Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Come for the mission, stay for the impact

It’s really cool to see agencies like the USDA starting to build out multi-disciplinary teams to improve how digital services are built. Having more in-house talent is a must for agencies that want to do digital services right.

USDA plays a critical role in delivering services for people in need, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and low-interest loans to farmers, so leveraging the criticality of its mission to attract top tech talent is a smart approach. Bringing in outside tech talent in a way similar to how folks are brought into organizations like 18F and USDS – i.e., appointed to 2-4 year terms – is reasonable way for USDA to get started.

But one thing I think USDA and other agencies should think about as they start to build out their strategies for recruiting tech talent is to find pathways for people to stay in government beyond their initial 2-4 year terms. It’s expected that many people attracted to USDA’s mission, and with the skills to help improve digital services, may not want to remain in government long-term. But there are some who will. This was a subject of much discussion during my time at 18F – I myself ended up staying beyond my initial 4-year term because I found the work important and rewarding, and I was not ready to leave.

For people from the world of technology who are new to government, the acclimation period to working in a federal agency can be a long one. There are lots of constraints on how agencies acquire and manage technology, and learning the ins and outs of how to deliver digital services in government can take some time. Some of the most critical technology needs in government center around modernizing critical legacy systems, some of them decades old. These efforts take a long time, and many of the challenges that will face technologists new to government have a scope that far exceeds what can be met with a short term appointment.

Finding ways to bring in new tech talent to the federal government is an important component of developing in-house technical capacity to improve digital services. Finding ways to keep them in government, beyond their initial shorter-term appointments, will be critical to transforming the way the federal government builds and manages digital services.

Agencies are smart to use the critical nature of their missions and the people they serve to attract new tech talent into government. They should also identify pathways for these people to remain in government and make a career out of improving digital services if they want to.

I think the number of people who would opt to stay beyond their initial short term appointment, and continue working in government long-term, will exceed expectations.

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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