In December 2010, I joined the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as an early member of its technology team. I spent the second half of my three years at the CFPB as the Deputy CIO and Acting CIO. Our team earned lots of praise for its web products (and will continue to do so, I’m sure). Now that I’ve left, I’d like to share some lessons I learned.

The CFPB is new. You might therefore discount the CFPB’s online success as a moment-in-time achievement whose lessons will not help any agency that is saddled with legacy culture, legacy systems, and the GS pay scale (the CFPB pays higher salaries than most agencies). Having worked in such agencies, I understand the belief that a fresh start creates a freeway to success. I won’t lie: the lack of legacy culture was invaluable. (As for legacy systems, we have more of those than you might think.) But instead of seeing the CFPB’s clean slate as an experiment that nobody can learn from, I see it as a testbed for ideas that, while technically achievable for any agency, are avoided by any agency unwilling to be the first to do so. The CFPB has dipped the federal government’s foot into several new pools. …


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Students occasionally write to me and ask for advice on getting a job in the Intelligence Community. (I became an intelligence analyst at DIA after undergrad. I was there for about three years, and after that, I did a few years of consulting for various intel agencies.) The below is a gist of that advice. It is heavily biased by my own experience, and none of the below is meant to be universal.

What is it like?

Before I tell people how to get a job in intelligence, I make sure they actually want to. Many people are attracted to the Intelligence Community because of its depictions in popular culture. That’s fine. But if you want a lasting career in intelligence analysis, you need to get past the superficial intrigue and be happy with the desk job that remains. …


In the coming weeks, O’Reilly Media will publish Open Government, a collection of new essays on how technology can make DC more transparent and efficient. Today, O’Reilly released a preview (PDF) of the book that features the first eight chapters. My chapter on improving government technology is included; its entire text is below.

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The federal government should fire me. Like the thousands of other contractors who develop software for government agencies, I am slow, overpaid, and out of touch with the needs of my customers. And I’m keeping the government from innovating.

In recent years, the government has become almost completely dependent upon contractors for information technology (IT). So deep is this dependency that the government has found itself in a position that may shock those in the tech industry: it has no programmers of its own; code is almost entirely outsourced. Government leaders clearly consider IT an ancillary function that can be offloaded for someone else to worry about. …


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Recently, I was a panelist at the Director of National Intelligence’s Open Source Conference. The title of my panel was “Young Analysts Talk About the Value of Open Source.” The intelligence field’s definition of “open source” is different from what you might think: all it means is “information derived from public sources”: newspaper articles, television broadcasts, Web sites, etc.

To outsiders, it might seem odd to have a conference about this: doesn’t everyone understand the value of information? But when your desk has piles of secrets stolen from the enemy, it’s understandably difficult to spend time reading about things the whole world already knows. And because network security is extremely important, many intelligence analysts do not have easy access to the Web. …


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Three years ago, when I told a mentor from the tech sector that I was soon leaving my job as an intelligence analyst to start a technology Masters program, she replied, “It’s good that you’re getting out of that field.”

She didn’t like the Intelligence Community’s work, and in her eyes, the longer I stayed, the more it would corrupt me. I’ve always thought of it in reverse: the longer I stayed involved, the more opportunities I would have to change it. Afterall, if you want something to get better, should you entrust the job to those who caused the problem in the first place? Or should you take care of the problem yourself? To me, it’s a pretty simple question. …

About

Matthew Burton

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

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