find most useful.” And while the top two right now are the National Weather Service and “Where’s my Refund,” scrolling down the top 20 list reveals some surprising insights. The Astronomy Photo of the Day is routinely in the top 10. The Department of Agriculture’s home page also makes the list, but so does StopBullying.gov. Specifically, a page on how to stand up against bullies. Other top contenders also include websites for checking immigration status, Veteran’s Affaris and social security benefits, and applying for a job with the United States government.

All told, there were nearly 1.4 billion (with a b) people who interacted with the government in the last 90 days. Put another way, that’s four visits per resident of the United states every three months. They’re coming to the government for information and help they know only the US government can provide. They’re coming for public services and resources they can use to improve people’s lives.

To paraphrase the late Paul Wellstone: Public service is not about big money or power games; it’s about the improvement of people’s lives. Analyitics.usa.gov is an active expression of government “for the people, of the people, and by the people.”

PS: while writing this post, about 20,000 more people started accessing government websites.