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There’s No Place Like Home

I feel a bit like Dorothy waking up back in Kansas after her adventures in Oz.  I’ve just spent a year in our own magical capital, Washington, DC, serving as the Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States, and have now been back at Code for America for the better part of a week.  Unlike Dorothy, I was certainly not trying escape a bleak dust bowl; in fact, it was incredibly difficult to leave the amazing vortex of creativity that is Code for America for a place that moves a little bit more slowly.  Like Dorothy, the lessons I learned were ones I already knew, but I needed this experience in federal government for them to truly come alive for me.

A question many folks have asked me is, “What did you actually do during your year?” I’d like to hold off on that topic for now.  Some of what I worked on is still in process within the White House, and my former colleagues will talk about that work when it’s ready.  I will be sure to amplify their message when the time is right.

But the first two questions most folks ask me are, “What was it like? Are you glad you did it?” My answers are, “It was amazing, and I can’t imagine that I ever hesitated.”  It was a difficult year, both the traveling back and forth and the feeling of being a newbie at everything: learning how policy is made, studying up on some of the finer points of procurement regulation, and familiarizing myself with actual laws like the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 and proposed laws like FITARA. And most importantly, learning how things get done in DC.  I’m used to heated debates in meetings; in DC, I learned that the meeting never happens in the meeting.  I’m used to looking at user research and prototypes; in DC, there are a lot of slide decks and memos.  But I also saw how all that is changing. Perhaps more slowly than we’d like, but it is changing — and if I was even a tiny part of the momentum in that direction, then I’m proud of my time there.

I’ve spent the last four years of my life talking about how government should change.  I’d like to say I was doing something about how government should change — but in my definition of “doing,” the Code for America Brigades, Fellows, Peer Network members, and civic startups are the real doers.  I have played the role of enabler, convener, and storyteller.  I’m not putting myself down when I say this, but talk is cheap.  Advice is easy.

I have implored our nation’s public servants to be less risk-averse on many occasions; now I know what it’s like to be the person whose email records are likely to become public. I’ve had to be the one, sitting at my desk, deciding if I should include a third party on an email asking for feedback — when I know that if the “Cc:” line includes anyone outside of the Executive Office of the President, then we’ve waived the right to executive privilege.  The principle of “default to open” is a little less self-evident when you think you’re doing things right, but you’re not quite sure, and you know the stakes are really high.  I’m happy with the choices I made, and I stayed true to my principles, but I know better now what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.  I leave with an even greater commitment to change, but also with a deeper empathy for those trying to change the system from within.

I’ve also spent the last four years of my life talking about the amazing talent that serves our nation, not in the bright spotlight of politics, but in the day-to-day of running the country. I knew what I was talking about, because I’ve worked with folks like Michael Evans, who was Boston’s first on-staff “civic hacker,” and Theresa Reno-Weber, Louisville’s Chief Performance Officer. But I worked with those talented people either before they went into government or from the outside.  Now I’ve had the chance to actually serve side-by-side with people like Todd Park, Ryan Panchadsaram, Nick Sinai, Nicole Wong, Haley Van Dyck, Marina Martin, Casey Burns, and so many others. I’ve seen not only their dedication, but also their brilliance and commitment to doing the right thing — even in a system that sometimes makes that difficult.  If these people are government bureaucrats, there’s no higher calling I could aspire to.

I’ll expand on some of the other lessons I learned in later blog posts, but for now I’m just waving a friendly hello.  I spent my first few days back meeting with each member of the CfA staff (our significantly bigger staff; I’m not done yet!) and catching up with Bob Sofman, who has been leading the organization during my year away with such strength and empathy that it’s now his shoes I must work hard to fill.  I’m incredibly grateful to Bob, who now returns to his role as Chief Program Officer, and eager to honor his leadership by upping my game.  I’m grateful to everyone on the team who not only kept the home fires burning, but used them to cook up a feast.

My year in DC was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, one that will make me a better leader for Code for America’s second act.  For now, it’s great to be back. There’s no place like home.



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