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Hack the bureaucracy: a user’s guide to getting things done in government (with or without tech)

(Abridged version published on GovExec on 07.20.17)

Government doesn’t get much love. That said, everyone needs it to work well: to keep the peace, care for its people, maintain security, and countless other services that make life livable. New York Times columnist David Brooks described it best in a piece titled, “The Stem & The Flower,” smartly using a pretty metaphor to praise government when it’s least loved. Ideally, Brooks wrote, government is a thing in the background. Its systems enable societies to flourish, as stems do a flower’s bloom.

His point: people — citizens, and society at large — are the bloom of the flower. Government, when in good working order, should be the stem: reliable, competent, and innocuous.

Plenty of government officials want to be just that: reliable, competent, and innocuous; to do their jobs, keep the bureaucracy running smoothly. As most officials will attest, though, government is anything but smooth. Studies show most people think government’s a terrible place to work — a 2016 Gallup poll ranked government dead last among all sectors, with a 28% desirability rating. Studies also show that the people don’t trust government’s ability to get things done — a similar poll in 2015 showed trust in the federal government at a record low of 38%. And of the people who do work in government, almost half of them are pretty checked out — only 59% of government employees report feeling engaged with their jobs.

In short, the stats support popular perceptions: government’s a rough place to work.

Don’t lose hope! If you have taken the plunge into public service, you’re there because you believe you can make a difference, maybe even make the country a little bit better than it was before you got there. It is indeed possible to get things done in government; you just have to know how. With a little savvy, a lot of persistence, and some practical, low-fi hacks, any government official can turn their job into a gig to envy. Here are three tricks to help you hack your bureaucracy.

Hack #1: Decipher the bureaucracy

There’s no blueprint to the machine of government; no way to chart a course and clear sail from idea to implementation in a neat, orderly fashion. The reason for this is that government isn’t a static thing. It runs; literally. There’s a code — a set of laws, enshrined in (yes, it’s actually called this) the US Code — “the consolidation and codification by subject matter of the general and permanent laws of the United States.” It dictates what services government must provide. And since government runs, it’s only through the daily actions of government officials — perpetually implementing laws and delivering services — that government really, truly exists.

So to conduct your daily actions — in other words, to run government — ideally, you need to understand what you’re doing. And there’s no better way to really get something than to break it down to its constituent parts. I’ll explain how. But first, a brief, fun, and necessary tangent: in 2015, former NASA roboticist (and creator of the web comic xkcd) Randall Munroe wrote a book called Thing Explainer, using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language. The book diagrams incredibly complex things — from tectonic plates to the International Space Station — using incredibly simple language (e.g. “flat rocks we live on” for tectonic plates and “space car for the red world” for the Mars rover).

To decipher the bureaucracy, take inspiration from Munroe and, literally, decipher it: translate bureaucratic language into plain English. It may sound rather no-duh, but it’s harder than it sounds and, ultimately, an extremely satisfying exercise that’s worth the effort.

Take, for example, taxes. Everyone has to pay taxes. Why? Ask Google “Why do I have to pay taxes?” and you’ll be directed to 2-page brochure prepared by the IRS helpfully titled, “Why do I have to pay taxes?”

The title, unfortunately, is where the brochure ceases to be helpful to the average citizen. Rather than answer the question, the brochure descends into bureaucratese:

“Congress has delegated to the IRS the responsibility of administering the tax laws- known as the Internal Revenue Code (the Code) and found in Title 26 of the United States Code. Congress enacts these tax laws, and the IRS enforces them.

As with so much government-speak, this a. doesn’t tell us what we need to know, and b. is too complex — it’s written at a 11th grade reading level. This matters, because the average American reads at the 7th or 8th grade level. This is why media designed for the masses –the USA Today-type newspapers and John Grisham-type books — are written at the 7th grade level. So if you really want to understand government policies yourself, or better yet, help the general public understand them, take the time to translate them into basic English. Use the Munroe-inspired “The UpGoer5 Text Editor” (“UpGoer” meaning “spaceship” — as in, “the thing that goes up”…), the website, or just use Microsoft Word’s readability statistics (under the Spelling and Grammar menu). These tools tell you the difficulty level of your text. Once you see where the jargon is, you can wordsmith it back from bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo into clear, oh-yeah! English.

Take the IRS example above. Ideally, the text would actually answer the question, with something like “Tax money keeps America safe, connected, and educated by paying for our military, roads, and schools.” But say we stick with the non-answer provided. At the very least, we could at least simplify it, from:

“Congress has delegated to the IRS the responsibility of administering the tax laws- known as the Internal Revenue Code (the Code) and found in Title 26 of the United States Code”

To something like:

“Congress gives the IRS power to make sure people pay taxes.”

This bureaucratic-language deciphering may seem like a whole lot of bother over nothing — who reads pamphlets by the IRS anyway? The answer is — well, I don’t know who reads IRS pamphlets. But the point is, any American citizen should be able to read them. Citizens pay for government. As such, government owes citizens clear, simple explanations about what the heck they actually do and why it matters.

Hack #2: Accept anonymity

One of the hardest things to adapt to in government, especially if you’re right out of school, is the fact that you will likely get no direct credit for the work you do. Instead of your name on that memo you slaved over, your bosses name goes on it.

First, get over it. Government is no place for ego. I’ll say it again: your boss will get credit for your work. And yes, that’s hard. But it’s worth remembering that your boss is also the one who will get fired if anything goes wrong. So, your job is to make your boss’s job easier. And that means it’s your job to get him or her smart, fast.

This is especially important because 2017 is a busy era, work-wise — in government and everywhere else. On an average day in 2017, the average person fields 122 emails, 85 texts, and 5 phone calls, in addition to spending approximately 3 hours a day in meetings. That’s 212 distinct, discrete instances where someone is trying to get your attention.

Another way to say this is that you’re probably overwhelmed, all the time. Keep in mind your boss has got it worse: with more responsibility come greater demands on one’s time. So when preparing information for him or her, keep this in mind. Don’t be the jerk who writes email treatises. It’s not that your boss doesn’t care what you think (well, some might not, but that’s not the point). They’re just busy. Respect their time, and prepare them fast.

How? First, channel George Orwell, who wrote in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” He also wrote, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” In sum, be specific, brief, and use clear language cues that highlights key points. Embrace brevity.

Second, be absurdly organized so that you can find the right information, fast. Despite attempts to modernize technology in government, most agencies (just 44% of them at the federal level) are not yet using cloud services for document sharing. That means people in government share documents by emailing attachments. And what this means in practice is that if you’re not using an extremely disciplined filing system, you will forever be searching through old emails to find the most recent version of a document. Accidentally send the wrong version to your boss and you will both waste their time (which will make them mad) and make yourself look sloppy (which will make you feel bad). So until government gets with the times and moves to the cloud en masse, channel your inner librarian and neatly archive anything potentially useful.

Third, present your work to the boss using the rule of three: three points for any program / issue / problem you’re presenting. Point out three aspects of a problem. Offer three potential solutions. Do all your homework and be prepared to answer questions, but save the details for an appendix or if asked. In sum, you may be anonymous to the world at large. But take solace knowing that if your best work makes your boss look good, he or she — the keepers of your next promotion — will certainly take notice.

Hack #3: Make peace with and maintain your orbit

Think for a moment back to high school chemistry. Molecules. Each molecule has a nucleus. They’re orbited by electrons. To get closer to the nucleus, electrons have to expend energy. You are the electron here. The boss with the most power — not your supervisor but The Boss (Ambassador, Commissioner, Secretary, POTUS; you get the idea) — is the nucleus.

It may be tempting to maneuver your way as close as possible to the center of power. However, remember, it comes at a cost: your energy. The key is to figure out how close you can get to the center of power — enough that your presence contributes to the core — without depleting an unacceptable amount of your energy. In other words, if you’re too close to power, you’ll burn out fast. Too far out, and you’ll have no influence on the decision-makers. You need to find your orbit and maintain the appropriate distance to balance influence and self-preservation.

How? Make your peace with the notion that you are one of many; a cog in the machinery of governance. Find a way to be proud of your orbit and position as such. Like the word “bureaucrat,” “cog” has decidedly negative connotations. Let’s change that. After all, you are part of a machine that is greater than the sum of its part. You are, through your every action, the embodiment of democracy. People vote; laws pass; government runs. You belong to the machine of government through whose churn democracy is made real.

If you remember nothing else from this piece, remember this: You are a part of the invisible force, through your daily actions, that protects and defends the constitutions of our nations; that creates fair and safe spaces for its citizens; that brings change — slowly, but inevitably — to the most vulnerable among us. You are why government matters.

That is no small thing. So be proud. Work government, and make it work. As Matthew Burton, former Chief Information Officer for the US Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, wrote in his 2008 article, “Why I Help the Man (and You Should Too)”:

“Elected officials don’t run our government. Government employees do. Every citizen interested in changing our country must understand this. Even if we elect good people to write good laws, those laws still need to be executed. That responsibility falls to the…people who make up the federal workforce. They are the ones responsible for the day-to-day operation of our government. If reform-minded citizens shun their government, their ideals will be poorly represented where it matters most. And as they forego opportunities to serve the public, those positions of influence are necessarily filled by more and more people who don’t give a damn about our cause. Tell your students, your nieces, and your blog readers how important these jobs are. Redefine the connotation of the word ‘bureaucrat.’ Cast it as an opportunity to help this country at a time when it truly needs it.”

So be a proud, savvy bureaucrat and hack your bureaucracy. Be part of the movement that makes government something its people can feel loyal to and proud of. With hacks in your toolkit and service to your fellow citizens as your North Star, progress in government is possible. It’ll take grit, the patience of a saint, and a little blind faith. But you — dedicated officials willing to do the work reliably, competently, and innocuously so that the lives of its people can bloom — are your nations’ best chance to thrive.

Alexis Wichowski works for the City of New York’s Department of Veterans’ Services and previously worked for the US Department of State. She also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The views expressed here are her own and in no way reflect the opinions of the City of New York.

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