Why government employees should try GitHub

You might use GitHub everyday at your tech job or perhaps at your local Code for America brigade meetings, but did you know that it’s also a great tool for working with fellow government employees? Before you scoff and say that GitHub and non-technical govvies just wouldn’t mix, let me make my case.

I only recently tried GitHub with government employees for the first time, out of pure necessity more than anything else. It was during a large project trying to get tons of budget data tables and supporting explanations from a three-volume book into a website. Understandably, there was a lot of content that we needed to correct or rework during the five-day period before launch, and my software developer and I couldn’t make all the updates in time. I decided to teach GitHub to the Budget Department staffers I was working with to increase our capacity.

FY18’s 2 ⅜ inches of budget books” by Darren Cole at the City of Boston

Before this looming deadline, I hadn’t considered it an option, because, well, they didn’t know how to code. But once I gave it a try, I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked. Looking back, I wish I had taught them sooner, and going forward I’m going to try to use it in my other projects.

Why do we want non-IT government staff on GitHub at all?

It’s not because govvies should start programming. I needed them on GitHub because that’s where the code was, and it was more efficient for them to check the content themselves than to use me as an intermediary. Purely pragmatic. But after seeing their experience with it, there were some other changes I noticed in the way they started working.

What I saw:

  • GitHub represents the ability to try something and mess it up. The staff could edit and easily undo the change with no meaningful consequences. They were working in an unpublished environment, but they could still see what the end result would be. That’s not traditionally how government policy, budgets, or programs work. Some folks are trying to change that, but it’s still uncommon.
  • Learning GitHub was a great confidence booster — and took some of the mystery out of the process. Getting a govvie to try GitHub means they’re trying a new and unfamiliar thing. These folks may never have thought they’d be working with a software developer directly on the code of a website. But they did, and whatever confidence they gain from that experience might help them to test another new idea or tool in the future, or be more comfortable asking about what’s under the hood of their next tech project.
  • It made some tasks go much faster. You might think that putting non-coders onto GitHub would slow everything down or create confusion, but it actually sped things up, made communication easier, and removed the middleman (me) on a lot of small issues.

Their feedback afterwards:

  • GitHub was the first formal place for analysts and management to work together on something. Typically, Office of Budget Management managers put together the budget books, asking budget analysts for pieces of content to slot into the book chapters. With GitHub, both managers and analysts could see the final product as it was being created. Analysts felt better able to offer suggestions on layout, content, and numbers (and then make the changes themselves!). Management, in turn, didn’t have to wait for an analyst to make changes to the content — they did it themselves.
“It would’ve been great to involve more analysts. We could’ve buffed this product out faster.”
— A budget analyst after using GitHub

Of course, GitHub is just a tool, not a culture-in-a-box. And I won’t pretend that everyone loved it so much that they’re all still using it for seamless collaboration now that the project is over. Nonetheless, GitHub showed a lot of potential as something to use with my fellow govvies in the future. I never would’ve realized that without giving it a try.

Going forward, I’m curious to see if my hypothesis is right — that in addition to just being an efficient tool, maybe GitHub can actually change the way govvies participate in tech projects. If we can support this kind of collaboration, curiosity, and constructive questioning, I think all of our projects will be better for it.

Curious to give it a whirl? Here’s how to get government employees to use GitHub.

Have you done this? I’m really interested in how it worked for you! Leave a comment or get in touch directly to tell me about it.