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Inside Obama's stealth startup (fastcompany.com)
121 points by fred256 on June 15, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 101 comments

My friend has been a Presidential Innovation Fellow for the last year.

Basically people can't get things done because they are being stonewalled by the old-guard in the various departments they've been tasked with reforming. There are outside vendors with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts on the line, and they don't want those contracts to be cancelled by implementing commonsense new technology reforms.

My friend described a process in one government department where digital documents were received, were printed, were then physically mailed to a back office site, and then manually entered into a system by typing. The contract for the scanning was worth millions. The contract for the back-end was worth millions. People's jobs depended on there being this whole useless exercise. Nothing could be reformed.

I think its important that we have optimism, but nothing short of sledgehammer and mass layoffs of government employees and contractors is going to improve government.

Name names please. Perhaps it's naive, but I imagine that if we have a specific instance to work with we're much more likely to be able to force change.

The problem is people can't go public with this stuff. They will be blacklisted from ever working in government again. And these are regulatory agencies that can make trouble for you in the private sector world too.

This is why I'm being so vague. I could actually give you specific details, but then my friend would be identified.

My friend said even with the small level of reforming he was trying to do, people stopped inviting him to meetings--because he was embarrassing with the way he was saying the Emperor has No Clothes, with respect to the processes being used.

Imagine a tech company where everyone basically has tenure, and promotions are based on how long you've been warming your seat. Now bake that organization for 50 years. That is your govt. IT department.

Surely all these amazing people who were pretty much hired directly by Obama himself can fearlessly go talk to him about that. Or is he simply throwing hundreds of them into a volcano, knowing that nothing lasting and significant will be achieved?

I think you misunderstand how much access to the President even high level techies in the government have. He has an enormous amount of demands on his time, and limited waking hours and political capital to spend. Reforming Fed. tech is not one of his priorities.

What you say is not the gist of the article nor how Obama, supposedly, recruited them.

What I'm requesting is that you don't believe the article hype.

Of course, don't take me at my word. Wait a year, or 2 years, or whatever you think is a reasonable time to wait for results ... and then check the USPTO website, or the FAA website, or the BIS website ... whatever your favorite govt. IT portal is, and see if its better. Better yet, ask a friend in government if things have gotten better in his/her department.

Don't even need to name names. Give me a department/division name so I can start firing up MuckRock with FOIA requests.

Don't assume that every piece of dysfunction you see can't be fixed. Many of these systems are mind-bogglingly complex and can't be replaced in one go. It seems entirely reasonable to me for a system undergoing modernization to have a modern piece interacting with the user feeding an old paper-based process behind it. That's obviously not the desired end goal but it seems like a perfectly reasonable intermediate one.

I heard about this a couple months ago, with largely the same sales pitch: "We're looking for software developers to help rebuild the government's systems. You won't make as much as you make in the private sector. You should think of it as a tour of duty. And we're looking for 500 people! Also you'll be relocating to DC."

If I was rebuilding important systems, I'd happily take 300 people at market rates over 500 people at government salaries. -_-;

I know some of the people who have signed up for this and I can say with confidence that I'd happily take them at any salary.

The fact that some of the best and brightest in our industry have decided to do this work because it's important rather than because it's the most financially rewarding option is encouraging.

There's no excuse for not giving people what they're owed -- never trust anyone that wants to exploit your skills. Whether its by "changing the world" in a startup or being patriotic for the government.

> The fact that some of the best and brightest in our industry have decided to do this work because it's important rather than because it's the most financially rewarding option is encouraging.

There's actually really simple reasoning behind this: the flip side to your statement is "the fact that the government isn't willing to pay for work that is important is discouraging".

You hear about the tremendous amounts of waste in government projects (everything from military contractors to the bay bridge that got built by a FOREIGN company, went over budget, and now may not even be safe). Clearly some projects are deemed "important enough" to be paid for. If your project doesn't command market rate, then either it isn't as important as they're trying to tell you it is (since they've clearly demonstrated a willingness to pay in other areas), or, perhaps worse, it is but they just don't care about it enough.

Its so strange that the patriotism line only applies individuals who can't negotiate for themselves. When it comes to huge corporations, these arguments never seem to come up.

In what world are you owed a Silicon Valley salary? Only at a Silicon Valley company, and even then only if you signed the piece of paper that offered it.

It seems awfully cynical to think there's no tech work that you would take on to justify a little cut in pay. If it's not for you, it's not for you. But there are huge swaths of people who get real satisfaction from working on the problems that government work exposes them to.

It has little to do with patriotism nor the monetary value of your work. People do things for incentives – they can be monetary or otherwise. As someone else mentioned, federal employee benefits can be really, really fantastic for the way some people want to live their lives. Probably not for those wanting to own a Maserati by their 30th birthday, but for those who want a low-risk, comfortable retirement after a consistent (if lengthy) tenure it's not a bad option.

I can name at least one "huge corporation" (in Silicon Valley, no less) that very successfully offers lower salary compensation for a shot at similarly meaningful work. Maybe these arguments never hold up because it's hard to be "patriotic" about the 38th x for y startup to launch this week.

No one is "owed" anything, I'm simply pointing out two things:

1. Be skeptical of offerings that are below market rate in exchange for intangibles, like being "part of something". You often discover that there are certain people on the organization who get to both be a part of something and have good compensation. Now, if the argument is "the package has other benefits like retirement etc etc, then sure, that is orthogonal to my argument about "sacrifice". In fact, if you simply enjoy the work then I also think that's fine. I'm saying don't be convinced about something's importance. Notice in my comment I specifically called out startups and gov.

2. This entity seems to find seemingly limitless pockets for other things, making this sacrifice suspicious.

Fundamentally I believe in treating your employees well. Sometimes amazing tasks require arbitrary salary sacrifices, more often though someone's taking a big paycheck.

If I remember correctly, my benefits when I worked as a subcontractor for the federal government were fantastic. Definitely helped make up for the lower pay.

What kind of benefits are there compared to private sector? Care to elaborate more on this? Or it's too sensitive?

According to this [1]:

* Good health care

* Lots of time off

* A defined-benefit pension plan

* Good support for parents

I have a hard time believing that all of these combined will make up for the difference in pay compared to an equivalent private sector job in New York, SV, Seattle or even Austin.

We all value things differently. I'd rather have more time off than a market salary. I'm not going to lay on my deathbed and wish I had committed extra lines of code.

Some people don't find New York, SV, Seattle, or even Austin to be the utopias that others do. That alone gives strong incentive for some people to take that trade. Never mind the less tangible things like what toomuchtodo references.

> In what world are you owed a Silicon Valley salary? Only at a Silicon Valley company, and even then only if you signed the piece of paper that offered it.

In a world where you are highly sure of getting what you paid for. You don't seem to complain about Govt paying 800million for stuff that does not work, but about people getting paid what they would elsewhere.

Those are some logical long jumps. How do you know I don't complain about government waste? And how do you know that I do complain about people getting paid what they're worth?

There are a lot of intangibles in the world, and personal motivation systems are the battlegrounds for them.

Different people value different things. Trust me, that's okay.

What I don't understand is this. The Govt. is rich, and I'm not. I have something they want. I live in a capitalist country. Why not charge them for what I'm worth. This makes no sense. I would agree to not charge money for some foundation that serves poor people, but the Govt? That's plain immature/stupid.

A few things. First, six figures is rich by almost any standard except Silicon Valley. Second, you don't live in an exclusively capitalist country, and even if you did, that doesn't mean you have to be entirely financially motivated by everything you ever do. Are you familiar with charity organizations? Volunteer services? I don't know, basic human decency which goes unrewarded each and every day? Third, these people are charging what they're worth: a moderate salary, good benefits, and problems they want to work on. Fourth, you really don't think a more efficient government benefits the poor?

A better healthcare infrastructure (I'm not saying healthcare.gov is "the answer," but it's the right direction) literally saves lives. What other definition of serving people can you possibly have?

The simple answer here is that government agencies are funded by congressional appropriations and salaries are regulated. The "government" may be rich, but that doesn't imply that it's easy to pay people market rates, and even if it were, there's a finite budget out of which to pay them that could instead be used to hire more people.

In many ways I'm actually glad this situation exists: it has the effect of filtering out people that care more about their market worth than the mission.

If people were concerned about the highest salary available to them, we would not have academics and NGOs.

People are motivated by different things. It is not better or worse to be primarily motivated by a salary that exists in one place, but, if you want a Silicon Valley salary, then perhaps Silicon Valley is the place that you should work.

>In what world are you owed a Silicon Valley salary?

On the flip side, in what world are employers owed cheap labor?

Nowhere. Is this little govt project run by captured slaves from the far off land of Siliconia Valley?

Fallacy by appeal to the extreme.

>There's no excuse for not giving people what they're owed -- never trust anyone that wants to exploit your skills. Whether its by "changing the world" in a startup or being patriotic for the government.

Normally I'd agree with you. However, I would posit that Congress is a pretty good excuse.

>Its so strange that the patriotism line only applies individuals who can't negotiate for themselves. When it comes to huge corporations, these arguments never seem to come up.

Because huge corporations are not loyal to their workers, so fuck them. They have to pay up front.

> Because huge corporations are not loyal to their workers, so fuck them. They have to pay up front.

I think you mistook what I was saying. I meant, the calls to patriotism seem to disappear when the government deals with corporations instead of people. When the government makes a contract with a corporation, its a pretty sweet deal for the corporation, when they make it with an individual, it doesn't appear to be the case. Corporations seem to be able to drive up costs and sell things at ridiculous markups, not be held liable for their mistakes, but individuals are expected to "sacrifice for the greater good" when offering their services to government.

But you don't work for the government, you work for the public, which happens to be a government job. And this changes everything (go ask a Marine about it). "Being patriotic for the government" has no meaning in a free country with individual rights. And it is not because others are getting pork from taxpayer money that it is a good thing that should be praised and encouraged.

The government is composed of citizen who represent all other citizen's interests and have been hired to manage them. It is not a standalone entity and, at least in the United States, is (technically, if not in practice) subordinate to the people, not owning them like a feudal lord his serfs.

Government service is what allows Silicon Valley jobs paying fortunes to exist - both through the maintenance of individual rights (justice, police, defence) and through seeding it with vast amounts of defence research funding half a century ago. Going ostrich on that simple fact of life today in a first world country is a luxury afforded by those who do not and spend their own life dedicated to making yours possible. Regardless of Snowden's status as a traitor or hero, for example, it is pretty clear that he was not motivated by financial gain or the ideological concerns of the enemy (the traditional reasons for moving to Russia in the 20th century). He did it because he thought that risking his prosperity, quality of life and, well, actual life was worth it for the prospect of improving government and defending his fellow citizen's rights.

As a citizen, you have the power to change the way government operates through your representatives (without doing a Snowden); the question becomes, to those who complain of pork, how many of you did bring it up with your elected representatives? How many of you took some action instead of thinking "that slice looks tasty, maybe I should have some"?

This is a separate debate to the idea of civil servants being paid "market rate" salaries or simply enough to have a middle class life (i.e. sacrificing earning capability for the sake of public service). What I am particularly objecting to is your idea that because some people have managed to steal from the taxpayers, your fellow citizen and neighbours, that it is OK for you to do so as well. If I have misunderstood you I apologise.

>You hear about the tremendous amounts of waste in government projects...

>When it comes to huge corporations, these arguments never seem to come up.

>Clearly some projects are deemed "important enough" to be paid for.

What you're calling government waste is some corporation's profits. Nothing is ever wasted. It's simply redistributed. It's not so much a matter of whether it's important enough, but one of lobbying, campaign finance, and quid pro quo. Foot the bill and we'll "waste" some money your way.

Worker-bees don't have this leverage, so they get government rates.

>What you're calling government waste is some corporation's profits. Nothing is ever wasted. It's simply redistributed.

Taking other people's money and using it in an inefficient manner is wasting.

>using it in an inefficient manner

Inefficient for whom?

For the people who are getting something in return for "other people's money", it's investing.

I'm not saying that it's cool. But, it is what it is.

Thanks for sharing. There seems to be confusion, however. I am not arguing that it's good for society or anyone other than the corporations that profit (i.e. the glaziers, if you will).

I am simply saying that there is a design to the way things currently work. It is not random, accidental, or born of some myopic undervaluing of human capital.

>Inefficient for whom?

For those whose income is being reduced.

Right. But, who benefits?

I'm not arguing that it's good for taxpayers or government employees. I think you're forgetting the context of my original comment. My point is simply that these choices--i.e. paying below market rates to employees, while spending exorbitantly on contracts with corporations--are not a matter of accidental waste or the relative importance of projects, as seemed to be implied by the comment to which I replied.

That "waste" is profitable. And it happens that those who profit also tend to have cozy relationships and armies of lobbyists.

The government spends billions on useless new fighter jets. How it is not exploitative to not pay software developers what they are worth?

The government is not a charity and doesn't deserve ours. It is the government that spies on us, runs a war on drugs that has seen countless minorities thrown in prison. The government tortures, commits crimes against humanity and god knows what else. Oh yeah, they still haven't closed gitmo.

Have you ever worked for the government? Your friends will either be assimilated by the Borg or shot out of a torpedo tube. Resistance is futile.

There are parts of the government which are different. (Some are better, some are worse, and all in different ways.)

Thinking of the US Government as a monolithic entity with a single culture was probably my biggest incorrect preconceived idea; it seems to be fairly universal to people who have never seen inside.

>> You won't make as much as you make in the private sector.

But the overall benefits package may very well be competitive, assuming they're bringing people in as government employees or contractors. The federal government is legally back-stopped on how limited it can allow benefit packages to be (contrast with the package in some startup companies, though of course the possibility of massive windfall profit sharing is supposed to make up the difference).

Not that many people who work directly for the government work for market rates.

Cabinet members for instance make about $200,000 - which is not comparable to executive salaries in 2015.

They are also "paid" in name recognition and political access, and those retain some value after that person has left the office.

Furthermore, the base salary does not include the value of various benefits available to the government employee, which varies wildly by the office to be filled. These often include immunity from prosecution, defined benefit pensions, service discounts, medical benefits, protections against arbitrary dismissal, and others.

Even so, those barely obfuscated benefits are probably not nearly enough to match the usual differential between a competitive market rate and the government pay scales.

Just a few years ago, I was asked by an Army officer to consider a job with the government. She said, "The government needs good programmers." As I politely disengaged, I thought silently to myself, "Yes, well, that's because the government only pays for awful to mediocre programmers."

Unlike some other positions in the bureaucracy that may be indirectly monetized, the only truly remunerative route I see on this proposed team is to work in it for a few years, writing obscure arcana into the code, then quit to become a consultant in working around the quirks in the very same code you just wrote.

I don't know anyone who works as a bureaucrat who does it out of a sense of patriotism.

Likewise, you could say that these engineers are "paid" in recognition/agency (from the President) and meaningful work. Yes, it doesn't need to be mutually exclusive with market pay, but if they're attracting great programmers now, I'd say the market is working.

Jack Lew, currently Treasury Secretary, made millions at NYU and Citibank, chiefly because he was politically connected. He's a reasonably smart guy, but hasn't show the anything the capability needed to earn that sort of change strictly on his own personal productivity.


Anybody sticking around DC for any serious period of time will find similar ways of being compensated, with corresponding effects on the quality of the work they do. The USDS isn't about changing government. It's about expanding Democratic networks into new channels of information power and government largesse.

> I'd happily take 300 people at market rates over 500 people at government salaries. -_-;

I mentioned this before, but it's worth mentioning again here. There is the best talent money can buy and there is the talent no money can buy. If I could, I would apply without thinking twice.

I know two people who went to do this (and have stayed on past their initial six month terms). I think they're insane, but they are fantastic engineers. Even at the top of the GS pay scale, they're making ~half what they were in their prior industry jobs. The government just doesn't pay that well, and as far as I know the pay scale is congressionally managed.

If you stick around for the long-term, you can make $130k-150k as a GS-15, work eight-hour days, and get a sweet pension at 55 instead of the Logan's Run layoff-crystal going off when you turn 30.

As I understand it they both started at GS15 step 10, which even with the cost of living decrease moving to DC still puts them around half where they were before.

I was hired into 18F last year. I work out of San Francisco, where we have a team of about 15 working in the center of the city (UN Plaza). It's the second-largest office; the largest is DC, but we have smaller offices in Chicago and NYC, as well as many people working remotely in other parts of the country.

I have 20 years of software engineering experience, and the salary I get is competitive with similar salaries in SF. The benefits are decent, plus you get loads of discounts of things just for being a Federal employee.

There were several reasons I joined, but patriotism isn't one of them: I'm actually a British citizen who relocated to the USA almost a decade ago. Having kept in touch with friends back in London, I'm amazed and inspired by what GDS has achieved: they are, quite literally, setting the high water mark for user-centered design and research. Then I looked around the state of US government websites, and I felt what is one of the most common motivations for an engineer: seeing something broken that you know how to fix.

Not only are the people here fantastic, but we're getting to use better tools and services than I have previously. We started deploying using AWS and all its associated services, but have recently set up Cloud Foundry, and that's made fast development and deployment so much easier. (Yay, that wonderful feeling of deleting huge swathes of configuration you just don't need any more.) The project I'm on uses Mandrill and Twilio, plus Snap CI for testing & deployment. (Other projects may use different tools. Not much is mandated.) We all work on MacBook Pros with Thunderbolt Displays. (Some of us run Linux on those MacBooks.)

Part of what makes this work so well is that, while 18F does bill clients for our time, our primary motivator is quality rather than profit. We get to do the right thing because it's the right thing. If we find a better way to build, we switch to that. I've worked with plenty of startups but I've rarely worked with any team that was able to improve its working methods so quickly.

Everything we build is open source by default, available on Github. Plus, we contribute to other FOSS projects (such as the aforementioned Cloud Foundry). I've ended up making PRs back to plenty of libraries and other projects while working on this one to fix minor bugs or add useful features.

No, my day job here is not totally free of strange and frustrating bureaucracy, but there's far less than you'd guess, and plenty of freedoms that make up for that. I could bang on about my beliefs about the role of government and politics and how all this should work, and that is all important to me, but it's less relevant to the day-to-day work. And so far, that work is immensely satisfying.

Are you still permitted to do consulting on the side working for 18F/USDS?

They should just pay market rates. The alternative is hiring contractors at 2-3x market rate

It's not possible. Government jobs (except for those for the equivalent of flag officers in the military) are categorized at certain pay levels. The highest pay level tops out around 160K. I think the original intent was to avoid politicians paying their friends extreme salaries, which is how gov't jobs used to work (see "Spoils System).

This article is entirely about another alternative. Which is to pay below private market rates but exposure to otherwise inaccessible problems.

Feel free to tell that to Congress.

"You won't make as much as you make in the private sector. You should think of it as a tour of duty"

Sounds like a modern day Shackleton job posting

Well you can't pay for good software these days, so maybe they are on to something.

What a sales pitch!

This is at least in part inspired by the (for the most part) success of the UK cabinet office's Government Digital Services.

Despite years of multi billion pound IT projects at the hands of Microsoft, HP, Crapita etc going over budget and delivering poor results late, the small internal team have produced some very modern, very successful web services. They even had a GitHub and PivitolTracker board publicly available if I recall.

So yeah, whether it can resist being outsourced and off shored is one thing, but with the right people (sounds good so far!) I wouldn't write it off as another government IT disaster just yet.

Do you have any more information about the success of the UK's GDS? How do you evaluate their success? Are there any similar EU organs? Do you know any ways for a CS student to learn more about governance?

The religious and reverent tone of this article gives away the true purpose for this initiative. Power.

Make no mistake, those pushing this project are Machiavellians of the highest order. They did not spend their entire lives playing the political game and manipulating their way to the top in order to "do good" and "change government". If they truly wanted to "do good" they could very easily accomplish huge strides with a single stroke of a pen, yet this fails to happen day in and day out. Furthermore the very idea that those who control the machinations of government would want to change that system is ludicrous on face, and requires significant cognitive dissonance to believe. This is about leverage.

Before the Snowden revelations the government had most of the tech companies comfortably in their pocket with no real downside to those companies. Those revelations have forced companies to choose between consumers and the government, a choice that seems to be slightly leaning towards consumers recently (rollouts of security features, encryption by default). Regardless of the vast abilities of the NSA, they still rely on Silicon Valley for an absurd percentage of their intelligence gathering.

This scares the Washington elite (please note this elite is not constrained by political party), and so they go after the cornerstone of Silicon Valley's own power base. Talent. This is a warning shot, a demonstration that a 45 minute meeting with the president is sufficient to fully co-opt some of the best and brightest SV has to offer.

Let's be real here. If the President really cared about the VA he wouldn't have waited until he was a lame duck to spearhead some website when the reality is the VA is woefully underfunded and highly dysfunctional as an organization from structure to implementation. No javascript front end will change those things. This lip service to building better systems to "help people" is a poor mask over the fact that they would control the people who designed and built that very system, and thus, control the system. He who has the power to destroy has the ultimate power.

Everyone on this website knows Google is one of the most powerful companies on earth because of their talent. Everyone knows that startups die when the lead engineer gets poached. You don't take talent from Google to not compete with them... this is just war games on a much more abstracted level.

Could you give an example of how the President could "very easily accomplish huge strides with a single stroke of a pen?"

The government is specifically designed against what you are stating is/should be the norm. This is literally the antithesis of the American government's mandate and design.

The President managed to authorize a taskforce of 500 software engineers without much fuss, I don't see your point here.

But even assuming your premise, First Ladies are very often tasked with lip service public good projects, it probably wouldn't hurt to add some Presidential oomph to the existing forays. That seems like very easy low hanging fruit.

A power that's delegated to him by the Constitution. There are very specific guidelines surrounding what a President (or any other member of government) can and cannot do.

You're saying the President should spend more time putting his name behind social initiatives? Something tells me you'd be unimpressed.

Not that he shouldn't do it, but, as you said, he's assembled a 500-person strong startup to rebuild gov't infrastructure and numerous people here find it futile.

Looking at the top comment though, it does not look like these 500 software engineers have much power. If they had, they could effect real change.

Finding budget for 500 programmers is a drop in the ocean of the current Federal budget. They probably could get a few of the drivers moving parts around for the JSF program to drive a little slower for a couple of days and use the fuel savings.

Abolish the surveillance state, for one.

Can you outline more specifically what that means? Just dismiss and lay off the NSA? What about the CIA? How about the DIA? What prevents DEA/ATF from taking up the reins? What about the FBI?

Welcome to government, the only ecosystem designed to kill productivity for fear of tyranny.

You could, if you wanted to. He and his consiglieri could too, if he wanted to.

The obstacle is not the means, it is the end. He likes the Surveillance State.

Indeed. Those who choose to devote their life and passion to Leviathan are willing agents of Leviathan. The problem with the Modern State is not a lack of efficiency but a lack of limits.

I hope they are able to make some good, lasting progress. I fear that a Republican administration would dismantle the startup style team and replace it with a more enterprise approach (bring in IBM or Accenture type companies) that would spend substantially more and accomplish substantially less.

The basis for this concern is the contrast in technology efforts in the last presidential campaign, where Obama brought in Harper Reid and a small team of very talented people. Romney hired some big companies.

18 months is not a lot of time to change the federal government.

Don't let the marketing machine fool you. Both sides use a ton of enterprise software and are in bed with companies that practice strong enterprise tactics (DNC & Catalist; GOP & whatever the Kochs/Rove are calling their thing).

The Obama campaign had a great organization with a ton of youth techies in control (funny things happen to organizational structure when salaries are 50% of what one can get in the private sector), but so much of what you read is absolute hype. Regarding the performance of Narwhal, lots of sour feelings between the analytics team and the tech team.

The not-so-new-anymore GOP one is called Para Bellum. http://www.parabellumlabs.com/

Looks like an awesome start-up. They've got Macs and there is a picture of a girl diagramming something with "Web" in it. The future is now.

It shouldn't surprise me at all that their name means "Prepare for war"...

They gave a talk at my school. One of their head engineers knew his stuff, but it seemed the guy on the political side of things didn't "get it." They definitely understood they were behind, but said they had the same amount of data as the DNC, just they weren't using it.

How many successful launches has Civis had again? (tumbleweeds roll)

Totally. AWS kind of snaked 'em: http://aws.amazon.com/machine-learning/

Just like everybody else that had something useful to AWS.

They also acquire a lot.

Well, if my company caught the attention of AWS engineers, I would be way more defensive than optimistic.

Seriously? Party affiliation automatically means bringing in an "enterprise" entity? Both parties are pretty heavily in bed with many of those.

I think both learned from the last two elections.

Obama had some structural advantages in 2012 because he was the incumbent.

Obama already had a lot funds in the bank, and names on his lists, from his huge 2008 win. Romney is rich, but was starting from essentially scratch in building his volunteer army and voter database.

Obama was able to start investing in his national campaign infrastructure way before Romney because he did not have to win a primary first. Almost every early dollar Romney brought in had to be spent right away on short-term ads and organizing to make sure he won the primary.

And Obama was able to access the national Democratic party infrastructure from the beginning. Romney did not have access to the national Republican infrastructure until he won the nomination.

The effect of all this was that Obama was able to take his time and build all his software custom, while Romney had to wait until the last minute and buy things from external sources.

By the way, 2012 also demonstrated that shortcomings of Super PACs. They can spend a ton of money on TV ads, but they're no help at all with the (increasing important) data operations, because they are forbidden from coordinating with the campaign. While Romney was supported heavily by Super PACs, almost all of Obama's fundraising went directly into his campaign--where it could pay for core technologies.


As for lasting progress, the U.S. Digital Service is not going to last beyond Obama, at least not in its current incarnation. It's housed under the Executive Office of the President and it is a political operation--their job is to make sure that the President's policy priorities have good technology. Obviously a new administration (of either party) is going to have different policies and priorities.

There's also the ephemeral "Obama magic"--he's just built a good reputation for using and appreciating technology. Pretty much no other candidate in the 2016 race has that (at least yet). Alpha geeks might not stick around for a more "old school" president like Hillary, Jeb, etc.

Things look a lot better for 18F because it is housed under GSA and it is intended to be politically neutral. And there's also a push on right now to get agencies to hire more digitally savvy people directly into staff roles--those would also be more likely to persist into the next administration.

Yeah very good point about USDS being in a political and less bureaucratic / civil service part of government. However, I'd argue anyone that wins in 2016 regardless of age or party (not that there aren't huge differences) will have to figure out how to leverage technology to effectively govern, so we may yet be surprised.

There was a lot of talk in the wake of the Obama/Romney election that Obama's digital efforts gave them a very important advantage, so I think it is likely that the main Republican campaigns will have changed to that approach this cycle.

Didn't CGI (among an army of other large, "enterprise" companies) build most of Healthcare.gov? https://www.cgi.com/en/us-federal/services-solutions

Is that the link you meant to post? Did it change?

"user-friendly government" ... awesome, start with voting. This has potential to touch every "user" and should be low hanging fruit for such a crack team.

That'd be swell, but unfortunately for the most part, voting isn't the within the purview of the federal government, because it's not one of the enumerated powers in the constitution. Thank the 10th amendment, federalism, etc.

I think the biggest impact they'll have is on the mindset of the US government has as a whole. Particularly their involvement in health care technology reforms such as the HITECH additions to HIPAA regulations: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_Information_Technology_...

Or Medicare's Meaningful Use initiative: http://www.healthit.gov/providers-professionals/meaningful-u...

If you visit your doctor and see new technology in place, and also see data privacy taken seriously, there's a good chance that government incentives were involved. Now these guys might not have been directly involved in the trench-related work, but the administration is definitely pushing these agendas.

They are pushing these agendas but unfortunately the standards are rather abysmal.

"Meaningful Use" has become the butt of many jokes. HITECH is the preferred compliance framework for Healthcare companies but it takes dramatically longer, and by extension is more expensive than comparable frameworks like SOC 2. The UX of most new Healthcare IT is embarrassing, by the standards of anyone who grew up in Web 2.0.

Add to this the amount of money being spent for this innovation and it's painful how inefficient of an investment the government is making. There are some companies really trying to push the envelope but the majority of the industry is mired in red tape and antique thinking.

I need to remind the somewhat younger and more idealistic HN crowd that national service is just that: national service. If it's "Obama's startup", it ain't national service. It's partisan service.

It's an important point, because time will tell how some future Republican administration will both treat and be treated by this group. If you're working with millions of federal jobs, you'd better be ready to play the long game; not just play the PR game.

I wish guys joining the best. But if you're only in it because of Obama? Please don't go. I wouldn't want to see a situation where IT systems favored by one party were automated while those favored by another were not. That would take what could be a great good and turn it into a great evil.

The problem with this is the entrenched culture and feudal turf wars within various departements in gvt will likely need to be addressed, even if you have the top tech talent of the universe working on this ... I wonder how they expect to get everyone to play nice with the new 'recruits'

These folks all seem like political appointees. What happens in 18 months when Obama is gone? I hope the successor keeps the initiative going, as it seems like a good cause.

Is the federal government's inability to recruit and retain top talent really a mystery? It's surprising that an institution that is capable of confiscating double digit percentages of it's people's labor and capital gains[1] is unwilling to pay market or above market salaries to its employees.

If they want to capture the best and brightest, they'll have to do more than just appeal to patriotism.

[1] http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/taxfacts/displayafact.cfm?Doc...

Several agencies in the federal government strive to increase salaries to approach market values, but Congress typically prevents these measures [1]. In this case, it's my opinion that they're representing their constituents' desire to limit public sector salaries, and risk reelection by legislating otherwise. I think that over 50% of Americans suspect federal employees are overpaid. The issue isn't improved by misleading stories in the media [2].

[1] http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/house-gop-release-bill-to-...

[2] http://www.factcheck.org/2010/12/are-federal-workers-overpai...

It's not appropriate to use the word "confiscate" in this context. If you're not satisfied with the social contract of this country, you're free to leave and earn money elsewhere.

Feel free to share your insights with your Congressional Representative. They're the ones who dictate the governmental pay scale.

What does tax policy have to do with how the federal government compensates it's employees?

Taxes, in one form or another, are where the federal government gets the money it uses to pay its employees.

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