Why I’m leaving 18F

On Election Night 2016, a few hours before the results were fully in, I wrote a blog post titled “Why I’m staying at 18F”. I felt it was important, to me, to make a decision based on principle before I knew the outcome.

Earlier this month, I decided to leave government service. The previous post was concise to the point of being breezy. This one is a long read.

During the transition, there were many moments when I thought I should reconsider my decision to stay. Ultimately, two events occurred on the same day (June 8th, 2017) that fully crystallized in my mind that I had to part ways with a government I’ve been honored to serve since 2010.

They may seem completely unrelated to most, but I’ll try to explain why to me they were evidence of the same dangerous “denormalization” of our government.

The first thing that happened was the release of the written testimony of the former FBI Director, James Comey. While many focused on the potential obstruction of justice detailed within Comey’s notes, I was immediately drawn to a different issue. According to Comey, the President clearly asked, repeatedly, for his personal loyalty.

I think this is even more dangerous and shocking than the potential for obstruction of justice. Even though I intellectually knew that most of Trump’s decisions are based on personal politics, seeing it in writing, under oath, and from the FBI Director at the time no less, had an unexpectedly massive emotional impact on me.

My previous post put the oath all federal public servants take at its center. Pledging our faith, allegiance, our loyalty not to a person, but to the Constitution and to the people as a whole is absolutely fundamental to our form of government. We cannot even pretend to function as a republic without it.

For anyone in public service to ask for the personal loyalty of anyone else in government is an affront to our core values. For the President to ask it of the FBI Director is beyond “not normal.”

It is an immediate and complete revelation that the President is unfit for the office, and has been from the start.

Whether he has also committed a crime, knowingly or unwittingly, becomes beside the point. Some values, some norms, are more important than laws.

The second thing that occurred that very same day is that the technology and design organization I have worked for since before its public launch, 18F (and the larger service we created for it and its sibling organizations, the Technology Transformation Service), is being reorganized via administrative order into the General Services Administration’s (GSA) Federal Acquisition Service. The reasons for this, both for and against, would take up a post twice as long as this one. I may write a longer analytical piece on that decision, but for now I’ll just focus on one aspect of it.

We were subsequently told that the new Commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service would suddenly and immediately become a political position, with a person appointed directly by the White House. In a single day, the White House took direct control of two of the most important shared service organizations in government.

If the President was willing to make the FBI Director’s position, of all people, contingent on personal loyalty why would there be any hesitation whatsoever to make other positions in government based on that same currency? Culture and values flow from the top, like in any hierarchal organization. Since long before he became President, Trump has been setting personal loyalty as the standard he measures everything against.

Every day he remains in office, civil servants have to ask themselves if political appointees are being given their positions due to merit, or to personal loyalty to Trump, or someone else in the Administration. That creates a creeping rot, an institutional mistrust even of those appointees who are getting their positions based on merit. Legions of government employees, both politically appointed and otherwise, constantly act in accordance with their values of honesty, courage, and compassion, just to name a few.

Trump is setting a standard that threatens to poison those values for years to come.

When people say the Trump Administration is “not normal”, what are they really saying? It’s a warning. A warning that what is happening, could over time, “become normal”.

Of course, that’s the natural and proper function of norms. Normalcy is not an objective state, waiting to be discovered. It is a social construction of society. Across time, including fairly recently from a historical perspective, owning other humans was completely normal. Now it isn’t.

This ability to normalize just about anything is simultaneously one of our species’ greatest strengths and one of its greatest weakness.

We can construct a new norm saying that women have equal right to the vote, or that slavery is wrong, even when the “norm” has been the opposite for hundreds to thousands of years. Our incredible social adaptability as a species would not be useful if we couldn’t normalize our adaptations, making them durable. Without normalization, social innovations would flash into existence, and then fade away just as quickly.

But normalization goes in the other direction as well, with seemingly no limit. All types of human societies have shown they can normalize everything from capricious state-endorsed murder to outright genocide. While most people seem to agree that the normalization of genocide is “bad”, ultimately, it is up to each individual’s personal morals. Each person has to decide how much they can tolerate society’s normalization of values they find to be antithetical to their beliefs.

Giving positions of power to people based on favoritism, or nepotism, or on how easily they can be controlled from above is a dangerous norm for our democracy. Even if each example doesn’t appear to be “that bad”, this type of behavior can quickly become systemic. When it does, it erodes fundamental norms that protect our government from the even more dangerous normalizations.

I don’t presume to objectively know where the line is — when it’s ok to work within the system, even if you disagree with some of the things that system is doing. I honestly don’t think it should be an objective question. It’s a question of personal values, that every person has to wrestle with themselves.

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: Trump’s complete disregard of merit and his fetish with personal loyalty is becoming systemic and it is getting worse. You don’t need to be inside of the federal government to see this.

When we attend the government’s meetings, when we consent to that power, we are normalizing that behavior. We are saying with our actions “this behavior is not disqualifying”. So if we think we can still do good within the system, is it worth the normalization of that we think should not be normal? Are short-term gains worth mortgaging the future values of our government?

Power in this context is constructed by those that consent to it. For example, if you accept Jared Kushner’s tremendous power in our government, despite being completely unqualified for the role and only having that power due to nepotism and personal loyalty to the President, you are now complicit in normalizing that nepotism. Whether or not that person or organization supports your goals, is tangential. You are still normalizing.

I can understand and respect that many people, especially many in my own civic technology community, still have the position that the best way to fight those dangerous norms isn’t to reject working with the government. They think they have to have a seat at the table, in order to create their own “good” norms, to counteract the norms they reject. They believe that without voices on the inside advocating for the previous norms, the systemic rot will just accelerate.

They might be right.

My analysis and response only applies to a singular situation — my own.

I’m also not dismissing Trump’s horrific track record before this. This was just the straw that broke my personal back. Since the election, I’ve been on the “inside” for 224 days. I just can’t see how being within the system is supposed to work anymore. Means matter. Even if good is done over the next 3 years, what message does that send? That nepotism, favoritism, opacity, and personal loyalty work? That they are in fact, more effective than the alternatives? At minimum, they are certainly faster than other systems. What are we giving up in exchange for that speed?

Respectfully, I would submit to my peers that the normalization of those values far outweighs any benefits that can be accrued by staying within the system. Many people have said something along the lines of:

If the government is on fire, and you want to put that fire out, you have to run toward the fire. Not away from it.

I myself have said this, more or less, repeatedly in the past.

This time is different. The people with the matches are inside the house. The house is not burning down (this time) because it was struck by lightning, or the wiring was shoddy. It’s now on fire because the people in charge want to burn it down. There is absolutely nothing in the professional histories of Trump or his immediate staff that shows any indication they will ever change.

Think about a grease fire. Putting out a fire like that doesn’t work by running in and throwing water on it. That only spreads the fire around. To put out an oil fire, you have to suffocate it of the oxygen it needs to burn. In our democracy, that oxygen is “consent to power”. Individuals, corporations, organizations need to think hard and long about this, before working with or for this Administration in any capacity.

Consider that your very presence in such a system provides consent. Consent is the fuel any Administration needs to continue to normalize what it is doing. The more powerful you or your organization is, the more consent you provide. Is it worth it? Do the means of normalization justify your ends?

For me, the answer is clear. No.

[Views above are exclusively my own]