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Join the U.S. Digital Service (whitehouse.gov)
409 points by danso on Feb 3, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 233 comments

I saw Mikey Dickerson (in the video) speak to a group of ~200 people last summer about the work that he and his team did on healthcare.gov. He was at Google for nearly 8 years and left to run the recovery team for healthcare.gov. Their team is the real deal -- they saved the site in just a few months and now over 6 million people have signed up. Read the Time Magazine story for the full account.

He does not seem like the type of guy that willingly puts up with government b.s. He gets it, and after seeing him speak I believe in him.

When their talk was finished they got a ~5 minute standing ovation and even a few stray tears.

I know it's cheesy but the government simply needs to catch up and I think they are finally ready to try.

I applaud the effort and hope to help out in some way.

I agree. I wonder if they're willing to take people straight out of college. I'd be interested in doing a short "tour of duty".

One of the people on the original healthcare.gov team with Mikey was right out of college, and I was only at Google for a year before I joined a team working to fix healthcare.gov (not USDS, but same ecosystem, and we spend a lot of time with the USDS folks).

If I have the chance to work with talented industry veterans, I'd absolutely love to do a tour of duty after I graduate.

This not a jaunt to Korea or Vietnam, holy moly.

Ill take the Viet Cong over a government code base any day :)

No, but its arguably more important. Less risky, but as a good developer the opportunity cost might be high aswell.

I believe parent was balking at the appropriation of "tour of duty" to describe taking a government job for a couple of years.

The phrase carries strong connotations for a certain subset of people and it would be pretty tone deaf of us as a community to repurpose it to mean "writing instructions for computers the government owns."

Unpopular opinion that needs to be said: plenty of people spend their military "tour of duty" writing instructions for computers. Even more are glorified paper pushers or janitors. Only a small subset actually ever see their lives at risk--being a fisherman is more dangerous. The main substantive difference is that in theory you can't quit on a whim.

We need to stop promoting an idea of martial valor over all other forms of work, and stop coddling those who demand that everyone grant their line of work more respect than everyone else.

This is incorrect - a sizable number get sent to the warzone in a time of war, by far the majority. All who do have received some sort of weapon training, as well as scenario prep when encountering the likes of IEDs or combat situations. This is even more true for the Army and Marine Corps. The risk is pervasive just by virtue of operating in a warzone. In addition, everyone still has to stand post except for higher ranking officers and SNCOs.

While there are plenty of people who spend their deployments behind a computer, don't assume it is so black and white.

Source: I am a Marine grunt

> The phrase carries strong connotations for a certain subset of people and it would be pretty tone deaf of us as a community to repurpose it to mean "writing instructions for computers the government owns."

It's definitely an appropriation but I'm not sure this appropriation means "writing instructions for computers the government owns." I think they are implying there is a kind of sacrifice taking place, perhaps putting your country before your own personal gain. Translated literally it might mean something like "writing instructions for computers the government owns for meager compensation when you could be making +$100k per year working in the wider tech industry." Some similarities here with the Peace Corp whom does use the language "tour of duty" to describe time served in the Peace Corp http://www.peacecorps.gov/media/forpress/news/453/

Ummm, those who fought in Korea are responsible for the fact that 51 million people enjoy a respectable GDP and living conditions; those who fought in Vietnam were trying to attempt to prevent a brutal takeover which led to hundreds of thousands fleeing for their lives.

I'd say that's inarguably more important then rolling out prettier government web sites.

Any chance the talk was recorded? I'd love to hear what happened during those few months...

Here's a related talk, good stuff:


Thanks for posting that, very worthwhile (and entertaining) watch (though maybe a little too honest for the other people involved!).

For those who have worked in both types of environment (those that promote making things better vs those that punish you for doing something wrong) it's all too familiar.

After having spent a little too long in one of the more negative environments I made the mistake of attributing blame after a slightly disastrous event (while working at a much healthier company). My boss, rightly, told me that any blame was totally unacceptable in their culture. That's a lesson I've taken with me and I'll never forget. A culture of punishing honest mistakes will get you nowhere.

The Internet is enabling a government of the people for the first time since our population exploded in the last century.

Things are bad right now, but they're getting better. As long as the Internet remains an open and free place, society as a whole will continue to progress and grow at a faster and faster pace.

>The Internet is enabling a government of the people for the first time since our population exploded in the last century.

Is that you, Obama? What is this nonsense?

>Things are bad right now, but they're getting better.

Things - socially, politically and economically - are continuing to get worse for the average person.

What world are you living on?

You're both trading slogans and saying nothing. What "things" are bad / improving / getting worse? Access to shelter? Food? Medicine? Where?

Even anecdotes are better than this nonsense. Here's one for you: even the poorest people I know, those without regular shelter, have access to communication services that would've been prohibitively expensive a generation ago, allowing them to find assistance when "things" - lack of food and shelter, for instance - get really bad.

> What world are you living on?

Before asking OP what world OP is living on, perhaps you should ask that of yourself before trolling others. This isn't reddit or Slashdot.

I would beg to differ that things getting worse. I would much rather live in a world where the Internet exists and information flows relatively freely than 50 years ago where information was controlled by a few world leaders. Living and work conditions sucked 100 years ago for many people. Things, on the whole, have gotten better.

Literacy and education have never been as high as they are today.

Poverty and sickness rates have never been as low as they are today.

Sure, there's a lot of room for improvement but it's undeniable that over the past century, humanity as a whole has been getting a lot better year after year.

> What is this nonsense?

> What world are you living on?

This breaks the HN guidelines twice: it's uncivil and unsubstantive. You could make it a much better comment by taking the substantive sentence ("Things...") and following up with some concrete reasons.

> Is that you, Obama?

Don't be so shrill.

> Things - socially, politically and economically - are continuing to get worse for the average person.

Things are actually improving socially and politically. Scandals are being brought to light and quashed to a point where even untouchable edifices of the US hegemony are feeling the heat. Anti-vaxxers are on the outs. Climate deniers are on the outs. We're seeing the error in imprisoning millions of men because of racism. Factories in China are under scrutiny and almost every nation has an eye on ecology and our impact on the world. Birth rates are slowing, people are calling for more liberal policies across the world.

Economically, the middle class is finally being addressed. Basic income is on the table. There's an understanding that social safety and education are incredibly important.

But there is a lot of entrenched bullshit. And old money is nervous and reactionary. It's going to take a long time, but I believe very strongly that if we have the Internet of today for the next ten to twenty years, the entire world is going to look far more progressive than it ever could have without the Internet.

I have met some of the 18F folks here in San Francisco, and I have gradually become convinced that there is a lot of substance to this effort. People, apparently including people at the highest levels, recognize that information technology has made enormous leaps in the private sector, and they are serious about helping government catch up.

One of the most interesting bits to me was something said by Todd Park, a former CTO of the US and still a White House advisor. I was, frankly, suspicious that Washington's culture could really accept a lot of the Agile and Lean notions that are commonplace in the high-tech world. But he pointed out, correctly, that waterfall projects are enormously risky. A big reason Lean Startup advocates place such a strong emphasis on frequent small releases is that it helps us reduce risk by finding and fixing problems early. He pointed out that if bureaucrats really want to play it safe, using agile, iterative approaches is exactly what they'll have to do.

I don't know enough about Washington to say if this really will work, but improving government efficiency through smart use of tech strikes me as exactly the kind of thing people from all parties can get behind. I'm excited to see how it turns out.

>suspicious that Washington's culture could really accept a lot of the Agile and Lean notions that are commonplace in the high-tech world.

given my experience with thorough, to the letter, under supervision of no-expenses-spared-top-notch experts implementation of Agile/Lean/Scrum - 2 years non-stop across pretty much the whole company, only very-super-important-critical-projects got exception - the government would love it - a lot of planing, reporting, meetings and other crap boggling down everything with actual product development slowing down to the crawl as a result.

Btw, the original healthcare.gov - the one that failed and required that emergency super-team fixing - was developed using Scrum, and as result it had all the characteristics of a Scrum project, chief among them - bad, to the point of straight failure, integration between components.

I agree and share your cynical view of Agile/Scrum, at least how it's often used in top-down organizations.

In my experience there are two factors required for a successful project:

a) Developer autonomy sufficient to modify core design/implementation if necessary--and developers experienced and talented enough to recognize when this is necessary.

b) Developer ownership of the project. By that I mean minimal power difference between "stakeholders"/"business owners" and the developers actually building the product. You don't want developers to feel like consultants working on someone else's project because they won't care when bad decisions are made and they will naturally do the least amount of work possible to satisfy each Scrum ticket.

I share your suspicion of large-company Agile: by and large I think it's at best Mini-Waterfall, and at worst it's the same old bullshit with some new jargon on top.

However, the large amount of bathwater doesn't mean there isn't a baby there. And the places I see doing best at making the necessary culture shift are the ones with a sense of mission. So I have hope.

And honestly, even if this merely means a transition away from pure Waterfall to Mini-Waterfall, I think that will be a step forward. In the commercial world, the rise of the Internet has made 3-year release cycles untenable for most software; people now just scoff. So if we can merely get governments to emulate business in the shift from titanic failures to medium-sized failures, as a citizen I think that's a win. But still, from what I've seen, I'm hoping for more here.

>However, the large amount of bathwater doesn't mean there isn't a baby there.

Applying generic systems analysis (where it doesn't matter whether it is protein building, network protocol flow or software engineering process) one can easily see that Scrum is a highly synchronous low-latency process (that is the "baby" that management loves) which comes at the cost of dramatically decreased bandwidth. In addition, changing a team's process inside, Scrum indirectly completely changes how the team interacts with up- and downstream teams/components - in particular on practice eliminating any chance for early integration and for any iterations of the integrations.

That became obvious to me during the first day at the first Scrum course, especially after i tried to ask those questions to the teaching Scrum expert from the consulting company and received blank face with some blabbing in response. Some time later, different company with different consultants - that first hand 2 year experience i described in the previous post - the Scrum drawbacks on practice happened to be even worse than i thought they may in theory. We actually have great time right now at our BigCo. as after the Scrum fiasco, and quietly dropping the Scrum company-wide as the result, the management still seems to be kind of "in shock", and they haven't brought up any new fad in the process improvement so far, so we're just doing typical old-fashioned per-feature waterfall, and it just works as usual - which is huge achievement compare to Scrum :)

I can't really answer for Scrum, especially as taught by consulting companies. I think of Scrum as a set of too-basic but reasonably good ideas that quickly ended up mostly as a certification scam. I wrote more about that a number of places, including here: http://agilefocus.com/2011/02/21/agiles-second-chasm-and-how...

I think that's especially true for dramatic company-wide, top-down Agile adoptions, which I have never heard of working. I think people doing that cannot possibly understand Agile philosophy, which promotes local control and continuous improvement of top-down control and giant leaps.

My positive experience is mostly with smaller shops, but I've definitely seen many places where companies have grown up releasing early and often and have no problem working in what I'd consider good Agile style. Wealthfront, Etsy, and Spotify are all explicitly and openly like that. But I think there are plenty of other places that aren't explicitly Agile but ended up that way as a natural evolution.

For example, when I visited YouTube to study their process, there were a great number of developers, designers, and product managers all working in relatively independent small teams. They'd release at least weekly but sometimes more often. There was no overarching plan; each team had particular goals to pursue, and coordinated with other teams as needed. They never used Agile jargon and didn't think of themselves as Agile, but I think they were acting in ways that exactly matched the spirit.

I spent 7 years in Washington and can attest the change has been incredible. Civic-minded hackers, non-profits, and startups went from being outsiders to permeating agencies. Much was organic, and some was top-down mandated. Obama saw what happened in 2 elections and these new agencies are peppered with the people that used agile tech to great advantage on the campaign. Agencies like HHS and FCC were pioneers in open data -- not just for government, but for anyone. Look at cfpb.gov - an example of what an agency can look like when it starts from scratch. 18F and USDS are now tasked with bringing that innovation to the rest of government. If you can get to DC, consider attending the Sunlight Foundation's transparencycamp.org this May. It's the biggest event of it's kind, bringing 600 folks from across the globe.

EDIT: changed this sentence: "Much was organic and some top-down mandated" to reflect what I think was mostly due to popular upswell, though there were key executive decisions. The O'Reilly network has a lot of influential folks in DC too.

That's just the thing - I don't think 'playing it safe' is the goal in Washington, or at least not the only one. As is, the goal for contractors is to stay on a project as long as possible, earning more money over a longer period of time. Waterfall is a perfect excuse to do just that.

I agree that's an issue, but I was thinking more of the decisions of the people who hire the contractors. The right Agile approach to a project is to structure it as a series of small wins and losses, rather than rolling the bones on one big win/loss. It's my hope that calculus will appeal to career-minded officials, especially since the Agile approach lets you demonstrate value earlier (thus reducing drama), lets you bet more on your wins, and dramatically reduces the chances of large failures.

'Playing it safe' is also the goal of the gov't civilian managers of those projects- they have a promotion schedule to hit and having a 'failure' on their resume jeopardizes that. And since they're only going to be there 2-3 years, the goal is just to keep things propped up until they rotate out.

I had managers yell at me when at the sprint review meeting we realize we were going the wrong way and decide to scrap some of the work of the last few weeks...

Imagine politicians with a stake in the project's failure hearing that: they will go full Benghazi on it.

Just sprinkle some remote coders among their states, and they'll double down. Works for Lockheed Martin.

Better a few weeks than a couple of years and millions of funding.

Not necessarily in the eyes of certain people, and it happens in the corporate world, too. If you're only in charge of the project for a period of time (no longer in that political role, promoted, whatever), then "it doesn't need to succeed, it just can't fail" is a term used widely.

You don't want to be seen having failures in your project (even small, agile failures that are for the good)... but you don't care if the project succeeds.

If you can plan out a waterfall project that won't complete until you're "out of office", then there is no negative consequences for you... even if you KNOW it will fail once you're gone, that's the next guy's problem.

Sad, but true.

This certainly true, but it's my hope the culture will shift to make the waterfall option impossible.

Back in 2004 or so, I heard of a major company that only updated their website once a year. Even then that was considered ridiculous. Consumer expectations have shifted massively; plenty of places now release every week or two.

I have hope that the government culture could shift similarly, so that software projects that don't deliver anything for long periods are seen as troubled no matter how many Powerpoint decks and GANTT charts they produce in the meantime.

And I think the way to change that culture is by having enough projects that deliver early and often, so that people say, "Well, those guys are shipping monthly. What's wrong with your team?" So instead of keeping people from being blame-y, we get them to be blame-y about long project cycles.

I think that's definitely happened a fair bit in industry, so there's some chance it will happen in government, too.

Not in an election year.

If it's either a failed public project, or spending millions of dollars (that can be spun as creating jobs), what do you think they're going to take?

Ala "improving gov efficiency through smart use of tech"...I've worked in mil/Fed IT/telecom/technology-development for nearly 30 years. The problem isn't a lack of desire by the metal-benders trying to employ better/faster/cheaper tech, the problem is getting the Jabba-the-Hut career-protected SESs and their minions out of the way, along with instituting Fed procurement and contracting processes that actually facilitate a delivery timeline that at least keeps up with Moore's Law.

The challenge that USDS will need to overcome is one of culture and regulation bureaucracy, not one of throwing a unicorn cavalry at various IT dragons. You go pure "change from within", you'll fail. You go pure newbie/private sector, you'll fail. You need to find fresh and innovative eyes and pair them up with existing Fed ITers that haven't yet been jaded into submission.

Like you, I'm excited to see how it turns out. They need to succeed. If they fail, it will be a long-term failure, and that will do no one any good.

It should come as no surprise that Mr. Park is on board; He built two public healthcare IT companies (ATHN, CSLT). He can definitely recruit good tech talent.

The question is: Can he convince others in government that, as another post on the HN front page says right now, we should replace middle management with APIs?

That's a great question. At 18F, we <3 APIs[0][1][2][3][4][5]. Not only are we big believers ourselves, but we strive to help other agencies improve their API practices.

[0] https://github.com/18F/api-standards

[1] https://github.com/18F/jekyll_pages_api

[2] https://github.com/18F/API-All-the-X and http://18f.github.io/API-All-the-X/

[3] https://github.com/18F/api.data.gov

[4] https://github.com/18F/fbopen

[5] https://github.com/18f/?query=api etc, etc

Given that article was completely unpersuasive to me (as a fairly long-term HN reader) I seriously doubt it[1].

But then I don't think that should be a goal. (Good) middle management is precisely what Washington needs more of.

[1] The author would be well advised reading Peopleware, and understanding that middle management is often (usually?) an exception handling layer that handles the boundary between systems.

I work for the UK Government Digital Service - my views don't necessarily represent my employer.

There are lots of comments here around the idea of whether you would work for a government if you disagreed with their political views.

What I love about working on GDS projects is the potential to improve so many people's lives. People often don't have a choice when it comes to interacting with government - it's often a legal requirement, and there's only one way to do it.

So, even if sometimes I may disagree with aspects of policy, the reality is there is going to be a digital service based on it. And I can help a lot of people by being part of making it as simple as possible.

There's also the possibility that, with an established Digital Service, feedback can be given to policy makers to improve the creation of new laws and make them more efficiently implementable. This might mean the difference between a law/policy that can be easily implemented using existing software, or something that has to be done by hand, costing billions - and those policy makers might not realise this.

Relevant XKCD, imagine this with lawmakers: http://xkcd.com/1425/

That's an excellent point, and has happened with the UK GDS. With user research you can make a strong case:


That's the blog I was trying to find! Thanks, it's a great read, and points out an advantage of having in-house people with some ability to push back/negotiate :)

Slightly off-topic, but I'm a big fan of the design and UX improvements that the GDS is bringing to gov't services. Please keep it up!

Thanks for posting this.

Imagine what would happen to the country if, after Obama was elected, every single right-leaning person employed by the government up and left. Government services rely on continuity, particularly stuff like welfare and social security (in the US). Imagine if you had to completely retrain that workforce every four years.

Well, even you lean left or right, you're still leaning on the need to have a paycheck. But your point is well made.

>So, even if sometimes I may disagree with aspects of policy, the reality is there is going to be a digital service based on it. And I can help a lot of people by being part of making it as simple as possible.

healthcare.gov wouldn't have worked if the geeks hadn't fixed it and without that ObamaCare would look different. I doubt anyone would disagree with me saying that ObamaCare was the most politically divided program in years which means that ultimatively the geeks made policy on a very controversial issue. I think you are underestimating the kind of influence your work will have.

To take a current UK issue: without geeks there is no way the government will be able to implement snoopers charter. In this century the politicians can't do anything without some geek being involved - and we can't ignore that.

Yeah but if you disagree with something the government is doing, why would it be any better if you're making it easier?

This is exactly what scientists who commit war-crimes would say. I am not accusing you of anything like that but that's the logical extreme.

That's why I said "aspects of". If I fully disagreed with a project and thought it was evil, I wouldn't work on it.

However, that's not normally the case. There may be aspects I disagree with, and if you get to do research, you can often show problems and affect the direction of the project. But after all, I could be wrong. I've done enough research to know that :)

Working for change from within the system is definitely a legitimate position to take.

That said, the objections I'm reading here are centered around supporting a government that actively tortures political activists and captured enemies. I think the phrase "if you [disagree] with their political views" trivializes that position.

> That said, the objections I'm reading here are centered around supporting a government that actively tortures political activists and captured enemies. I think the phrase "if you [disagree] with their political views" trivializes that position.

Unless you're designing some kind of torture software, I think you're massive reaching to make one apply to the other.

Nothing about doing better e.g. tax software, road planning, or similar is going to help the US Government torture detainees.

Realistically there are millions of US Government connected jobs, it is just unrealistic for everyone to boycott them because another part of a massive government did something ethically and morally wrong.

Agreed. Even if you think the tax code benefits the $interest_group_of_choice, reducing the number of automatically flagged audits, for example, due to better algorithms, is a win for everybody.

Without actually proffering an opinion on the government, your argument has a problem. To the extent that streamlining some bit of the government with software frees up resources to be used elsewhere in the org chart by folks engaged in activities with which you disagree, a software developer would absolutely have enabled the offending activity.

I suppose you could counter that the abhorrent practice of intentionally wasting resources to ensure that subsequent budgets don't shrink will tend to prevent the torturers from getting the additional funds you free up with your advanced tax or road planning software, but there remains a good chance you'd free up resources for something within the department that would cause someone to be worse off than they were before. The only winning move is not to play. (OK, that was an opinion on the gov't)

I'm not a fan of bundling up "government" like that. After all, it is a huge, huge organisation, and the torturers occupy a space entirely different from those who help you file your tax return.

No one who eats meat can have morals stronger than those of the butcher.

Of course, that implies that U.S. citizenship is already tainted---if you aren't actively protesting, working for the government in an unrelated area isn't any worse.

Let's say it's January 2017 and President Bush or Rubio or Paul or Walker is being inaugurated. Does the 'U.S. Digital Service' actually keep getting funded? If it does, do the staff actually want to stay? Will any of them be willing to work on government objectives that might not be in line with their personal politics?

I'll believe this is actually what it claims it is when I see it and its staff persist through a change of political control in the White House. Until then, I'm more than a little skeptical.

This was exactly my concern as well. The "party first, country second" mindset on "both sides of the aisle" is the most absurd and counter-productive thing in US politics, and the most likely thing IMO to derail any productive gains that could be made.

"There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution."

-John Adams

Remember that there are many engineers who would love to work for a Republican administration and would hate working on Obama administration objectives that aren't in line with their personal politics

True, but as we all know, continuity has inherent value that we would lose under say, a drastic replacement of staff.

I get what you're trying to say but literally every department, bureau, and agency replaces leadership and huge numbers of staff when the White House changes parties. We can argue about whether that's a good thing, but those organizations do seem to weather the change and continue on with their core functions. The State Department is vastly more complex than a tech company yet manages to keep itself in order when one party is swept out and another rolls in. Part of their success is that continuity planning between administrations usually does rise above partisan rancor as staffers hand off their portfolios.

The rank and file and core management stay the same, at at agency, it's the political appointees at the top that change for new administrations. This can be dramatic -- at the EPA, Republican leaders tend to dismantle the agency and cease enforcement, while Democrats do the opposite. I'm not sure USDS or 18F are politicized yet, they're making government more efficient. Then again if you hate government and want to dismantle it, getting rid of the all-stars would be a good play.

The USDS leadership (and enough key staffers) are indeed appointees -- that's a concern. And if you look at their bios, many have strong & active ties to the Obama election efforts. That will not escape a party-change in the administration should it happen unless you have a "best for the country" administration philosophy come in and they take a truly non-partisan, objective view of what needs to continue.

The State Dept can't be replaced by a federal contractor. USDS can; why not award Raytheon or L3 (or Halliburton) a contract, acquihire the best devs from the old team, and lay the rest off?

This is hard to enforce. This is supposedly the rationale already used to farm out massive IT contracts to contractors - that they can attract better talent, etc. But in reality, the contractors often don't really care about quality and instead just want to put butts in seats.

So unless you've written a really solid contract with solid, quantifiable high-quality deliverables, you're out of luck.

Are there republicans actually criticizing the the Digital Service?(ignoring healthcare.gov) I certainly have no clue why they would, as everyone needs better IT infrastructure. A project like this, run well, would be in line with republican policy objectives.

I assume the OP meant the people who are passionate about building a sign-up system for universal healthcare might not be so passionate about building a sign-up system for, I don't know, national concealed carry permits or something.

But there are some of us (including me) that would love to work on both

If your goal is to see a smaller government then it isn't unreasonable to not want the government to be more effective - in the shorter term that means a more bloated government, but in the medium and long term you get what you want. If you allow the government to become a bit more effective then it may stay around for quite some time, destroying resources (or whatever ill you currently think it does).

Think of it as the difference between scrapping a legacy system and patching it up so that it can run a bit longer. If you can't get the budget to rebuild it from the ground up, you might be better of letting it lumber on until you can.

It's possible to view everything through a partisan lens of course, but most of the work likely to be done by this agency is the kinds of things that most people would support: getting better, quicker or easier access to government information.

Edit: Here's a good example: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8988897

I believe it was Newt Gingrich who pushed the Thomas project, the initiative to put the text of all congressional bills online.

This is true of the whole civil service

We have had political administrations change many, many times in the U.S. There is not, that I know of, any mass layoff of an entire part of the civil service that coincides with any of them.

If you get a civil service position under this program you will have a job regardless of who's President. That doesn't mean that these initializes will still be around, or will be funded at the same level, or will be given the same latitude.

It might be different if these offices/initiatives were part of cabinet agencies with functions and authorities in various statutes, but it looks like most of them are executive initiatives.

Which is not to say that the next President (Republican or Democrat) wouldn't want digital tiger teams, but there is no guarantee that one would either. If you are interested in this primarily for the advertised flexibility to cut across cumbersome government rules, January 2017 should loom large in your thinking.

The technical term for what you're asking about is "institutional autonomy". The answer depends heavily on the political competence of its leader.

Based on Mikey's G+ posts, it has bi-partisan support.

It would be really great to fix the IRS's digital presence. Make TurboTax obsolete. I hate TurboTax.

You'll hate them even more: They're one reason why taxes are more complicated than they should/could be.


Here in Sweden you receive a fully-filled-in tax declaration from the Tax Office. For 99% of people with normal jobs, all you have to do is confirm the declaration on their website OR by sending an SMS OR by calling a telephone number OR by using their app.

California piloted ReadyReturn doing the same thing 10 years ago. People who chose to use it loved it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ReadyReturn

Anyone used it? I guess it's now been rolled into the main filing system.

Its a lot easier when your entire country is less than 10 million.

In the US, we pay state and federal tax so there may be difference in what you can deduct from one another. For example I didn't deduct my Health Care premiums from Federal because I used the standard deduction. Because of this I was able to deduct the premiums from my State taxes.

This is why we can't just confirm the declaration, too many variables at play someone could use for a deduction.

The telephone thing sounds great too bad its probably too security conscious to allow those methods.

> Its a lot easier when your entire country is less than 10 million.

I just dont understand why do people use this excuse. No one is saying that you have to implement a new idea for all Americans the next day.

Start a pilot project with 1 or 10 million people. See if the idea works. If it works, implement it nationwide.

> too many variables at play someone could use for a deduction.

Going to the moon involves too many variables, are you saying that building an website to handle taxes automatically (or atleast which does most of your work) is more difficult than rocket science?

Many people with "normal jobs" in the U.S. can file the 1040EZ, which at least originally almost fit on a post-card. (http://www.irs.gov/uac/Form-1040EZ,-Income-Tax-Return-for-Si...)

(I wouldn't know, actually; I've apparently never had a "normal job".)

Ireland has a Pay As You Earn system which is usually administered by your employer. Mostly, you do nothing and the money is paid.

Every 5 years, file a P21 to check you're not due any refunds.

If you're self-employed, it's a bloody nightmare.

5 years seems like a long time to wait for a tax refund. Especially tax refunds totalling $2500+ are quite common here in Australia. We have a PAYG system too.

You don't have to wait 5 years, you can request them yearly. They just go back 5 years (I think).

I'm guessing the US IRS wants to avoid giving tax frauds an implied list of everything they don't know. They may be worried that anybody with income not listed on their pre-filled declaration will not report it.

Tax frauds already know 'cash' income (sans withholrding) is often not reported so they're already an honor system anyway (Everyone is really -- even 'cash' is often reported on the 1099 too).

People using tax avoidance schemes through itemization or 'loopholes' wouldn't simply use a standard pre-filled form 1040 either, or rather, they wouldn't stop at that. Same goes for corp returns, dividend and interest income, etc.

With U.S. employers already transmitting wage and withholding data to the federal government, there's simply no good excuse not to 'autofill' it and/or just make the reconciliation & acknowledgement of those values easier other than an entire industry is vested in it being a complicated process most people would rather pay them (or use their products and services) to take care of.

I found their Superbowl ad particularly offensive. Basically it asserted you don't need representation in taxation as long as it was "free to file". Totally absurd.

Same goes for the DMV, as well as countless other citizen-facing government orgs. Math & administration is really the roots of computing.

Edit: I'm rather unclear what is objectionable here.

Virginia's DMV offers a ton of its services online. It can take a bit to get around their site, but it is overall a much more friendly experience than needing to go into a brick-and-mortar for plate renewals and the sort.

DMV is a state agency though so it's a lot more complex than national agencies.

Yes! There are so many DMV things I'd like to do online.

Yeah, maybe find a way to make sure that pesky, embarrassing emails don't suddenly get deleted/disappear.

Those emails were recovered (http://www.wsj.com/articles/lost-irs-emails-found-1417122396). Make of that what you will.

From my understanding, one of the reasons the IRS is so behind is because the initial code base was written in Assembly. Only a handful of people understand how it works...and they're all getting old (they have also been motivated not to help because the knowledge gave them leverage and job security). These days, a friend's father is helping them out going line by line and translating the Assembly into Java.

From what I hear, there were some bugs/loopholes built into the original system. For the new Java translation, the effects of the bugs have to be programmed in because of legislation and regulation rules. In other words, the new Java code needs to behave exactly the same as the original Assembly code. Not the easiest task...

I would love to see a program like ROTC -- the government pays for you to get a CS degree and then you work for the Digital Service to start your career.

You end up being 26 with a great education and a solid work experience under your belt. Seems like a win-win!

Most ROTC cadets do not have scholarships, and for their first two years they recieve no money. Of those students, only during their 3rd and 4th years do they recieve any funding at all, which is a stipend of approx. $300-500 a month and only once they have signed a contract to commission.

At my university everyone in ROTC had full tuition as well as room and board paid for for all 4 years. And they received the stipend on top of that. They did have to commit after the end of the first year though.

That's very close to what the SMART program is. I'm a SMART scholar (PhD level), it's been a good experience so far. http://smart.asee.org/

That has already existed for at least the past decade or more. It's called the Cyber Corps. Granted it's focused on computer security and doesn't come with the ego boost that being crammed in a small room at the White House seems to give people here but it is a CS/engineering scholarship for service program.


As someone in the 20-35 bracket who works in cyber-security, I have never heard of this program. I was never told about it in high school, in my CS program, nor have I heard of it at work.

I worked a year on the UK government digital service, they really were trying to do things differently, it was a really great experience with real teams working in a supportive atmosphere. I think the 2 services share some DNA and If you get the opportunity to work at the USDS then you should grab it with both hands.

I wish there were something like this akin to the National Guard. If I could serve a weekend a month (or maybe even more, if it were something closer to my civilian skill set), I probably would have opted for this over joining the Army.

Hell, if they did that, I'd probably serve after my time in the Guard is up.

You're in luck! In most cities, there are Code for America "Brigades" that are meetup groups where people can work on digital public service projects.


For example, I'm in the SF brigade and work on the BallotAPI project.


Well, there is Code for America. That's a volunteer organization not actually within the government, so it's not a terribly close analogy, but it's still one means of digital civic service that stops short of full-time.

Contrary to all evidence of my puny physique, I'd still be afraid of getting dragooned/stop-lossed into overseas adventurism.

The US digital Service should also make and maintain a framework that state and local governments can implement. Paying a parking ticket in Los Angeles is a trip to the 90's.

Try applying for a hiking permit. Some CA ranger stations take only snail mail or, wait for it, fax.

So build a website and send the permits in using a service like Phaxio.com (Fax API). Show your local rep, get it funded.

Unfortunately, government purchasing isn't that simple. It's really much more complex and rewards those who know the system. A convoluted RFP would need to be issued and some vendor listed in a GSA database would wind up with the contract. Not necessarily because they are better (and certainly not cheaper), but because they can navigate the procurement process and avoid the red-tape pitfalls.

This is the cutest thing I've seen posted on HN in days. Keep it up, scamp. Stay positive :^)

> hiking permit

Wait, what? Is this like a yearly state park pass? Or is this paid every time you want to go take a walk in the woods?

No, it's a free permit to hike in a park for a day. They want to track trail usage, and sometimes implement quotas to prevent overuse. There are occasionally rangers who patrol the trails and check for permits, but it's pretty rare. You may also need a separate parking permit for national forests (adventure pass), but apparently it's been ruled unconstitutional by the CA supreme court. Many trails in national forests/state parks in California require day hike permits (generally the good forested ones do).

You can see what a dayhike permit application looks like at the very bottom of this page: http://www.sgwa.org/permit.htm. Overnight (camping) permits are separate.

If you get a yearly state park pass, you're probably walking on the trails no more than 10 km from the parking lot at their furthest points, and leaving before the park closes for the night.

If you get a hiking permit, you are probably carrying a tent. The permits would allow the park management to limit and track the number of people out in the park wilderness areas at any given time, and prevent overuse or overly inconsiderate visitors. The permit application process may also discourage casual or inexperienced campers, who may have insufficient skill to explore backcountry trails without injury--including bear-related injuries.

well, they do tend to be in the boonies lots of times

Would anyone from the Government Digital Service [1] in the UK care to comment on this? GDS is a world-class operation which has many smart people using modern technology to solve real problems for UK citizens. Much (all?) of the work is open source [2].

[1] https://gds.blog.gov.uk/about/ [2] https://github.com/alphagov

I'm not from GDS - however they're one of our customers at ScraperWiki, and I know lots of the people there (via the digital civics NGO mySociety which we started over 10 years ago).

There's been lots of interest in GDS from the US over the years, people over there saying "why haven't we copied it yet?". As far as I can tell the US Digital Service and 18F are that copying in a good way - taking lots of the lessons from GDS and applying to the US situation.

As an example of the kind of thing, see the UK's Service Design Manual https://www.gov.uk/service-manual - there are sections for developers, designers and so on.

So basically, if you're good at tech, and want better Government websites (who doesn't!), go help them :)

I'm not part of GDS, though I used to (like frabcus) volunteer for MySociety (or, more accurately, for FaxYourMP & TheyWorkForYou, which were later pulled together as MySociety). Also like frabcus, I know quite a few of the GDS folks.

I now live in the Bay Area and work for 18F. GDS has been hugely inspirational for us, and we talk to them fairly often. Personally, it's their model of focusing on user needs, using continual user research to drive design and implementation that speaks loudest to me. Far too much public-facing government IT has been driven by department needs rather than user needs. If you talk to UK citizens about GOV.UK, they mostly seem pleasantly surprised by how well it Just Works.

GDS in the UK is staffed by a lot of ex-Guardian people, and that is telling. They're amazingly good at building web sites, and shockingly bad at enterprise.There's also a lot of ego in the senior technical staff (technical architects).

GDS is very good, but GDS faces some challenges. Introspection takes humility.

Here is what worries me:

Right now, the complexity of regulations and procedures is kept in check by the inability for bureaucrats to manually execute them. Full automation might not lead to a simplification of how people interact with the government; it might just result in the ability to add even more regulation, beyond normal human capabilities.

We have a world where bureaucratic complexity means few people can navigate it, but we might just be growing a world where no one can navigate it without paying a lot of money to established software companies to do it for them.

Automation is good, but we shouldn't let it hide the need to simplify.

While I've been initially skeptical of the White House's digital efforts because of my assumption that tech development, especially when it comes to public information, will always be handicapped by bureaucracy and politics...the 18F group has been doing some great work, the kind that is not at all a bad standard for private startups to follow...certainly much better than the kind of things that were rolling out in 2009-2010 (such as the overhyped petitions.whitehouse.gov and the first CTO's pushing of Drupal)

The 18F Github contains a lot of interesting work, with reliance on contemporary frameworks and practices (Jekyll seems to be their choice for microsites) https://github.com/18f

I loved 18F's work with overhauling the Federal Register site (https://www.federalregister.gov/)...and even if you think the federal government's data efforts are paltry...then you haven't seen what existed before 2009...which is pretty much nothing. The wide array of data and information that has been machine-readable and public accessible via the Internet is pretty astonishing, and while I doubt that President Obama has made it a point to keep tabs on his IT, whoever has been whispering in his ear has been very effective.

Edit: a cool project I noticed on 18F's github: https://github.com/18f/mirage ...a Django/PostgreSQL project to assist procurement officers in surveying the market for vendors...another 18F repo contains the Chef recipe for its deployment.

https://www.federalregister.gov is a favorite of mine in the federal government, and an inspiration (they launched with a full JSON REST API in 2010!) -- but just so it's clear, that's not an 18F project.

The code for federalregister.gov can be found here: https://github.com/usnationalarchives/fr2

(Disclosure: I work for 18F.)

The Federal Register site was developed by the same people that developed Gov Pulse: http://govpulse.us/about#who

Here is an article from the launch of the site: http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2010/07/26/meet-the-new-f...

I tell this story all the time to people. It's so magically great, and the developers are a national treasure.

I think of 18F and USDS in part as pieces of an effort to make this kind of result less of an anomaly, and the kind of thing you generally expect your government to do. Cause after all, why shouldn't you?

(Disclosure: I work for 18F.)

Two things I wonder about:

1) Is an outfit like the U.S. Digital Service considering people who don't have undergraduate degrees, but have a consistent track record or are a part of established teams?

2) Is the salary roughly comparable with what's available in the private sector? I understand that the government might pay less in return for some of the perks of government work, but how close are they coming these days?

I have no expertise here, but here's my understanding:

1) Yes, especially if you've worked for some big name, non-government tech companies.

2) Absolutely not. The salary is MISERABLE compared to what you could get in the private sector. That's the real problem.

The government desperately needs world class software engineers, but the private sector can effectively buy them all away. Who would try and fix the busted old immigration system when Facebook or Google will pay you literally four times more money to write way more fun stuff with modern technology, world class perks, and job security that doesn't depend on the next election cycle.

Joining these guys is a sacrifice. It's a service to the country. It's work that literally changes and even saves lives, but it's miserable, boring work, with little or no personal reward.

I'm on a team working on immigration at 18F. Not sure why you assume it's miserable. Anyways, we're using a modern Rails/Postgres/Elasticsearch stack and the work is incredibly rewarding and motivating. Here's a nice description:

> 18F is working with a number of different federal departments. One of the biggest projects it has taken on is designing the website for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That's the agency that processes applications from people hoping to become citizens and those covered under the president's executive actions who hope to obtain work permits. Godbout says the concept for the USCIS website is to make a virtual welcoming statement.

> He thinks of it as an "online Statue of Liberty. This idea of how do we present ourselves to people coming to America. Our digital process should be that beautiful, too."

source: http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2015/01/28/382178...

> The salary is MISERABLE compared to what you could get in the private sector.

That all depends. Many comp sci students are brainwashed to think that if a salary isn't at least 100k then it's not worth their time.

The fact is that it depends on location and cost of living.

For example - if you get hired to work for Google in their HQ in CA then you are guaranteed to get at least 100k salary. However, 90% of that will go towards food/rent (you will most likely rent as houses cost up in the millions...) - which making $60k in a smaller suburb area (where housing is in the affordable $50-$200k range) would arguably be the same net income as if you were working at Google.

I will say that you will earn more in the private sector - but I wouldn't use miserable to describe government salaries (more like underpaid). When I worked for the man it was defiantly an interesting experience but it was a very relaxed environment/startupy feeling.

90%? If you're willing to commute from Redwood City (15min CalTrain ride to MV, 35 minute CalTrain tride to SF), you'll be paying $1500-2000/mo for a 1br-2br/1ba. That comes to 24% of salary, and you'd be hard-pressed to spend more than another 6% on food.

Rent alone would come out to about 50% of your take home pay[1] (estimated of course - you would probably get less depending on benefits). Assuming if you hunted you might be able to rent for $1500, but from zillow[2] the rent appears to be from $2-4k+. If you showed me an apartment for $1.5k and the average is $2k I would want to know what is wrong with it.

In my suburban area - I could get a mortgage for a $100k house with at least 2br for about $500/month.

Of course people at Google probably don't get paid exactly $100k but keeping in mind a good sized chunk of that is just going toward living there.

[1] - http://www.calculator.net/take-home-pay-calculator.html?cann...

[2] - http://www.zillow.com/homes/for_rent/Redwood-City-CA/house,c...

Some easy numbers: 1k/month is ~12k/year, which is ~15-18k of pre-tax salary.

To re-emphasize, 1k/month in lower rent is worth 15-18k of salary.

I have friends paying more than $2k/month more than me, which is around a negative 40k raise (I live in San Francisco, but share).

It's very easy for humans to misinterpret recurring costs.

I don't understand your point -

Assuming $2k/month is $40k - that is almost half of $100k. So almost half your salary is going towards just rent.

Let's say you made $50k in a suburb area - using your numbers you would only pay $10k/year for a mortgage ($500/month) - with only $20k difference in salary.

$100k in CA ~ $60k $50k in suburbs ~ $40k

Realistically you would probably make $60-$70k in suburb areas which, according to your numbers, would make the same if not more AND own a house.

Of course this is ignoring other factors like food, utilities, bills and taxes.

"Hard pressed" to spend more than $17/day on food?

easily pressed to spend more than $17/day on food if you go out, but many tech jobs provide at least a meal (so you can work more)

I find it extremely hard to believe that you would be unable to spend less than $90,000 a year on food and rent in any city in America assuming you have a modicum of financial restraint.

The salary is not as good as you can get elsewhere, but it's pretty good compared to most careers still. There is also the additional benefits of the pension system if you are directly under the federal government and liberal days off/remote work when snow hits (the federal government has shut down with 0" of snow in the past in anticipation of snowstorms, and sometimes even with 1" of snow). On the contracting side you can make a lot of money though - it is not unheard of for developers to make over $150k, and combined with the cost of living of the region, one can live pretty comfortably.

Miserable, boring work is all in the eye of the beholder - there is a lot of work that many here on HN do that some others would consider boring, even in the startup world. Even companies such as Facebook or Google also have boring work.

Re #1: Correct.

Re #2: Unless you are a contractor. I was shocked to learn how much the about-to-retire ~20-30 year guys were making compared to my mid/senior level long-term contractor position was paying.

That's what I was afraid of. The thing is, the government seems to have been happy enough in the past to throw hundreds of millions of dollars to contractors, who could then parcel it out to employees and bank the rest.

I'm all for cutting out the middleman in that case, but I think the government needs to determine the price point at which they actually get the talent they need.

USDS got Alex Gaynor. Freaking Alex Gaynor, l'enfant terrible of the Python universe. They're definitely getting talent.

In regards to 1, I'd be genuinely surprised if they were. The federal government has a dramatically horrific hiring process, in general. Perhaps it is different for this effort in particular, but for reference, I used to work as a contractor for the ATF. The ATF had decided to terminate the contract of my employer, which meant that the contract would be recompeted.

While the ATF didn't like my company, they liked a few of the people, and tried to get us on a government employees, either because we were good, or because they thought it would ease the transition.

Some of the higher-ups approached me, asked for my resume, and then tailored a job posting from my resume so that they could hire me to keep doing the job I'd been doing for years.

After applying though, I was unable to make it past the first level of H.R., who decided that I was unqualified for the job... possibly due to lack of a degree, though no degree was required by the posting, again, as it had been created from my resume.

The higher-up attempted to work it through, but I gave up before they did and took another position. I told them that if they got it through, to call me, and I'd be happy to consider it, and received a call a full 18 months later, at which point I'd moved on in both body and spirit.

To your point 2, again, I'd be shocked if they were comparable. Private contracting pays generously, but government employees are pay-banded in a rather rigid system. One can eventually make established-startup wages, but rarely without direct reports, as the pay bands demand it.

As well, with sequestration and a less and less elastic federal budget, the government benefits are rapidly dwindling. I live and work in the DC area, and job-hopping is still the preferred way to get a raise, though of course government jobs have the strong benefit of being nearly impossible to be fired from.

Pay freezes, cut conference budgets and crappy equipment have been the norm for the past decade or so, and with continuing resolution, even unpaid furloughs have become more and more common.

Again, I don't have any particular insight to the US Digital Service, but a LOT of experience with government work and contracting, and it's definitely not the panacea it once was, for better or worse.

The last time this showed up, the comments on HN[1] said that you're _capped_ at $155k and have poor pension and benefits.

1: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8165082

> have poor pension and benefits

That seems to rule out the major reason to work for the government...

The salary schedule for civil servants is available on the Internet: http://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/pay-leave/salaries-...

Most engineering types I've met in the gov't have been in the 10-14 range, depending on seniority. 15's are usually dept heads or the like.

1) I was offered a job with the USDS (well, the VA's in-agency team) and I don't have a degree.

2) The max was 155k, but I couldn't make the finances work to relocate from SF with my family... and 155k wasn't enough to support our family comfortably in DC (even living in northern VA).

It's funny that when people here actually look at the salaries being paid to government employees they find them low yet articles here discussing government spending as it relates to how much public servants get paid is typically met with derision at how "over paid" government employees are.

Anyone seriously considering this should also look at living in Baltimore and taking the commuter train into DC cost of living is much lower.

Does joining the US Digital Service require a clearance, and if so does occasional marijuana consumption automatically disqualify you?

Member of 18F here. Not sure about USDS, but we get "public trust", which is basically the step below clearance. Basically means "stuff that isn't public yet". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Security_clearance#Public_Trust...

I am not sure about medium-risk public trust positions, but for high-risk public trust positions (think access to PII, social security # type stuff) they require an in depth personal history, including a meet and greet with an investigator (usually ex-law enforcement, so I was told).

Protip: Contractor or FTE, make sure you specifically ask HR whether or not there will be an additional screening, and whether or not it is a 'public-trust' position and what level that would be following your hiring.

I was pretty miffed when 'they' told me after the fact that my position required an additional background check and that my continued employment would be predicated on the outcome.

It shouldn't require a clearance unless you end up on a national security or defense project.

A valid prescription (the little white pads with a doctors signature, not a pot club membership card) for medical marijuana protects you from criminal prosecution, but not from employer drug testing programs. Executive Order 12564, signed in 1986, explicitly makes the federal government a zero tolerance drug free workplace.

It does not make it a "drug free" nor zero tolerance. It simply reinforces the arbitrary and capricious control doctors have over our bodies and mind. Under that order, it's fine to use meth (a schedule II medication), if you have a "valid" prescription, for abusive definitions of the word valid.

I worked for a different agency which required a Public Trust and the answer is yes.

For a basic public trust it was just a credit, background and drug test (the same treatment you would get at any employer who didn't trust their employees).

Former developer at OSTP. There was no drug test when I was hired in 2011.

Supposedly it doesn't even disqualify you from the FBI anymore.

the official stance is don't ask don't tell, so if you're high, apply.

Remember, y'all: this is the government that brought you PRISM and XKEYSCORE and TAO. This is the government with the department who tortured Manning and is pressuring the UK to illegally interfere with Assange's right to asylum.

Think twice before you provide material aid to the enemy.

Also, government is made of people and if good people stop coming into government and try make a difference, you end up with a government-enemy.

The US government is a very large entity. Be careful in personifying it and condemning the whole based on some high profile actions of a portion of it. Many portions of it do good work that are invaluable to our society. A broader view is required.

So what is this? I love the idea of contributing to something like this, but they don't make the process clear. Is this a job? Can I work part time on specific tasks? There are people willing to leave the private sector to do this work, but that's not always an option. They need to find a way to leverage people's spare cycles. They also don't mention anything about security. The skill gap in security is MUCH larger than development. They are missing an opportunity there...

(I've been working on Healthcare.gov for the past year and know some of the people at USDS; I was also YC S11 and appreciate the great parts of startup culture even more now)

PSA: I know it's not easy to tell from the outside, or from a website, but this is the real deal. Things are starting to change; by government standards, at ludicrous speed. The Healthcare.gov crisis really started a useful fire.

Todd Park, Mikey Dickerson, and the team he's building at USDS and the people he's placing into new "digital services" teams at other agencies like the VA-- if you meet them you'll quickly find out why they were superstars at their tech companies.

One important thing to understand is: yes, things really can be vastly improved IRL, not just in theory. It's not that government IT services ("IT") suck because the people responsible for it don't care. They're just in a completely different world, expectations and otherwise, and don't know how much better it could be.

E.g., they don't know there exists a hosting option that is more secure, more reliable, and less risky (and costs 90%/$90M less per year). Or that there exist software people who can build a far better user experience (#1: the worst UX is downtime, #2: product lead needs a) exist, and b) fight for the user on every decision), while still meeting all business requirements (for 80%/$20M less per year).

Some people do know, but they can't do it themselves [0], and they also don't have access to the right people to do it for them; their practical options are Lockheed Martin's "small-business" subsidiary, or ACRONYM's federal IT division.

USDS and 18F are fixing this, and much more. They need your help. I'm not sure what's public, but the progress is incredible. It's still going to take a long time. Most of all it's going to take more software engineers, designers, PMs, etc. The tech gap between Silicon Valley and DC is unbelievable until you've experienced it. Go east! (Or west [1])

It's definitely frustrating to work for/with the government (not sure how it compares to other institutions that provide many real-world services to a diverse 300+ million population), but if you're put in a position where you can actually change things, the impact is enormous. And now you can do that as a software engineer/technologist with no existing clue about government, because USDS/18F has leverage and the ability to place you where you can make that impact. [2]

The federal government deeply impacts all of our lives [3] and whether you think it should do more or less, there's no reason for what exists to be so incredibly inefficient and customer-unfriendly, especially when there's a huge pool of tech people with the skills needed to fix it, and now, a pipeline that can get them (you!) to the right place. Please apply!

(There's also small teams of engineers [4] on the inside tackling this problem, if you prefer that (less direct, but avoids gov. pay being capped at ~$150k or so and the strict background checks.) Contact me if you want more details.)


[0] They're also too busy trying to keep their heads above water in a bureaucratic system that seems to function only because many of the people in it work so hard, but I digress.

[1] AFAIK, USDS is based in DC (and I think has positions in Boston), 18F is mostly in SF (Civic Center) and DC, with a few remote people around the US.

[2] Imagine if you could direct and organize a team of people to rescue expanded healthcare coverage in the US (oops, Mikey did that already)

Imagine if you could help 22 million veterans get the care they deserve on time, instead of hundreds of days late

Imagine if you could help "fix" the IRS with auto-prepped tax returns (definitely seems like the hardest one on this list-- but it's also one that everyone wants to see happen. And yes it's a policy problem, but it's also a technical problem-- imagine policymakers having to trust the system that resulted in the original healthcare.gov. And informed engineering opinions have much more weight than you'd imagine.)

[3] Yes I know there's a whole world outside of the US, especially on the Internet :)

[4] "startups" and "small businesses" both have connotations on HN that I'm trying to avoid...

> Imagine if you could help "fix" the IRS with auto-prepped tax returns (definitely seems like the hardest one on this list-- but it's also one that everyone wants to see happen

Actually, its mostly hard politically, because not everyone wants to see it happen. Particularly, tax preparation firms and tax software sellers want tax returns to be difficult so that their business stays in demand, and lobby heavily against government pre-preparing returns, and the political right wants the personal tax process to be as painful as possible so that they can leverage anger at that process to get behind tax cutting moves.

There's also a whole mess of HUGE conflicts of interest and moral dilemmas with the issue of taking a private company's tax dollars, and using those tax dollars to develop and sell a competing product, which would then presumably reduce the revenue (and thus tax revenue) of the private company.

Imagine a world where our interactions with government are delightful and we are confident in government’s ability to achieve the goals we set for it.

We can create that world.

When I first jumped into the world of healthcare.gov last year it was a crazy experience, but over the last year I've come to believe that anything is possible, which is why I'm still working to creating software that radically improves how government serves people.

Interestingly, I went west from DC to the Valley within the past year - I have found that DC (industry) is surprisingly savvy, and much better at process management & leadership overall than the Valley. DC also seems to have a wealth of talented designers compared to the Valley that I have seen.

However, government is indeed a different world. One of my friends complains how he has to file a request in order to get permission to do anything (he is a contractor for the Department of Energy) - this is normal based on all I have heard from my ~4 years in the area. I heard in another organization, they are forced into short product cycles by the requests of representatives and senators for investigations. One forward thinking VP of Engineering came into a different organization and shored up a lot of the tech & brought a modern stack to the organization, making all of the developers very happy, but was ultimately sacked (I forget the exact reason told to me, but I remember it not reflecting well on the federal government).

Also, when a consumer of software created by government contractors finds a critical bug that causes a non-functional app and reports exactly what is failing (important scripts not loading), good luck getting the contractor to fix it - I've seen it take 10 months to get an acknowledgement of the problem, which affected the entire Marine Corps in not being able to satisfy a required class for that duration since it was required to complete it online.

The federal government needs to change how it runs things - I'm hoping that the USDS can make waves, but having been in the federal government world myself, I don't want to touch that beast without much better compensation & work environment.

There's also alot of money to be made in bureaucracy. Those who are making the most currently will not be happy to see their ability to extort the govt become more and more difficult.

I'm upvoting this because the issue deserves more attention and discussion. I am somewhat leery of implementation details, having tons of experience working for both large governmental and private organizations. Large organizations are notoriously difficult to deal with -- large government organizations are an order of magnitude (or two) worse. Them's just the facts.

I am completely supportive of any effort to cut through the BS and make the government more transparent and accessible. So easy-to-use portals, apps for accessing benefits, publish-subscribe services to find opportunities? Dang, there's a lot of cool stuff folks could do. Great idea. Let's go do it.

I am completely concerned about the idea of both automating enforcement and the collection/cross-indexing of data. I have a choice whether or not I let Facebook rape my privacy and anonymity online. I do not have a choice about what I report to the IRS. I'm extremely unhappy with the Facebook situation, and the government is a completely different animal.

Laws and regulations -- centuries of them by now -- were made to be enforced by humans, not computers. That's why we have so many of them and they overlap so much. Anything that takes us closer to automatically fining me when I drive 5 mph over the speed limit, schedules an audit if I make a math mistake on my taxes, or tells me what I can do or not do based on data processing that was impossible ten years ago? Screw that. I want no part of it. In fact, I would make a strong case that such activity is antithetical to a free and just society.

I'm also concerned over the difference between a PR move and something tangible. Show me the next idiot in the White House of a different party that's doing this, and I'll be much happier. Otherwise, not only do I have the reservations that I currently have, I've now added a new one: that all of this automation and assistance is only happening by supporters of one political party. Not good.

Don't get me wrong: I like the idea. I want to see some clear ethical guidelines and permanence across political parties before I could support this, however. Right now it looks like a bunch of political BS.

I am of two minds here. On the one hand making the onerous task of complying with government regulations, paying taxes, and receiving benefits is all good. It even has the potential of reducing the overal burden the government imposes on our everyday life. On the other hand, anything that reduces the frustration of dealing with the government puts off the time when there will be fewer government bodies, regulations, and inefficiency. I hope that the smart people employed by US Digital Service ask the question: "Do we really need this?" Before they set about fixing particular inefficiencies.

Too bad the VA positions are only open in DC and Boston. I'm a veteran and a software developer. I'd love to be able to help out but I'm in Austin and unwilling to move my family again. Bummer.

Not so! Not so! Don't let what they say in the advertisement dissuade you. I just completed the full interview process and was offered a position at the end of it. I declined because I'm a Feddie (& like you, a Veteran) and they offered no reinstatement provision if I jumped ship from my current agency to theirs -- i.e., I'm could be completely out of a job anywhere between one pay period to at most six years after joining USDS. THAT was the problem -- no job security. They are severely limiting the type of folks they're attracting with that model (i.e., the unemployed, risk-takers, or those who a family is not relying on for income).

BUT... I was told three times during the interview that teleworking would be o.k. and that I might have to travel about once a month or so.

If you ever come back to check up on this, please contact me at the email address in my profile. THanks.

I would seriously consider joining as a developer. If it didn't mean moving to DC. I couldn't determine if there were any remote opportunities or positions in the Bay Area.

There's a two-year fellowship with renewable terms through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. I hear that they and their workers are always interested in talking to good developers and designers, and that a large majority of their tech folks work from around the country. http://www.consumerfinance.gov/jobs/technology-innovation-fe...

Source/disclaimer: I'm a UX designer with the CFPB who just started said fellowship, who lives and works remotely from Chicago.

I work for 18F in the Bay Area. We have a team of (currently) 17, mostly working out of the GSA office at SF Civic Center, though a couple of us usually telework.

While I do not doubt the intentions are honest and government is waking up to the new reality of digital, until the new CTO has any kind of budgetary powers...this is just a dream.

As luck would have it, USDS is connected to the Office of Management and Budget =)

Time to dream big.

But does it require a drug test?

Maybe. But they should do congress first. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yT48wiRue4

I just find the name "U.S. Digital Service" to be god damn inspirational. It reminds me of Kennedy creating the Peace Corps. "Ask not what your country can do for you" and all that. I understand that in reality this is essentially a rebranding of the traditional government job, but it seems like it could be so much more.

I know that during the Healthcare.gov debacle, many people with software experience legitimately wanted to help. We look around at our communities, cities and states and see problems that could be fixed and software that's dying to use common sense modern best practices. But government bureaucracy is an impermeable wall, sometimes for the right reasons but often due to turf protection, intransigence and lack of funding. I would be happy to volunteer my time and experience, to work collaboratively with others and to work within strict standards and specifications in order to improve the quality of government technology for everyone. But the information about how to do so is hard to find and the process isn't very encouraging. I understand that this is a bit off topic, but when I hear "US Digital Service" I think "Peace Corps" for technology.

From wikipedia: "The stated mission of the Peace Corps includes providing technical assistance, helping people outside the United States to understand American culture, and helping Americans to understand the cultures of other countries."

WTF aren't we doing this for technology? Provide assistance, help the government to understand tech culture and help tech people understand government culture. If we train volunteers then we don't need to give high priority projects like Healthcare.gov to the contracting firm with the lowest bid and the snazziest powerpoint presentation. Government agencies would have their pick of people who'd proven their technical skills and reliability on projects at the local, state and federal levels. Citizen programmers could feel like they were making a difference for their country, even just a small one, which is something you can't put a price on. Government at all levels would reap huge benefits and improve services for a fraction of the cost, which would increase the general satisfaction of millions of non-technically inclined citizens.

The obvious problem with volunteer labor is that it's hard to hold someone accountable if things go wrong, and the speed and quality of ongoing maintenance and support can vary. But my thought is, the current system isn't exactly working out great either. We have catastrophic disasters at the national level and outdated and incomplete software at the local level. There are millions of people who could help, and working together they can do more good than harm. The greatest asset of the United States has always been the ingenuity and dedication of its human resources. If technology isn't the greatest opportunity and threat of the 21st century then I don't know what is, and it seems like a good time to marshall those resources to make the most of it.

> From wikipedia: "The stated mission of the Peace Corps includes providing technical assistance, helping people outside the United States to understand American culture, and helping Americans to understand the cultures of other countries." > WTF aren't we doing this for technology?

It's frustrating that the national face of US technology for so many years now is the NSA and related intelligence agencies.

It would be very, very cool if something like the US Digital Service were externally philanthropic, showing the States is more than what sells newspapers.

-1 for disabling zoom on mobile devices

Are there any specifics anywhere regarding the positions, desired skill sets, or anything other than generic descriptions? I've seen a few people comment here about positions being in D.C., but I can't find any details like that.

As someone whose gone through the hiring process for the USDA and Dept. of Interior, how is it that the USDS is bypassing the normal usajobs hiring process?

I just went through it in VA (had to turn it down, though). That was my question as well.

I notice the two magical questions on the application page:

"Are you eligible for veteran preference?

"Are you a current or former federal employee?"

Are these civil service positions?

These questions are typical for any application for a US Federal job. Preference is always given to current Federal employees and veterans.

What is the significance of if they are? I would assume that these jobs would be. Not going to be under a 3 letter acronym branch ;)

That is great. I wish my country has something like that. Is there a way to join as a foreigner and become a US citizen after a time? ;)

Will work for fedgov once fedgov stops using tech to violate the people. Until then, GFYS.

That's like saying that you'll start working with human beings once human beings stop being criminals.

You can work on projects that have absolutely nothing to do with the human rights violations via technology. The US federal government is _huge_ and, in some of its functions, does real, measurable good.

The oppressive part of government is plenty funded. Hurting the non-oppressive part is just spiting yourself.

Spiting myself? I'm sure I make more money in private sector.

I'm guessing it's not possible for non-US citizens to join this?

Really BIG, COMPLEX, DIFFICULT problems! :-o

Looks like the entire whitehouse.gov site is built in Drupal, which is about as insecure as a site can possibly be.

What's insecure about Drupal?

Or, you know, you spent five minutes to apply the free, open source patch when it was released in mid-October and your sites were protected.

Or are you arguing that any software that has ever required a patch is horribly insecure?

That's just proof it's popular.

I'd imagine that this is a hard sell given the govts track record. They want to recruit us, but they still don't get it. Why would we want to work for the bad guys? Why would we want to be second class citizens to clueless politicians that dictate directives from above instead of working in an industry that respects us and views us as leaders?

When I was younger, I spent a year in VISTA (often described as the domestic peace corps, essentially a federal program that places people with non-profit organizations working on issues related to poverty for a very small salary). I worked on a project that offered free wireless Internet for low-income housing. (I now work for a leading tech company). Of course, a non-profit housing organization is not going to have the technological sophistication of a tech company, but if you have a set of skills that the organization doesn't have and needs, then you're not going to be treated as a second class citizen. I had the opportunity to work with and get to know people who I otherwise would not have met, and to understand issues that are completely remote to the tech industry, but that are incredibly important to people's lives. I had the opportunity to be of service to others.

The tech industry is great. At a consumer tech company you get to work on products that people love and are important to their lives. Working for a social service agency can also be great. You get to work on projects that help people that may have a lot of disadvantages.

I agree with your overall point, but keep in mind how much low hanging fruit there is to truly improve people's lives here.

Here's a story: I had a small mix up in my taxes that caused the government to think I owed them over $10,000. I called the IRS over and over again and was unable to ever get to speak to anyone. It literally took 5 phone calls to figure out how to get into a queue, and then it had a two hour wait, and it's only open 9-5 so it could only be done during the work day. I'm lucky: I have enough money that I just hired an accountant to tell me what to do and the result was that the government ended up giving me back over $1000. Alternatively if I hadn't responded within 90 days I would've forfeited my right to appeal it at all. For so many people they need to take an entire day off of work just to wait in line, either on phone or in person, just to figure out what the issue is. Hopefully they can fix it on the same day and it doesn't end up costing them another day off which can put their job at risk. There is so much mind boggling inefficiency and it really ends up hurting the poorest people the most. So don't feel like you have to be some kind of NSA supporting, jingoistic jerk to work for the government. There's important, non-politically-controversial stuff to be done there that can have a big positive impact on peoples' lives.

Bad guys? What a myopic view of the world. Having seen first hand both industry and government IT, both worlds have their faults.

I'm not going to get sucked into a debate about which is worse, but I'll give you my perspective on working with federal gov't IT. Yes, policy sucks, thats not going to change any time soon but it is moving towards something halfway decent. There are plenty of skilled, intelligent and motivated IT professionals who you would actually be working for. You don't do the bidding of every politician out there, but you do follow directives from offices higher up such as the white house. Btw, the respect these people proffer to devs is immense because they know you could have worked anywhere else and make more money but you decided to work for a cause they believe in as well.

So please be considerate when you make these sweeping assumptions about the govt.

> Btw, the respect these people proffer to devs is immense because they know you could have worked anywhere else and make more money but you decided to work for a cause they believe in as well.

At best they could be as clueless as you and believe in "the cause", at worst they see how it is in reality and they see you as a sucker working for less than you deserve.

By far the people I've interacted with have not been clueless. They haven't been disillusioned to think that everything is perfect. Also if you think that they consider us as suckers for working for less, you might want to consider that is the case for a lot of federal employees [not the suckers bit, but the less money part]. Its not the money that attracts a lot of devs, its the opportunities they present to work with interesting data, people, traveling to different places, etc. If you're going to judge us, don't cast us on the extremes.

I applied. Every small difference you can make adds up. With that said, I'd want to help in education, healthcare, anything to help connect citizens more directly to their government.

"Be the change you want to see in the world" and all that jazz. Gives me something to do until Watsi or someone like them needs an ops/infrastructure guy.


"You can do a hell of a lot more damage in the system than out of it." - "Stevo", https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oi2y9-Mxq-0

But seriously, government is what we make of it. We can sit here as sheep and accept the way that we're governed or we can take the leap and try to change it by joining it.

I can't promise that it will ever get better if you sign up to help but I can promise that it won't if you don't.

engineers don't set policy

Thats actually incorrect, while we don't set policy up on high, the results of our work and projects we initiate push policymakers to set those policies. JackFr is right, engineers inform and that holds a lot of weight beyond what you might think.

Lessig said this once: Code is Law.


See also: http://codev2.cc

Granted, he was talking about how the private sector can fill in where government doesn't go. Yet even on the inside there are choices to be made and influence to be exerted.

someone should let a few of the thousands of developers who cooperated in building the surveillance state know about that i suppose

Someone should. Which is why I commented.

You'd be surprised how much of a difference a single person, engineer or not, can make on the inside, with enough persistence and vision.

If you care about policy, you put in the time, and you know what you're talking about -- you'll make your mark.

No, they don't set policy. But they inform it.

Real policy-makers ship.

I understand your skepticism - I left Federal contracting years ago in disgust at the way things have been working, or not working.

But 18F convinced me that they have the key to change that - completely with regard to their own work, and then with a wider ripple effect. That's something I couldn't pass up; I turned down a dream job in the private sector for 18F. Six months later, I'm more convinced and excited than ever.

It's important that 18F is a brand-new organization with great autonomy. This is not an effort to make an existing Federal agency "get" open/agile. That would be noble but very difficult. Rather, 18F is built from the ground up entirely of people with real devotion to and real experience in the principles. That especially includes the people at the top (to the extent we even have a top, it's really quite flat in here). And 18F overall has the leverage to do our work our way, because many other groups within the government believe that we can and will deliver (and are delivering) effectively... there's more work lined up for us than we can possibly fulfill (even if you all DO join us). We can say "no" when we're asked to work with conditions that would change us into what we're trying to fix.

All that said, we are a bunch of idealists, too. Has our optimism run away with us? Well, we'll certainly deliver excellent product. Time will tell how far the ripple effect will go.

is 18F the USDS or are they separate entities?

We are technically separate from USDS, but we're in close cooperation and constant communication with regard to overall strategy, hiring, technical and cultural techniques, and seriously watch out for those guys at Board Game Night. Basically we're BFFs.

awesome. thanks for the clarification. if i am interested in a position. should i be applying to 18F, USDS or both?

>>instead of working in an industry that respects us and views us as leaders?

What industry is that? Because in the tech industry I work in, the clueless politicians you speak of are replaced by clueless business-people who are equally obsessed with playing politics. Sure, there are a few "enlightened" companies that empower their technical staff, but those are a small minority.

The government isn't "the bad guys". They are, however, a large, bureaucratic organization, with all the benefits and drawbacks that entails.

If you've worked for a large, bureaucratic private-sector organization (like Intel), then you'll have a pretty good sense of what you're in for.

Remember: every committee, every rule, every baffling thing that seems to make no sense is there for a reason (even a picayune, trivial, bad reason)--that's life in an organization that's had 10,000 hands in the cookie dough before you came along.

The difference is that public-sector work is something that conceivably we all have a stake in and can benefit from, while the beneficiaries of private sector work at any given company are distinctly more narrow in scope.

This is kind of my initial reaction. "Bad guys" mentality aside, do I really want to put my skills to use battling some bureaucratic middle-man telling me how to do my job?

I mean, hopefully the program is really effective and creates a very concrete high-level goal and lets the tech creators go wild and do their thing, but I really do imagine it being bogged down by nonsense.

I asked about this very thing, and the people I talked to definitely recognize there's a chicken-and-egg problem. To get good people, they need good environments. And to get good environments, they need good people. I know they're working on it. I don't know enough to say whether they'll make it, but I have a lot of hope.

Also, long ago I did a contract for a state government. There was definitely some nonsense. But honestly, I was surprised how many sincere public servants there were. Sure, there were people who seemed useless, and there were definitely perverse incentives at times. But our project managed to get something useful and exciting done (on time and within budget, even) mainly because there were people at all levels of the government who really believed in doing good things for the state and its citizens. It was a very positive experience, and I can imagine something similar happening here.

Thanks for your perspective, makes me rethink my position a bit. I'll keep my eye on the program. I do think it's good that our government is asking for help to essentially improve citizen engagement.

Everyone is glued to their phones so much they don't have the mental bandwidth to even think about where the country is going. This would make the problem a lot more approachable if successful.

> XXX NAME > Engineer, Healthcare.gov

Not sure you actually want to put that on record with your own picture there. Knowing what a massive mess the whole thing is.

Actually the team that fixed healthcare.gov got quite a bit of rockstar treatment (deservedly so) and were even on the cover of TIME magazine (sadly the article is behind a paywall now I think: http://time.com/10228/obamas-trauma-team/).

I think the guy that lead them is now the director of the US Digital Services too: http://www.wired.com/2014/08/the-white-house-dickerson/

I think he might have been referencing the initial build team.

That's not this team.

For curiosities sake, I decided to take a look at healthcare.gov, put in a random ZIP code picked from New York in google maps. When I tried to look at individual cover I got an ACCESS DENIED. Is it restricted to US IPs? Seems like an odd thing to lock down.


[edit] I got to that link from this working site: http://healthbenefitexchange.ny.gov/ which I got to from Healthcare.gov

Try picking a zip code in a state that doesn't have its own state marketplace. The input element suggests 60647, in Illinois, which lets me continue on healthcare.gov instead of getting redirected.

Edited to add: healthcare.gov, unsurprisingly, is a fair bit nicer than the NY site. I live in NY and was looking at the individual marketplace out of curiosity, and I've (somewhat) read up on how US health insurance works, and I got a bit lost at the website. Healthcare.gov's UI explains a the Obamacare-specific parts (such as the "metal levels") right when you log in, and also lets you filter/sort by monthly cost (premium), which for some reason NY's doesn't let you do.

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