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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
*I'm an 18F employee.
"Instead of securing enough cost reimbursements from its federal clients, 18F is losing millions."
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.
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!
EDIT: Not that that's good; its just the environment we're working in now. Hide your staff, hide your code.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’m a federal employee.
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?