Reflecting on 2 years as a fed
Yesterday, I finished a 2-year term at 18F, part of it as a strategist and strategy lead, and part of it as Chief of Staff. I’m down to one laptop and one phone today and it feels a a little strange (you can always tell a government meeting because everyone has two phones on the table).
I could reflect on the stunning, restored GSA building my desk was in; or how hard it was to make it to my desk when I started video calls by 8AM each day and often didn’t stop; or how it gave me the first regular meetings in many years where I was the youngest person in the room. I could talk about what we achieved during my tenure (many things, but my hands-on contributions were small); I could talk about all the transitions and leadership changes that threatened at times to distract us from helping our clients serve the public. I will talk about those things in a few days or weeks, when I have more perspective to fit them into a broader civic tech context. For now, the day after, these the most important things I’m taking away:
I met some of the most knowledgeable and committed people I’ve ever met. I’m not talking about the 18Fers, although they’re terrific. (They also, leaving aside the occasional attack of imposter syndrome, are empowered workers who know they are valued in the market and society.) I mean the career public servants I encountered at the Technology Transformation Service and GSA more broadly, and at our client agencies. I expected this, having met many inspiring local officials in my years with Code for America, and I deeply appreciated when one of my federal colleagues would share their knowledge or their network with me. If you want to meet interesting people solving hard problems, go work in a government — and don’t just hang out with the innovation team.
Part of navigating a federal career that may last decades is developing networks of mutual trust that can weather years and administrations and legal changes. As term employees, 18F staff can’t do that in the same way. Our best projects happened when we found a champion or three who were well-regarded, well-networked people with a decade or more of service and a mid-senior position, and figured out how to help them. Doing that means listening, investing in their goals, and meeting them where they are without acting like it’s a burden to come so far.
I mean two things by that. One, as civic technologists, recognizing career public servants’ domain expertise and how far they may be coming to meet us. (It’s more than a 2-year study to fully understand how even a mundane mechanism like GSA Schedule 70 works, believe me.) And two, the future inhabited by profitable (or VC-funded) private-sector companies that see themselves as innovative — the future of Slack and video-conferencing and all the SaaS tools you can eat — is very unevenly distributed. (This is true outside very specific parts of the private sector as well.) And that isn’t an actual barrier to the more important work we want to do. If your skills with text-based email and Polycom phones are as good as your skills with emojis and video-chat, and if you’re great on the phone and do it gladly, you can create a very inclusive space for public servants to advance more important elements of technology practice.
I knew beforehand that an enormous entity like the US federal government would be insular, but I underestimated just how insular. People who work in the federal government, especially in Washington DC, refer to it as the government. While occasional references are made to “state and local” (two enormous and vastly different spheres, comprising respectively tens and thousands of individual variations), there’s an underlying assumption that federal is both the template and the highest example of a government. In some ways it is and in some it isn’t (its overall impact is huge but its direct touchpoints with the public are sparse compared to other levels). But its size and dominance as an industry in Washington mean that people’s identification with the government is often stronger than with their field. A UX designer who is a career federal government employee thinks of herself as a government designer, participates in communities of practice for federal designers, and attends conferences for federal designers. Such a designer is unlikely to have much contact with the private-sector UX community, and that’s a shame for both sides. I would very much like to facilitate more two-way connections going forward.
I learned how public servants manage political differences. One reason I joined up in May 2016 was that I thought it would be interesting to be part of the federal government during a presidential transition. I got less and more than I bargained for — I expected to get a close-up view of how professional teams replaced each other, transferred knowledge and authority, and shifted how agencies work. Instead, I got to see the professional civil service react to an unprepared and possibly hostile new executive team. There are some enormously valuable things about how it does that.
The Hatch Act broadly forbids civil servants from using their office for partisan political ends (though, like any American, they have the right to express opinions about currently serving officials). In practice, and to avoid the appearance of impropriety, this means that federal employees rarely even mention political parties at work. Language like “the previous administration favored X but the current administration has directed us to Y” might seem stilted, but it reinforces the idea of a government that outlasts any particular elected regime. That’s important, especially now. The resilience of government as an institution is something we should all be invested in, and one of the key vectors of that resilience is the professional civil service, aka the bureaucracy. Most people in civic tech know this, if they’ve worked on more than a project or two. I’m definitely recommitting to focus my work on making public servants’ goals of service and stewardship, through all kinds of times, easier to achieve.
Finally, if I had to describe what I actually did as Chief of Staff, it was listen, persuade, suggest, facilitate, organize — and all the little things that go with that. This past week as I was handing off some streams of work and putting others to bed for now (18F will not rehire the CoS position immediately), it occurred to me for maybe the 200th time, how much being a successful senior person is doing the little things impeccably. I carefully did the two-step process to move my one-on-one meetings with community of practice leaders to the TTS Chief of Staff’s google account so they wouldn’t disappear. I made sure I contacted people outside of 18F that I wanted to keep in touch with, via the right channel for them, based on a list I’d made weeks ago. I templatized the agenda for a weekly meeting I’ve been running since last summer, that won’t have a single owner now. I checked in with everyone to see if there was anything I could do for them in my last 48, or 24, or 4 hours.
None of it was anything I didn’t know how to do when I had 5 years of experience, but I do it better now, and this job stretched me. Much of the detail work was things I learned to focus on as a consultant 10 years ago (the first line of the email — or now the first chat — is critical), but it’s more important now. I never regret effort put into, not polish exactly, but subtlety in communications. Having those skills allows me to work with so many different types of people and in so many situations, and to help our team. It would have been a much harder two years if I hadn’t cultivated those abilities throughout my career. As it is, I’m exhausted and grateful for everything that’s been shared with me. I’ve thought of myself as a kind of houseguest in the federal government — I knew I wasn’t moving in, but it mattered to me to do my share of the dishes and not make too much noise. I hope they’ll have me back in a few years.