The article “Inside Obama’s Stealth Startup” was published yesterday over at fastcompany.com. It discusses the U.S. Digital Service as well as 18F and the effort to bring government tech into the 21st century. When these stories post I oftentimes take a look at the comment threads on common tech watering holes like Slashdot and HackerNews. Generally speaking, Slashdot comment threads are rather cynical while HackerNews tends to be more optimistic, but overall it provides some kind of view into how the greater tech world is responding. So I was surprised at the amount of cynicism expressed in the comments on HackerNews on this article.
Now, I tend to be fairly cynical, the only negative remark on my annual performance appraisals has always been that I should try to be less cynical. (Personally, I think my cynicism has helped make our team successful, but I digress…) While I may be somewhat cynical, I’m also on the inside of government work. I know my team members and their skills. I know the mission space my software is used in. And I know my background and motivations.
I understand feeling that nothing in government could really be improved so this whole thing must be nothing more than a PR campaign. It’s not. This is possibly the first genuine attempt at meaningfully improving government tech services ever. And there are more people pushing for it than just those in the U.S.D.S. or 18F.
I’m reminded of a quote from The West Wing: “Decisions are made by those who show up.”
The government isn’t just another corporation out to make a profit. It is the thing which makes our country more than some lines on a map. If it’s not working the way you want it to then you have two choices: whine and complain on the Internet about how broken it is or show up and do something about it.
The government is likely to continue to exist for some time to come*. If we’re not trying to make it better then it’s not going to get better. If you know me well you know I am not Mr. Patriotic, and in fact I find patriotism dangerous as it is often used to stifle dissent. This isn’t about being patriotic or that somehow the U.S. is better than other countries. This is about the U.S. government being our government. And it was created upon the idea that the citizens should have some say in how their government operates.
For years technology in government has fallen behind due to thousands of qualified techies deciding they would rather chase piles of money by selling ads and shiny, metal gadgets than trying to make the government better. And I get that it’s not just about the money. Fighting bureaucracy is hard and exhausting.
But if we don’t fight it then it’s only going to get worse. And we can change it. I have changed my small corner of it.
When I started in my job 6 years ago the source code for this group was stored in an ancient deployment of SVN, the applications were built on homegrown J2EE frameworks with no documentation, missing source code, years behind industry best practices, and with release cycles measured in months. The code was like spaghetti, it barely functioned, and the intended users hated it. They disliked it so much that they continued throwing their data into Excel to avoid using the custom software which was supposed to be more useful than Excel. There was no reason for it but culture and lack of energy to fight for change.
When I joined, the existing software group had disbanded. I still haven’t gotten a full story about what happened, but on my first day on the job the “team” consisted of myself, a database administrator, and a team manager. Seeing the catastrophe of code that was in front of me I pushed on the manager to let me build a prototype using a modern framework (what did we have to lose, after all?). It was a smash success and that prototype grew to become one of our core applications.
Now, with the help of willing managers and with our tiny team of software developers (just me, then 2, then 4, now ~7) we’ve made massive changes. We use Git for our version control, we build our applications on popular open-source frameworks and libraries, we follow industry best practices as much as possible, our release cycles are measured in weeks and sometimes days. Our users love the software and constantly ask for more advanced tools. Our management estimates our technology environment to be at least a year ahead of any other organization in our mission space, we have saved the government millions of dollars, and we have saved lives.
Fighting the bureaucracy is hard. Some days you think it would just be easier to give in. It would be easier to give in. But then nothing gets better.
We have enough work to keep a team twice our size busy but we can’t find qualified people to fill the positions. If the qualified people choose money over service then government technology will continue to suffer.
Our government is what we make of it and the decisions are made by those who show up.
So show up.