In April 2016, I applied to join the federal digital-services-delivery office 18F as a content designer. If you’re not familiar with 18F, it was formed to change the way the federal government approaches and delivers digital services (and the procurement process for said services).
Shortly after I applied, 18F entered into a hiring freeze. I didn’t really think much about my application after that. And, to be completely honest, my enthusiasm at the prospect of working for the federal government dissolved following the presidential election.
In June of this year, I heard back from 18F. They were hiring for a content strategy role in the Department of the Interior. The position would be with DOI – not with 18F – but 18F initiated the project this new team would adopt and expand and thus recommended candidates to DOI.
Reconciling the obvious
To start, I don’t believe in working for an employer with whom I morally disagree, or, as Mike Monteiro put it, “Your boss is a choice.” Perhaps this perspective comes from a position of privilege, but it’s relevant nonetheless. Particularly for those of us who work in tech, we need to think about what we’re building and how it will be used.
I struggled to reconcile going to work for the federal government while it’s under this administration. I read posts by Jennifer Palka, Noah Kunin, and others, each justifying reasons to continue or not continue working with the federal government. I read dozens of blog posts and news articles to try to find moral ground to stand on.
In the end, I considered three primary factors that influenced my decision:
The president of the United States will be the president whether or not I take this job.
This is so obvious, it’s almost ridiculous. And it can be an excuse to go work for anybody, anywhere, so it doesn’t really hold up as justification for taking the job. Still, it’s real, and it matters in the context of accepting a job in the federal government. I believe it’s important to consider any and all policy priorities one will have a part in enacting given one’s placement in the federal bureaucracy.
I believe in the importance and value of the project I will be working on. It transcends partisan politics and provides value for multiple stakeholders.
Which brings me to…
There’s important work to be done!
I will be working on a project that exemplifies democratic values and civic engagement. The spirit of the project is focused on combatting corruption and striving toward full government transparency, making data from resource extraction on public lands available and accessible. It’s defensible work. I believe strongly in the value of publicly accountable government services. But mostly, I believe in the idea and value of government itself.
We need people in the federal government who are passionate about their civic duty and improving service delivery. We can’t leave it to those who would erode our public services and compromise our ability to collectively serve the needs of our communities.
We’ll get through this.
I truly believe we are in a dangerous time, but I also believe in us. This country has always been an experiment, and we’re obviously still trying to figure our shit out (and probably always will, at least until our inaction on climate change renders our civilization untenable). It’s complex, and I won’t pretend to have any of it figured out, but I know we have a lot of people in this country who truly care about one another and who support institutions that build us all up and encourage us to thrive together.
Growth and challenge
I also considered two major factors related to my career trajectory and personal advancement:
It’s an opportunity to grow.
I’ve reached a point in my current job where I’m not able to enhance my skills and grow to the extent I would like. The county I work for is great, and I’ve enjoyed my time there. But we’re lagging in our approach to both technology and our customer service model. To stay current with trends and tech advancements, I’ve spent a lot of my own time and money trying to keep up.
Now, I’ll be able to work on a project that is built in the open and incorporates tools and methodologies that will allow me to learn and grow every day.
The position is term-limited.
When 18F and the US Digital Service were founded, the two groups hired staff on a “tour-of-duty” model. The positions they created were (and are) term-limited at two years, followed by a 2-year optional renewal. This position is structured according to that model.
Though it’s risky to leave a long-term position with career benefits, I believe the term-limited structure is beneficial to our country. I’ve seen jaded career workers who do the minimum amount of work and go home. Term-limited positions keep our work fresh and agile, making sure the focus remains on delivering a good product; this structure also resists territorial and proprietary views of our teams and work products and helps us keep our work focused on users.
It isn’t for everyone, and it’s not for every stage of one’s career, but it works for me right now. It will force me to continue to grow and prepare myself for the next phase in my career. I’ll also be able to meet new people working to improve civic tech and make the government more transparent.
Good things are (still) happening in civic tech
It may not be the best time to go work for the federal government overall, but there’s great work being done in government tech right now, and there are excellent people working on it.
I’m not sure what to expect when I join the Department of the Interior next month, but I’m excited to carry on the work of Presidential Innovation Fellows and civil servants who have been improving the federal government’s ability to deliver effective, useful, and innovative digital services. I don’t know if I can live up to the precedent set by those who worked on the project before me, but I will give it my all.
I know a lot of people – some of whom I am related to – who are skeptical of government services and believe the public sector is hindered by inefficiency. That may be true, to some extent, but – having worked in government for years – I know that many of the ‘inefficiencies’ inherent in the public sector are rooted in a devotion to democratic principles and making sure government solutions are transparent and work for everyone.
We can’t ensure government services are working for everyone unless they’re open, transparent, and useful.
My new job is to help make them all three. I’ll let you know how it goes.