To Fix Government Tech, Take Off the Headphones and Listen


USDS staffers Marianne Bellotti, Sabrina Williams, and David Chang on the steps of the USDS “Townhouse” HQ.

The US government is famously slow and bureaucratic, but when it comes to digital transformation, the Feds have outdone themselves. Case in point is — the original government solution for identity management cost $200 million to build and would have cost $70 million to run each year. Of course, it failed spectacularly — until a small group of Valley engineers recruited by the President re-built the site for just $4mm.

But while it’s easy to poke fun at our government, it’s also the single most impactful organization in our economy — with millions of employees and services that directly and sometimes dramatically impact hundreds of millions of Americans.

The United States Digital Service — born after that team of Valley engineers rebooted a few years ago, celebrated just its second birthday last month (for a great overview, read Steven Levy’s post on Backchannel). The program, which taps talent from tech companies for a one or two year tour of duty in government, has some impressive early wins under its belt, but a series of recent conversations with its staffers and leaders yielded a more interesting conclusion: While still a very young organization, the USDS is developing a set of management practices that all businesses — Valley icons and Fortune 500 companies alike — could learn from.

The project was a crisis situation — the site was the centerpiece of the President’s policy, and it was down, after all — but most government agencies need a different kind of help. Mikey Dickerson, a former site reliability engineer at Google, leads the growing staff of 170 or so, and his team knew that having groups of Valley nerds swoop in to “fix” the IRS or Veterans Affairs just wasn’t going to fly. Government agencies are unique cultural beasts, and to work alongside them requires more than technological prowess — it requires a certain emotional and social intelligence — traits that aren’t always rewarded inside Valley companies.

Wikipedia describes “emotional intelligence,” also known as EQ, as “the capacity of individuals to recognize … emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and to manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt environments or achieve one’s goal(s).”

That doesn’t sound like an average interaction with the government, but something big is brewing inside Uncle Sam’s house, and if it spreads, it might just change how millions of Americans view their government.

“What if interacting with government services were as easy as ordering a book online?” That’s the mission of the USDS in a nutshell. But given the government’s legendary bureaucracy and ingrained culture, delivering on that mission requires a new approach to getting work done.

USDS Values

According to USDS head of talent Jennifer Anastasoff, it all starts with hiring. When the USDS launched, the tiny team was anxious that no one would apply. After all, the trade was not necessarily compelling: Take a year off, make less money, and work inside agencies infamous for their resistance to change. But the USDS founders underestimated the tech world’s desire to engage in public service: Two years in, the USDS has fielded thousands of applications for less than two hundred positions.

How to sort through that abundance?

In short, Anastasoff and her team look for emotional intelligence. “We are bringing in people for a short period of time,” Anastasoff told me. “So we have to find people who have EQ.”

To that end, the USDS created an interview process that filters candidates by their ability to understand and empathize with others. “We deliberately ask ‘stupid’ questions,” explained USDS engineer Marianne Bellotti, a transplant from the technical team at the United Nations. Stupid, that is, if the question were asked in an interview at a place like Facebook. But more often than not, USDS engineers must interact with non-technical public servants who are ill at ease with technology and concerned about taking risks that might expose them to career-ending missteps. “If you as an engineer can’t explain something to someone in a way that is respectful and enthusiastic,” Bellotti continued, “or if you’re dismissive….you’re probably not going to work out here.”

Here are more tips, tricks and insights gleaned from several conversations with USDS team members:

  • Hands off the keyboard. Engineers at typical Valley companies are protected by layers of management who keep them focused on coding as much as possible. But the USDS takes a team approach, combining engineers with federal employees. “There is far less hands on the keyboard and a lot more being in room with different stakeholders,” Bellotti explained. The ability to deeply listen, respect others’ points of view, and speak the truth — even if it’s uncomfortable — are critical.
  • Bring the air cover. Federal employees exist in a culture of command and control. It’s difficult to move quickly or laterally in such a culture. Because the USDS exists outside of the chain of command, it provides “air cover” that allows everyone on the team to move quickly and “get sh*t done.” Of course, a direct remit from the President doesn’t hurt either.
  • Come in with a shared story. The USDS parachutes in and out of projects, and that means those who work day in and day out may resent “golden geeks” as interlopers. Providing a narrative that focuses on the outcomes the USDS and the agency both share is crucial.
  • Everyone is on a mission. “Mission driven” is often the centerpiece of tech-driven companies, but in the government, it’s fundamental. It’s one thing to code a new app or service that might make a consumer’s life more convenient. It’s quite another to build a platform that finally delivers healthcare to millions of veterans. Engineers in particular are drawn to solving problems that make a difference. Turns out, that’s exactly what government is supposed to do.
  • Be present. In most Valley companies, engineers don headphones or close their office doors so as to focus on coding. But communication and trust building is key in government work. “It may be as simple as not wearing headphones, or moving your desk so you look out your door to others in the office,” said Sabrina Williams, a USDS engineer who came from Google.
  • Go where the work is. This one is critical to the USDS’ success: Staffers work side by side with teams from the contracting agency. Liyan David Chang, a former entrepreneur who led a Y Combinator-backed startup, worked for months alongside thirty or so IRS staffers to update the IRS website. “The IRS really did all the work,” Chang told me. “We coached and helped them think things through.” It wasn’t that the agencies’ people were incompetent, in fact, far from it, Chang said. It was that they didn’t have access to the new ways of thinking the Valley has developed around solving technological problems.
  • The best people are overworked. The USDS team was universal in its praise for the federal employees they worked with, but noted a unique trend: Because it’s hard to hire experienced technical people as full time government employees, the people who are there were doing the work of three or four people. When augmented by a USDS team, real change could happen quickly.
  • It’s still engineering, it’s just social engineering. Engineers are trained to solve problems. But some of the toughest problems aren’t technical — they’re cultural. An engineer’s mindset, coupled with strong EQ, can identify what’s blocking a project from moving forward.
  • Flexibility is key. Government projects are messy and there’s usually no one simple or canonical solution. “In the interview process we ask ‘When have things not gone your way, how have you dealt with that?’” Anastasoff said. “This is not the kind of work where you can plan for exactly what will happen every day.”

According to Pew, American’s trust in government has plummeted over the past 50 years, from a high of nearly 80% in the mid 1960s to a low of under 30% in 2015. But what if, in fact, a nascent but promising collaboration between private sector and public service employees can reverse that trend? Thanks to the USDS, we get a chance to find out if it will.

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