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Why I’m staying at 18F (medium.com)
124 points by rch on Jan 11, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments

> Politicians may (and will) disagree passionately on what government should do. But they all say that for whatever the government does, we should do it well.

I'm not sure how far that can hold. That works if you believe that the government, regardless of which politicians are in power, is doing good work in good faith. I might think that (for instance) universal healthcare is more important than airport security and we'd be fine with pre-9/11 airport security standards, but given that that's not happening, I still support making airport security more effective and more painless.

But if you fundamentally disagree about whether the government should do a thing—like, say, whether we should move towards amnesty or deportation for people who have illegally immigrated here—it doesn't follow that you should say "Fine, if we're deporting people, at least we should deport them well." Or if you think it's immoral for government to fund abortions, you wouldn't conclude "Well okay, at least we should do a top-notch job of funding abortions." Would it not be better for government to do its job poorly?

18F in particular seems like it is prone to the same danger always present in private-sector tech: technology helps social changes happen faster and more effectively, but it has nothing to say about whether the social changes are good or not. Technology enables us everything from unbreakable encryption to trivial government surveillance; it has no opinion on whether unbreakable encryption or trivial government surveillance should exist. If you're worried about that, you either need to move out of pure technology development, or you need to impede the production of dangerous technology (which is guaranteed to be a losing battle).

OP here. I think about this every day.

Ultimately, it comes down to how you construct the root origin of the problem facing government right now. For me personally (hence why this post is on Medium and not on a *.gov) is the lack of both faith and trust (two very different things) in public structures of all kinds, not just the federal government.

We've lost that faith and trust for very good reasons, to be sure. We may forgive, but not forget those indiscretions to put it mildly, and they go back to the founding of the republic.

The problem as I see it though is that faith and trust have fallen into such disrepair, it's become a self-replicating negative cycle. So few people believe govt can do anything well (in terms inclusive of ethics/effectiveness/efficiency) which leads to apathy, which leads to skilled people leaving govt or not joining, which leads to further degradation, which leads to a further undermining both in perception and in actual funding or authorities from Congress, and on and on it goes.

That cycle is not just observed at the federal level of course. Even more pernicious to me is the apathy it creates at the state/city (or even community) level, even if one person or one small group's potential for positive impact is exceedingly more likely at the level!

I certainly still have my ethical red lines, and I recite them to myself on a near daily basis so I don't normalize the "might" of the feds with "right". But I still see the one of the core origins that got us to this point being the cycle above, so trying to break the cycle is still my #1 priority for now.

I think it can hold pretty far. The government does a lot of stuff that is quite uncontroversial. We mainly think of the controversial things, but if you take a look at the sweep of it, there's little that most people would object to a "let's do it well" standard:


And mostly the definition of "do it well" is something that people can agree on. E.g., people have strong feelings on immigration, but pretty much everybody can agree that all the processes related to coming and going should be clear, transparent, fair, and not wasteful, even if they disagree about the right amount of inflow or deportation.

So sure, there are corner cases where somebody might say, "I can't work on that." And if they do, more power to them. But I've visted 18F a few times and every single project I talked with people about was something in the, "duh, let's do that better" category.

> which is guaranteed to be a losing battle

Not necessarily. You aren't always trying to stop a particular tech development, just slow it enough to make sure that defending remains easier/cheaper than attacking (in some ways, this is the underlying dynamic of civilization), even though the targets are always moving.

I think there's a world of difference in how the statement was intended and your examples. Personally I read it more as "If this is going to happen anyway we should make it as efficient and pleasant as possible to those impacted"

Yeah, getting deported would suck but there are things in the process that could make the experience a lot less dehumanizing and cruel. Things as simple as making sure the person understands the proper pathway to legally immigrating. And even more important would be making sure that the proper pathway is properly documented and easily understandable.

I do agree with you that technology (and some tech people) don't seem to care if the change they are enabling is positive or not.

This is the optimistic view. But it isn't difficult to imagine a Republican congress drastically cutting the funding available to teams like 18F. Of course, time will tell, and I agree that it's too early to judge yet.

Fortunately, 18F isn't funded by Congress. Agencies pay us for our services out of their own budgets. As long as we keep delivering good work, our funding is secure.

*I'm an 18F employee.

Except that in theory you are losing money right now?



"Instead of securing enough cost reimbursements from its federal clients, 18F is losing millions."

OP here. "In theory" - most of the stories don't realize we're funded by a fund with billions in revenue, and was net positive in 2016. https://www.gsa.gov/portal/content/152462#ASF

Congress designed the revolving fund with the purpose of spending any funds in excess of costs to help the rest of government be more efficient and effective, as those funds don't naturally return to the US Treasury as they would in other parts of government.

In terms of 18F's performance in both regards, the capital start up funding we've received from the fund has been extremely well spent IMHO, but of course I'm totally biased. I'd look at what we've produced with that $ and let the work speak for itself, especially given how much govt would normally spend on this much information technology: https://github.com/18f

That also only captures things which have an impact in software - we're still working on the best way to represent the fiscal or performance impact of our consulting work.

All that said, of course we can always be more efficient ourselves, and I think the next few years of fiscal reports will show that.

So... does this mean you are (effectively) funded by Congress?

As someone who worked on an open data toolkit here in New Zealand, you also wouldn't have any clarity on "shadow users" either when it comes to non-economic returns.

For our initial prototype, we originally forked your docs repo and heavily modified it which got us up and running quicker than if we had started from scratch!

That said, we ended up switching to another setup later on but still, it would've been painful without your open sourced works!


I assume USDS could be stripped away though, as its under the Executive Office of the President.

EDIT: Not that that's good; its just the environment we're working in now. Hide your staff, hide your code.

OP here. I totally grok your feeling on that, but we've adopted the opposite strategy from Day 1. Extreme transparency to the degree we're allowed, so the public can see the value of the work and defend it if necessary. At the moment, I'm still cautiously optimistic.

> Fortunately, 18F isn't funded by Congress.

Even if 18F is paid out if other agencies budgets, Congress could as easily prohibit those agencies (or GSA itself) from spending any money on 18F. Heck, Congress could directly restructure, break up, or abolish the GSA.

Or, they could exercise the recently-revived Holman Rule and simply cut the pay of every individual (or select individuals) working in 18F to $1/annum. If you work for the Federal government other than in an office with special Constitutional protection, no matter what the notional funding structure of your particular unit, your job, pay, and benefits are not protected against Congressional action, and you should not be misled to think that they are.

I don't think they could go under minimum wage.

Yes, they can. Minimum wage doesn't apply to the federal government to start with, and even if it did Congress could include an exception as part of any legislation that would otherwise violate it.

Do the agencies themselves realize the subtle benefits of UI/UX changes to websites, TLS, etc? I don't know exactly what all 18F does but it seems like those are among the features I see changing (and appreciate).

Certainly. Lots of agencies have to process forms submitted by the public, and when people have trouble filling out forms it makes processing them much more difficult. We've been able to show that better UX leads to better quality information. Like with our work with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services https://18f.gsa.gov/2015/09/08/reimagining-the-immigration-p...

Certainly line offices do, although in my experience HQ is in the process of transitioning away from the mindset that IT means MS Word installs and security management. I've been watching a transition from line office hosted CMS to an HQ hosted CMS and it has been informative how off the mark their assessment of what the agency actually does has been.

What is the distinction between a "line office" and HQ?

HQ is a building with highly paid bureaucrats sitting in Washington, DC or its suburbs. A line office would be say a branch of US Immigration and Customs that you deal with at your local airport.

I'm not going to lie; we're all bureaucrats with greater or lesser degrees of pay, although I think we top out at 160k, so by Silicon Valley standards, highly paid is debatable...

Line offices are at the pointy end of the stick where you actually deal with citizens. In my particular case we do a lot of permit issuance and resource management, but yeah think local branch office where you go when you want something.

> Agencies pay us for our services out of their own budgets

I think you should also have a leg of funding direct from Congress to create "universal" applications across the fed. Does NASA need a separate timecard program from the DoD from the NPS? Does OPM need a different training system than the GAO? I would argue that in 99% of the cases, no. I think 18F and the USDS are uniquely setup to standardize and reduce a lot of waste across the fed, but as long as agencies are paying for individual projects I don't see any standardization happening.

That's why all of our work is open source. Agencies are free to reuse work we perform for other partners. Often, agencies will still need help implementing it for their specific needs, but we don't charge for the work we've already done. For instance, we've helped a couple agencies get regulations on the eRegulations platform https://eregs.github.io/ and many are using the Draft U.S. Web Design Standards to speed up development https://standards.usa.gov/.

I think you might be interested in this news from last year: https://www.gsa.gov/portal/content/119166

Agencies headed by Presidential appointees.

Do agencies have discretionary budgets that they can spend on whatever they want? My understanding was that every penny was somehow accounted for and approved by Congress, even if it's buried in fine print.

Accounting for how the government spends money is actually a very difficult problem, but 18F is also working on that. We're helping the Treasury Department implement the DATA Act, which will give the public and government a much better way to track how federal money is spent. https://18f.gsa.gov/2015/06/09/data-act-data-act-explainer/

But yes, agencies have some discretion in how they spend their budgets. Agencies are often mandated to operate a service, but are able to spend money by hiring 18F or private vendors to improve how they deliver that service.

Alright, let's keep it 100. R's in the congress recently ended rules and passed others in order to obfuscate the debt that will be incurred once they abolish obamacare. Also, as said by someone else, R presidents haven't passed balanced budgets. Despite their rhetoric, do you really think the R's care where federal money is spent? In fact, what you are doing has the possibility to expose them to the American people; what you just described is a threat to them.

This is not a dig at the R's, but all of you have to realize the R's do not care about functioning gov't or reducing spending, they just want to pass tax cuts, cut regulations and direct social spending to certain industries. You must realize that 18F's existence is diametrically opposed to that and despite the Medium post, your existence is in danger.

I realize you probably can't comment on this, but there is no way I can imagine all of you don't realize it. A man can only take so much fluffy talk when the truth is right in front of his eyes.

PS When I say all of you, I am directing it at 18F employees.

EDIT: And yes, in light of that, if you are staying put, you are indeed brave and your devotion to your cause is noble.

Shot in the dark, but I would think that budgets are approved by congress, but there needs to be records for every single penny spent for audit purposes.

OP here. Yep - the record keeping is out of this world. Due to the spending clauses of the Constitution, even a penny spent in excess of budget or even without all the proper authorities in place can result in a Constitutional violation, and you need to write a fulsome report to your agency head, Congress, the White House, auditors, etc. I've seen it done for what are effectively rounding errors for the US Govt (a few hundred dollars in the wrong spending 'bucket').

Echoing comments above, the laws/regs are strong, the problem continues to be implementation. Govt fiscal IT systems are some of our worst / most tricky legacy systems to modernize.

I would be surprised if Republicans tried to balance the budget. Contrary to popular belief and their own rhetoric, Republicans too are not too keen on balanced budget just like Democrats.

>just like Democrats

You say it as if "both sides do it." No, recent history puts it worse. No sitting Republican president has had a balanced budget since Eisenhower. They are demonstrably worse.

Sounds reasonable. I don't know about US politics, but in the UK the civil service is (meant to be) independent of party politics and civil servants are meant to impartial and work with whoever the government happens to be (indeed, it's even a half-joke that the civil service actually controls the politicians who are merely public figureheads).

The UK parliamentary system makes alliances necessary and difficult for any particular party to seize total control of power. Hence, the work that civil servants perform is unlikely to change between Prime Ministers. In America, well, Jeff Sessions is about to be the Attorney General.

> The UK parliamentary system makes alliances necessary and difficult for any particular party to seize total control of power.

The Parliamentary system means that there is no separation of powers, so "total control of power" just means a parliamentary majority, and most governments have been one-party majority governments (there have been a few coalition governments, such as the LibDem-Tory coalition that Cameron started with, but they are the exception, not the rule.)

Now, if the UK had proportional representation, even with a parliamentary system, that might make one party acheiving total control more difficult than in the US, and enough parliamentary systems are also PR that people sometimes conflate the effects of the two features.

I was taught in high school, that its basically the same here. Though with every election, the incoming politicians make a big deal of replacing various department heads. Its the main reason that government jobs are intended to be unioned and tenured, ie, to protect them from political whimsy. But expect that to come under fire in the next 6 months, unfortunately.

It’s less about unions and more about classifications of employees. Most federal employees are either “career” or “political” positions. Political positions are typically replaced by each new administration, while career employees stay, regardless of union status.

*I’m a federal employee.

True, a lot of work you do in any government has very little do to with any political agenda. In fact many officials rarely pursue things that make the headlines.

Who is this guy? Why does anyone care?


Here I was thinking it was an awfully cold office temperature.

18 F is -8°C

why the down vote for use of humor?

I didn't downvote you, but probably because it didn't contribute anything to the discussion.

These days, the only jokes that I've noticed not being downvoted are those that are a certain brand of witty and intellectual. Or they at least give the appearance of contributing to the discussion, even it doesn't survive detailed scrutiny.

This cultural dynamic seems to work out alright, given the other characteristics of HN. It would be hard to do better I think. Overall, I'm personally pretty happy with the level of discourse on HN.

I'm surprised that you are surprised, being a member for 6+ years. Was it different before?

This isn't Reddit or Slashdot, it's not enough to cause a mild chuckle. Also your humor isn't very funny.

The real question is whether the incoming administration wants the government to work well. That's what 18F is about. There are many Republicans in Congress who don't want Government services to work effectively. Mr. Trump, though, may not think that way. He does like to fire people who underperform.

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