Can tech folks fix Washington? And do they want to?
After working on last year’s effort to repair healthcare.gov, former Google reliability manager Mikey Dickerson in August joined the White House staff full time as administrator of the newly formed U.S. Digital Service. At the time of the announcement, U.S. Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel said that the Digital Service would include the country’s “brightest digital talent” and would remake the digital interfaces between citizens and the government.
The initial team included other healthcare.gov veterans and a handful of other folks who had already been working for the administration on digital projects. Dickerson took a little time to get settled and sort out a few key issues—like what to wear to work in formal Washington when you come from informal Silicon Valley. Looking at recent videos of the operation, the men appear to have followed Dickerson’s lead in adopting the classic geek look of a button down shirt, often plaid, over a logo T; there appear to be no ties allowed on the premises; the women seem to have a more varied stylebook, but even some of them have gone plaid. Silicon Valley comfort has definitely won out over Washington formality.
Having gotten that dress code thing settled, Dickerson is now in full-out startup mode. He’s got $20 million to spend in fiscal year 2015, and is recruiting around the country, using a new short and easy to navigate online application form that a decided improvement over the usual government application process. In particular, he wants designers, product managers and engineers who can both strategize and innovate and “push your own code.” No word yet on how many will be hired; the organization’s just-launched website now lists just a dozen people; a similar organization in the U.K., reportedly a model for the U.S. effort, now employs 500.
New hires may have some adjusting to do, because life in the U.S. Government is not going to be life at Google. “We wish we could pay for dry cleaning and free lunches, but we can’t,” Haley Van Dyke, the U.S. Digital Service’s chief of staff told Re/code.
The U.S. Digital Service hopes to appeal by offering meaningful projects, including:
- In the Veteran’s Administration, “redesigning the tools that Veterans use to interact with the VA” (I’d translate that as preventing another “appointment-gate”).
- In Healthcare, continuing to support healthcare.gov (translation: we patched it, now we have to really fix it).
- In Ebola response, coordinating data requests (that sounds mundane, until you read the fine print—one thing the team has done so far is work to connect the Red Cross, the military, and the Open Street Map community. I’m thinking these groups had never previously crossed paths.)
- In making government more accessible, building tools to streamline Freedom of Information Act request (long overdue, and potentially game-changing; if agencies can’t stall the FOIA process anymore, we’ll have a lot better idea of what’s going on in time, maybe, to fix it.)
- The appeal of working for the U.S. Digital Service, according to current employees speaking in a recruitment video is the ability to address “the needs of people who are in need…a real difference [from] Silicon Valley,” along with the chance to solve “big complex difficult problems.”
Because for someone who likes to fix things, what could be more challenging these days than fixing government?
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.