18F and USDS: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Not sure if I can add more to the discussion than Jen Pahlka and Megan Smith have already on subject of the Federal Govtech teams and the recent election, but let me try…

Prior to Tuesday, the primary concern I heard from my many friends and former colleagues in the Govtech community was a fear that 18F and USDS might not persist beyond this Administration. That remains a concern. But not for the normal bureaucratic risks that new programs are exposed to during transitions. In this case the biggest risk comes from the organizations themselves. I have heard many people say they are planning on leaving. Enough departures will guarantee the very outcome folks feared just a few weeks ago.

It’s not the tech, it’s the people

One of the most important qualities of 18F and USDS is the quality of the people they attracted. Smart, dedicated and laser-focused on improving customer experience and outcomes, these teams would be the envy of any technology firm. But the secret to the amazing growth and success of these teams was that folks were not signing up for just any technology firm, they were signing on for the most important project and challenge that there is: providing services to the American people and the people that serve them.

That challenge and opportunity has not gone away as a result of the outcome on Tuesday. In fact, it may have taken on a more substantial imperative.

Truth to power

I have had the opportunity to speak at the “graduation” ceremony for two classes of the Presidential Management Fellowship program. In each case, I welcomed them to the Federal Civil Service and explained that membership gave them awesome power and incredible responsibility. Civil Service appointment is not about getting all Federal holidays off or having a high-bar for being fired. The US Civil Service was created — with much credit going to another controversial New York Republican, President Teddy Roosevelt — to allow a professional, technical class of employees to provide efficient, high quality service, devoid of political influence. Civil servants have the right and the responsibility to speak truth to power, tell it like it is, and provide the best non-partisan advice and service to the Executive and the people (s)he serves.

When you signed up for 18F and USDS, even though your appointments were time-limited, you took an oath to defend the constitution and its provision that Federal employees serve: “to establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.”

The responsibility is also with the leadership

However, the responsibility is not just yours alone. If you choose to leave because of your beliefs or fears, that is a personal choice. You are free to make it, and no one would ever question your dedication or commitment if you did. Why? Because someone with the skills, talents, and commitment of the average 18F and USDS employee has many, many options. Civic institutions in the world of non-profit organizations; state and local governments; and innovative companies such as my own will snap you up! Therefore, as in any high performing organization, the ultimate responsibility to keep you on-board is with those who are in charge.

Therefore, my real request is to the new Administration: fight to keep these people. If you really do want to help veterans; enhance job opportunities; improve border security and immigration fairness; build infrastructure and reduce the cost of government service delivery, 18F and USDS represent the best chance to do it fast and well. You need, just as you would in any business, to re-recruit your best talent, keep them engaged, and learn from them.

Jack Valenti once said that the three most important words in Washington are: “Wait a minute.”

I would encourage Federal tech talent to heed that advice and see what happens. A smart, business-like Administration will recognize your talent and re-recruit you to your important work of change and dramatically improving outcomes.

Otherwise, you always have the option to go where your talents will be welcomed and appreciated.

-Dan Tangherlini is President of SeamlessDocs Federal