Greg Boone

Tag: public service

Leaving 18F

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.

The homepage of 18f.gsa.gov
The 18F website

One of the first projects I helped with was our work supporting the US Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative (now Natural Resource Revenues Data). I helped the team write and plan their communications and in the process learned everything I wanted to know about natural resources revenues from federal lands but was too ashamed to ask. I also got to watch a team think deeply about who needed this information, why, and how they wanted to access it.

The revenuedata.doi.gov homepage
NRRD, formerly EITI

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/

The homepage of beta.usaspending.gov
The DATA Act website

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.

The newly redesigned cloud.gov homepage
cloud.gov

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.

The CALC homepage
CALC: On the surface it’s an acronym for Contract-Awarded Labor Category

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.

One of our teams built the first web design system for federal teams.

The homepage for standards.usa.gov
The US Web Design Standards

I learned so much about SSL working on one of the teams that was in the room for the federal government’s HTTPS Everywhere policies. That team also put together a dashboard showing the fed’s compliance with those policies.

The pulse.cio.gov homepage
How the government is doing with it’s HTTPS commitments

Another team in the TTS umbrella organization manages the Digital Analytics Program, a standardized way for government agencies to run Google Analytics. That team created a data visualization of governmentwide analytics data. You can see not only how many people are accessing what pages, you can see what browsers they’re using and where the traffic is coming from.

The analytics.usa.gov homepage as captured on January 15, 2018
Public results of the digital analytics program

OMB published a governmentwide open source policy shaped by voices from across the government and the country. The Department of Education to created the College Scorecard, a tool my own cousin used in her college search. The FBI released the Crime Data Explorer, making otherwise hard to find data accessible and open. We worked with Code for America and the State of California to help the California Child Welfare system deliver better services to their constituents. And then we helped Mississippi do the same.

I could really go on and on.

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.

Donald Trump, public service, and me

If you’ve read this blog or follow me on social media you might already know that I wasn’t a Trump supporter. I was raised to be suspicious of people who lied, cheated, and stole their way to the top. I was disgusted and terrified by the words he chose to use when talking about my fellow Americans from marginalized communities: People of color, LGBT people, the disabled, women, and especially Muslims. To me, most of his policy statements, in the rare event he gave one, rang as flippant and rooted in racist ideas about people’s motives. What makes me most nervous is that we have no idea what to expect from him other than making America great again. We learned on the campaign trail that we can’t trust the sincerity of anything he says. If he says something racist, he’s just joking. If he says something sexist like how he “grabs [women] by the pussy,” it’s “just locker room talk.” So is he serious about the wall? About banning Muslims from entering the country? About making immigrants walk around with special ID cards? We have no idea. I wasn’t a Romney or McCain supporter in the last two elections, but at least we know what we were in for if they won.

I’ve been ruminating about what all of this unease means for me, my job, and my family these last few days. I think back on the first day I sat down in the event center at 1800 F Street to take my oath of office, and the pride I felt saying those words:

I, Gregory Boone, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

I never really thought I’d be able to serve the federal government. I’m not a scientist or engineer or a lawyer and the jobs I did qualify for seemed out of reach. Once I was there, despite feeling really lucky and proud to walk past his portrait every morning, I didn’t really think of my job in terms of being an Obama Administration official but a US government official. There were plenty of things I thought Obama was wrong about. Trade policy, abuse of intelligence agencies, even, to some extent, healthcare. This nuance of working for the executive branch but not the administration is important and difficult to grasp to those of us who are new to it. I’ve been leaning on the wisdom of others these last few days in attempt to gain some perspective.

Susan Hennessey in the Lawfare blog talks about the ethics of serving in Trump’s National Security Agency. She served for several years and strongly believes that “an empowered intelligence community makes the world safer for people and ideas,” and “whoever the President may be, it is a critical authority necessary to keep Americans safe.” There are limits and bounds on that mission that are important for the health of our republic and we are part of the system of checks and balances. Therefore:

“It is the duty of rational, reasonable experts to serve their country in a Trump administration, even at the political level, if asked. If he will accept it, Trump must have wise and informed counsel. Americans will be served by principled individuals in government defending our Constitution and role in the world. Those who stay home to satisfy ideals of personal integrity will not make our world safer.”

This cuts at the core of the oath of office. We public servants are the front line between the government and the people of this country. We were hired to put our skill and expertise to work for the American people and the Constitution.

As Jen Pahlka, CEO of Code for America, wrote this week, we need to continue to “do everything they can to serve [our] real bosses: the American public.” Jen’s thoughts, and my colleague Noah Kunin’s, touched closer to the work we we do at 18F. Even if some of us came to 18F because they were inspired by President Obama, we ultimately came driven by the principle that the government should work better for it’s people.

At 18F we like to say we’re taking back the term “good enough for government work,” reclaiming it to mean we strive for the highest possible quality in everything we do. We can disagree with politicians about what government should be doing, and those politicians will certainly tell us what that answer is for the next 4 years, but we’re here to do. We’re here to do well and do good.

So, like Noah Kunin, I’m staying. I’m staying because Jen Pahlka is right, this is a movement happening at every level of government here in the US and around the world. We get nowhere if we don’t show up. I hoped I could serve the US government beyond my term, and I continue to hope for that.

I’m staying. I’m finishing my coffee.

18F Three (and a half) Months In

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
Kafkaesque disappointment.

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?