Code Red_: “They have no use for someone who looks and dresses like me”

I published a long piece on LinkedIn yesterday, reflecting on Steven Brill’s excellent Time Magazine cover story, “Code Red_“, about the rescue of healthcare.gov by a small team of volunteer techies from Silicon Valley.

http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,20140310,00.htmlThe title of my piece took off from a comment by Google Site Reliability Engineer Mikey Dickerson, who is quoted in Brill’s article as saying:

“It was only when they were desperate that they turned to us…. They have no use for someone who looks and dresses like me. Maybe this will be a lesson for them. Maybe that will change.”

I am hoping that it will change, and I’ve spent a lot of my personal efforts over the past half dozen years trying to get more people from the technology community to apply their skills to improving government.  Love it or hate it, it is a huge part of our economy, both in the US and around the world.

It’s interesting to me how many of the early comments on the LinkedIn piece show the libertarian disregard for government.  I find that puzzling.  We celebrate startups all the time that disrupt established industries.  We celebrate innovation in big companies.  Why would we not celebrate people who are working to disrupt government “business as usual” and make things better for all of us?

So, hats off to the rescue team. They did a great service, while also demonstrating that yes, a small team with the right skills can do more than disorganized, mismanaged teams of contractors charging the government hundreds of millions of dollars.

But if we think that bringing Silicon Valley to the rescue is that simple, we’re missing the big opportunity, which is to change the way we design and manage government projects. You can’t just sprinkle some Silicon Valley fairy dust and go back to business as usual. The “emergency measures” of the rescue need to lead us to a profound rethinking of how government creates IT projects.  I won’t recap everything I wrote, but my key conclusions are as follows:

  • Digital leaders need a voice in policy, not just in carrying out orders from people who don’t know what’s possible with today’s technology.
  • User-centric design is essential. But we must replace the term “user-centric” with “citizen-centric”, to drive home the point that systems must be designed to meet the needs of the citizens who are the intended “customer” of government programs. We need to end the tyranny of overly complex business rules and processes that are strangling government’s ability to deliver on its mission.
  • Hiring technical, design, and project management talent into government is too difficult. The Obama administration should immediately create special hiring authorities for digital workers and empower competent leaders to hire the talent they need across government.
  • Government must learn how to appoint a person to lead an effort, and give that person the actual authority he or she needs to get the job done. Someone has to have real power to cut through the overlapping lines of authority that require project leaders to focus on managing the needs of internal stakeholders at the expense of user needs.
  • Government must stop using “waterfall” methodologies of project management, which assume that planners can anticipate everything in advance, and replace them with the agile style of development that has taken over in the cloud era. Phased rollouts, constant testing, learning as you go, are the hallmarks of modern software development, yet government procurement, budgeting and planning processes continue to encourage antiquated methodologies that have proven not to work.

It will take time to make all these changes.  But we can’t wait. There is a pressing need for more people with technical and user experience chops to consider working with government, either through short term programs like the Presidential Innovation Fellows (third round applications due April 7) or Code for America (at the city level), or through longer term appointments.  There’s a lot to fix, and now is the time!

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  • RobotEnomics

    Tim you mention “I’ve spent a lot of my personal efforts over the past half dozen years trying to get more people from the technology community to apply their skills to improving government. Love it or hate it, it is a huge part of our economy, both in the US and around the world.” And that is a wise approach especially as the much
    maligned state has been the critical innovator for many of our biggest technological
    breakthroughs. Mariana Mazzucato, in her book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths notes, “the US National Science Foundation funded the algorithm that drove Google’s search engine.” All the technologies that make the iPhone “smart” were state-funded—the Internet, wireless networks,
the global positioning system, microelectronics, touchscreen displays and indeed Apple’s voice-activated SIRI personal assistant – it would certainly serve us well to also help government’s solve pressing issues.

    • Tommy S

      The advances you mention were not produced by civil servants. They were funded using public money. The approach would have worked for healthcare.gov, but it was granted under a no-bid, and managed by the civil servants.

  • kmhall

    You had me until the last bullet. Waterfall has it’s place in the project management toolbox. There are *good* aspects of waterfall, including producing requirements, designs, dependencies, and overall project estimates *early* in the project. That’s good because that allows you to get good ideas about cost, schedule, and risks for the project.

    Are any of these products 100% correct? Absolutely not. Likely, requirements and design will evolve over the project. But some aspects of the project are less likely to change. By doing a good planning round up front, the team has a good idea of what parts of the project are risky, which parts are likely to change, and which changes will be easy to handle and which changes will lead to fundamental (expensive) changes.

    If you argue that some projects are so vague and in so much flux that any sort of planning is wasted effort (and those projects do really exist), I would expect that government is NOT primarily funding those kinds of programs that scream out for Agile development.

    http://codemanship.co.uk/parlezuml/blog/?sectionid=5
    http://www.galorath.com/wp/worlds-largest-agile-program-goes-back-to-waterfall.php

  • meh3

    I didn’t read any further than ‘It’s interesting to me how many of the early comments on the LinkedIn piece show the libertarian disregard for government.’ governments have guns and use them on citizens – worst case scenario I know. so scale up just a bit – NSA; or healthcare.gov for that matter.

    ‘Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.’ Ben Franklin

    • AmyStephen

      I didn’t read any further than “I didn’t read any further than”.

      • deadplanet

        Hah! Good one!

  • Kennon Gilson

    Thanks for the article.
    For info on people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues worldwide, please see the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization @ http://www.Libertarian-International.org

  • Dennis McDonald

    Great piece! Publishing on Linkedin was an interesting idea. Agree procurement needs fixing — the only way is to set up a separate process — the existing system is too complex to fix. Same may be true about systems — cloud based systems that minimize legacy integration might help some. Also, outsourcing program management to megaconsulting companies by definition inserts layers between policy and implementation. Smaller chunked projects will help but that assumes someone is knowledgeable enough to do design work. Also, it would also help if tech folks didn’t sneer at government work; that attitude really does exist, you know.

  • mvarela

    Some good comments here but I would like to point out that “Government” has been using Agile for several years and there are a lot of IT staff who know what is possible with modern technology and have the skills to use it but we are not always listened to.

  • Harvey Sugar

    I’ve spent my entire career working in the Washington DC area both for commercial companies and government contractors. While there are some good points here I find some of the Silicon Valley centric attitude a bit insulting.

    First of all people act as though the Federal Government is like some big monolithic structure. It is not and for every example of an IT project that has been mishandled there are dozens that never get noticed because they work out well. There many competent innovative professionals working for the government and government contractors. There are leaders who know how to work within the system to get things done in government and produce excellent results. Sadly they were not the ones who worked on this high profile project. When there are so many software projects going on at once, some are going to run into major problems. Social Security checks arrive reliably, tax returns get processed, and NOAA provides weather predictions and alerts in a timely manor, in spite of the constant evolution and upgrades to the software that support these functions.

    I’m also tired of this cult of Silicon Valley that has taken over the media encouraged by the Valley’s own self promotion. Many of the innovations from Silicon Valley were built on developments from other centers of technical innovation, Boston, Raleigh-Durham, Bell Labs and its successors in New Jersey, and the Washington DC area. For example using clusters of commodity hardware for high performance computing was pioneered at MIT as “Beowulf Clusters”. The cluster concept was advanced at NASA-Goddard in suburban Maryland.

    Finally, the Agile pixie dust is not the right approach for every project. For mission critical and safety critical systems, the waterfall model is the correct solution. Mission critical and safety critical systems are a large part of what we do in the DC area.

  • fwd8

    Huge +1 on the need to reform the federal government hiring process. One can complete the entire hiring process at just about any employer (local governments included), in the time it takes to begin to attempt to navigate the vast shameful, shudder-inducing wasteland that is usajobs.gov

    Many a civic-minded professional have been scared away from federal service just by that website alone.

    • Tommy S

      Yes, any qualified person who has tried to get a government job has to come to the conclusion that the process is designed around not bringing in anybody who would rock the boat.

  • Tommy S

    I’m worried that you miss the point. Government is run by the Unions and for the Unions. Actually doing ANYTHING is frowned upon, and doing something well is considered a cry for help (as in psychotherapy). Think about company running like that… think especially what it means when management is composed entirely of those who have learned best how to avoid producing. Healthcare.gov is just the most visible example of what is happening every day.