Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"We Either Do It Ourselves, or Nobody Does"

I'm still the newcomer to blogging at Political Animal. That means that I'm still catching up on the fascinating history of the Washington Monthly. So it was with great interest that I read this Manifesto from the founder, Charles Peters.

Because of my interest in public engagement, I was especially drawn to this recommendation.
What if we opened hundreds of thousands of federal jobs to political appointees, replacing through normal attrition roughly half the federal government's 2.8 million federal employees? Give the new people two-and-a-half year appointments, with a limit of five years on the time they would be permitted to remain in government...

Because the jobs would be limited to a few years, we also would be constantly sending back into the ranks of the voting public people who have learned firsthand why Washington doesn't work and who have nothing to lose from speaking out about the reforms that are needed.
My first reaction when I read that was that it sounded good, but would never happen. Except that in a very small way, it is.
Then there’s Lisa Gelobter…There was this call she got out of the blue last summer in New York, inviting her to some kind of roundtable discussion in Washington for tech leaders. Lisa had just spent time on the upper management teams at Hulu and BET. She decides, reluctantly, that she’ll go take the meeting, which includes this guy named Mikey as well as this other guy named Todd, and turns out to be in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing. Then President Obama opens the door and surprises everyone, and over the course of 45 minutes gives the sales pitch to beat all sales pitches. They need to come work for him. They will need to take a pay cut, the president announces. But he doesn’t care what it takes—he will personally call their bosses, their spouses, their kids to convince them. The crowd laughs. But he gravely responds: I am completely serious. He needs them to overhaul the government’s digital infrastructure now. “What are you going to say to that?” asks Lisa.
Since Jon Gertner wrote that about Obama's Stealth Start Up, the U.S. Digital Service (yes, a terribly pedantic name) is no longer stealth. As a matter of fact, there is a whole page at the White House web site dedicated to telling the story and recruiting candidates to work there.
Every day, millions of people interact with the American government. We apply for Social Security benefits and small business loans. We look for affordable health insurance and financial aid. We need passports and tax refunds. Too often, these interactions can be frustrating and cumbersome because of outdated tools and unreliable systems. We believe that government is ready for a change.

This is where you come in. We need people like you to take on these high-stakes challenges, to apply the skills and practices you’ve honed to untangle problems and simplify solutions for millions of Americans.

We need you. Are you up for the challenge?
The page also links to several articles that have been written about this effort. That's where I found Mickey Dickerson's (administrator for U.S. Digital Services) speech to SXSW. Dickerson tells the story about how he took a break from his job at Google to go to Washington, D.C. and work on fixing the failed healthcare.gov web site. Here's how he described what happened:
It was not a hard engineering problem, and any of you could have done it, and it was also more important and meaningful than anything I could have accomplished in a lifetime working at my old job.

Beyond the 8 million people that got access to health care for the first time, which for many of them was a matter of life or death, I don’t think we are ever going back to the time when people who actually need health insurance are not allowed to buy it.

So I went back to my old job and tried to care about it. I was not successful.
So Dickerson went back to Washington and set up U.S. Digital Services, which was originally going to involve 10-12 people working on Obamacare, the VA and immigration services. But the demand (and response) has been so great that the plan is now to have 500 people working with all 24 major federal agencies. These are not permanent jobs. As is the case with a lot of IT, it is project-based. So Dickerson is recruiting people to come for a year or two - or perhaps even just a few months. But what he is selling is much more than a job.
The most sobering thing about my time in government is to really understand on an emotional level that this country belongs to you and me and it is exactly as good as we make it. Grownups are not going to fix it for us and billionaires are not going to fix it for us. We either do it ourselves, or nobody does.
If this initiative convinces more young people of that - I'd call that a major success.


  1. While I shudder about having a federal service with short term people - the loss of 'institutional knowledge' would be HUGE - there is an old precedent for a supplementary service. We once called them (sexist but realistic at the time) "Dollar a Year Men". They were people of great talent, drawn from business and industry among other fields, who offered their help for that token $1. Expanding this to a wider range of talent - who wants ONLY business people anymore? - is huge. They may need a bit more than $1 since they are not wealthy, but it is huge service of smart people with great gifts. Kudos to the Obama administration for understanding this. One of my own friends' husband is in this position, and his contributions to solving climate change are huge. This is a great idea in public service, recruitment of talent, and problem solving. I hope whoever the next president is continues this amazing help to us all.

  2. Actually, we used to open the federal jobs to political appointees. It was called the patronage system, and the abuses of it were what led to the creation of the civil service. The particular example you're using here really is more geared to what would be useful in this case, discrete and time-limited projects which require a short-term commitment. For a lot of other functions, there's a reason why you want experience and less turnover.