How one government agency builds great web products

Lesson #1: Do it yourself.

  • Letting a developer decide that your web site’s search engine is inadequate, and that to improve it, he can build a Mechanical Turk-like interface for teaching our search algorithm the definitions of various financial terms.
  • Building your own content deployment system to quickly resolve a surprise requirement, instead of pausing a major project while a contract is modified to permit the work.
  • Building a dashboard for monitoring your web hosting environment’s security posture because the service’s standard tool is inadequate.

Lesson #2: Put immense time into hiring.

  • We recruited in the true sense of the word. Posting a job announcement to does not constitute a recruiting effort, yet I suspect most federal job openings are advertised nowhere else. Given how many technologists want to perform civic service but don’t know where to look, this is a great shame. To find good people, you have to hunt for them. We posted our design and development positions in places where technologists look for jobs: 37Signals, Stack Overflow, and GitHub were the obvious choices. These job boards gave us vastly more reach, and it cost us only a few hundred dollars. Twitter was also very useful (and free, of course).In addition to job boards, we also got creative. Ideas like this one came in the 11thhour before application deadlines; they took little time to implement and gave us lots of exposure.
  • We built a better process for evaluating applications. First, we made sure the initial review of our applicant pool wasn’t too restrictive. Traditionally, this first cut — made by non-technical personnel staff — tends to remove many qualified applicants, especially those who expected their résumés to be reviewed by peers who speak the industry lingo. To solve this, we crafted the minimum qualifications to ensure that they were broad enough for anyone with basic web experience to qualify. This shifted a huge burden to our team: we now had to review hundreds of applications instead of the dozens that would have withstood a more restrictive set of minimum qualifications.We also gained the ability to evaluate portfolios. This was harder than it sounds. In order to evaluate portfolios, our HR partners developed a “competency model” that established objective metrics for evaluating design and code. We used this model to rate each applicant’s work on several metrics, with a minimum total score required to qualify for an interview. Each of the hundreds of design portfolios and code samples had to be reviewed independently by two different team members to ensure we were conforming to the competency model’s scoring system. This was an enormous time commitment, but it was worth it.
  • We learned these techniques in the course of a single major recruiting push called the Design+Technology Fellowship, which filled 30 new positions. The recruiting campaign and applicant assessment process I’ve described above are way too much overhead for filling a single position. But with 30 positions at stake, the time commitment became a wise investment. All 30 positions used similar competency models, and all of them could be recruited through the same communities and job boards. I can’t overstate how successful this recruiting effort was. Our team of designers and developers is not great by government standards. It’s great, period.

Lesson #3: Give your team good tools.

Intangible: Have institutional support in the organization’s DNA.




Thoughts about good government, civic responsibility, and national security.

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Matthew Burton

Matthew Burton

Thoughts about good government, civic responsibility, and national security.

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