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.
One thing that’s really incredible about working for 18F is our ability to telework from just about anywhere. Everything we do is online and everyone we work with is in one of about six different places so even when we’re not teleworking, we’re teleworking.
Being telework-able also means when we have to leave our home base and visit family instead of taking vacation or going on leave, we can keep working, which is just totally wild. So for the last two and a half days of this week I’ve found myself in Madison, WI, a virant city of about 250,000 that’s home to Badgers, Mallards, and four stunning lakes.
Day one: JPH, 100state, and Rain
I didn’t expect the rain. I probably should have but I didn’t and ended up in the middle of the rainstorm after an excellent breakfast at Johnson Public House on E. Johnson Street. The barista there described the coffee he served me as a punch in the face. He was not wrong but, paired with a breakfast sandwich, it was exactly what I needed to get going in the morning.
After working a couple hours there I decided to drop in on 100state, a non-profit co-working space right off of Capitol Square. If you’ve never been to Madison, Capitol Square is pretty wonderful. Like DC, Madison has a height restriction, only the one here is more explicit about the buildings being shorter than the capitol. It’s also on one of the highest spots in the city so no matter where you are, you can probably catch a glimpse if you orient yourself correctly.
Emanating from the capitol is a system of four annular streets that fill in the isthmus between lakes Monona and Mendota. From the center leading directly west to the University is State Street, a pedestrian and public transit only zone. Right off the square, sharing a building with Wisconsin’s Secretary of State, is a small, non-profit co-working spot called 100state.
Though I’ve only once been to UberOffices in DC, I’d be surprised if other co-working spaces were much different from the sterile, silent, sparse environment that cost anywhere from $40-$75 per month for a eight hours at a table with Internet. 100state’s small staff described themselves as being a “member driven” non-profit that recouped its operating costs through usage fees that make their more expensive, commercial counterparts look like scams.
Lunch at Ian’s Pizza because of course. Chicken burrito pizza, 1 slice; wish I had seen they had Sprechers in the fountain, guess there’s always tomorrow.
The day rounded out with a trip to Willy Street for a haircut and a burger at the inimitable Mickey’s Tavern. Even in the rain Madison is a warm place. Wish I had more time to engage with the civic tech community at Hacking Madison and learn more about what people are shipping in the Badger State.
It’s a big life change for me to add on to so many others lately. (Did you hear I got married?) On Monday I leave almost two years of work at Excella Consulting and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to take on the unique opportunity of changing the way government works from the inside out. 18F is a fascinating agency that’s been getting a lot of attention for its connections to the Presidential Innovation Fellowship (which it runs) and the newly formed US Digital Service. At 18F we’re committed to working with other agencies to build high quality digital tools that disrupt the notion that government tech projects are long death marches that ultimately come up lackluster. Instead, 18F approaches government technical problems in a user-focused, agile way that will change the average citizen’s experience interacting with their government.
Working with a team of talented individuals to create a more open, transparent, and accessible government is a cause close to my heart. I’m tremendously excited to get to work hacking our bureaucracy.