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My 2016 Wish List

Like most folks, I have a list of resolutions for the new year, some of them personal, some professional. But I also have a wish list for others, a list of things I would like to see in the world that would make the work of Code for America easier and our outcomes more powerful.

Mostly, these are things that we have considered trying to do at Code for America because they’d materially contribute to our mission, but haven’t pursued either because they just aren’t in our DNA or they’d distract us from our focus: using apps and data to change the operations of government.

Here, in celebration of a new year, is my wish list for the movement to make government work for the people and by the people in the 21st century.

A Recruitment Firm That Specializes in Digital Talent for Local Government

In the last five years we’ve seen so many talented digital professionals start to transform cities from the inside out. Some of them have been in local government for years, like Beth Niblock in Detroit (formerly in Louisville); others have come in from the private sector, particularly entrepreneurs like Jascha Franklin-Hodge in Boston (a co-founder of Blue State Digital). But the demand for leaders who will play by today’s rules and lead their teams and their vendors to do the same is enormous.

Most often this demand comes in the form of a search for a Chief Information Officer, but it can be any number of titles (and we have opinions about titles and structures of technology teams in government) and it isn’t limited to leadership positions (though those are the only ones I’ve seen cities pay for recruiters to fill). Cities with the budget to hire recruiting firms are largely relying on recruiters with outdated notions of the role of digital in government and without the networks to tap the wider range of talent that becoming interested in public sector work.

Traditional recruiters may also fail to recognize qualified talent when they see it. Take the leadership of the United States Digital Service: neither Haley Van Dyck, a technology advisor in the Office of Management and Budget who was 28 at the time of her appointment, nor Mikey Dickerson, a 35-year-old site reliability engineer from Google, would have likely been put forward for these critical senior leadership jobs by a recruiter used to hiring on resumes and titles. And yet they are both profoundly transforming technology in federal government and saving taxpayers millions of dollars. For recruiters to suggest non-obvious candidates, they must deeply understand the challenges and the opportunity of bringing governments into the 21st century, and be able to match the skills of the Mikeys and Haleys of the world to these positions.

To be clear, we at Code for America play in this space; we are hiring a talent manager to help build this pipeline and advise partners on talent strategies, but our efforts will fall short of a full-service recruitment firm.

I welcome and encourage the existing public sector recruitment firms to immerse themselves in the sea change in government technology that’s occurred in the past five years and build the talent networks needed to meet the demand. In the meantime, I welcome and encourage new entrants in the public sector recruiting market.

My final word on this topic is a bit of encouragement for anyone actually interested in this as a viable business. A couple hundred talented and mission-driven individuals have moved from “metaphysical Silicon Valley” into the federal government in the past two years. Though I hope they all stay, the reality is that many of them will leave at the end of the Obama administration, but many of them have caught the public service bug. In a market characterized by demand, it would be smart business to be ready for a huge influx of supply.

A Public Benefit Prime Contractor

There are so many amazing new technology companies working with government today. Some of them have been part of the Gov 2.0 movement from the beginning, like SeeClickFix and Socrata, who paved the way for software as a service in government (more about their needs below). But many of the latest entrants are contractors born of the healthcare.gov rescue effort or others like Captricity who, because of their business model, must act as sub-contractors to incumbents, often at 100% markup. At the federal level, budgets continue to allow for services at these inflated rates, despite Moore’s Law and the common expectations outside of government that services cost less and deliver more every year, not the other way around. But the need to work through prime contractors puts a burden on both government and startups that benefits no one, especially taxpayers.

One of the big ideas we discussed, but did not pursue, when I worked in the White House (no one to blame but me and bandwidth) was the concept of a public benefit prime contractor: a non-profit organization or public benefit corporation that could handle the administrative and compliance requirements on behalf of smaller companies so that they could work for the government with smaller mark-ups and more progressive contracts.  Done right, an organization like this would insist on language around open standards, open source, APIs, and agile, modular development in all their contracts, borrowing, for example, from the API language of the revised rec.gov RFP, the agile language of the TechFAR, and the modular approach of the California Child Welfare RFP.  Having a player representing some of the best talent and insisting on these standard elements would move the market faster than its moving now, despite all the positive changes we are seeing.

Since my return from the White House, several startups have asked if we at Code for America would play this role.  Perhaps we should, or could in the future if no one else does, but for the moment, our strategy dictates a different focus. All yours, change agent. Just sayin’.

An Association for Gov 2.0 Startups

I’ve borrowed this lock, stock, and barrel from a blog post by the inimitable David Eaves, way back in 2012. How his vision hasn’t materialized yet is beyond me. The basic idea is that the new SaaS entrants to the government space should band together; David mentions joint procurement and marketing as two possible benefits, but in the years since he wrote this I think it’s safe to add all the functions that traditional industry associations serve, like advocacy and lobbying. This is another function I’d love for Code for America to serve in a perfect world, but we’re not doing it now and someone should. Perhaps 2016 is finally the year?

A New Project Management Certification Framework and Program for Government

I learned about the PMP certification mostly during my year at the White House. I kept noticing it in the signature files of various people we worked with in agencies, and I came to understand that becoming certified as Project Management Professional is a critical element in the career advancement of hundreds of thousands of public servants. The problem is, the vast majority of these project management certification curricula teach a waterfall framework of some sort. One of the big providers of this certification, PMI, does offer a certificate in agile project management (it’s one of our 8 different certificates you can get) and that is likely a huge step in the right direction. But for digital professionals in government truly focused on user needs, I’d love to see a curriculum designed specifically around the best practices of the last five years, gleaned from the Government Digital Service in the UK, the USDS, 18F, Code for America (of course) and other leaders. And I’d love this to be legit and mainstream very quickly, not a minor innovation at the edge but how everyone coming up in government now learns to engage in technology projects that will meet the needs of the American people.

So…new year’s plans, anyone? I’d be delighted if these thoughts sparked someone out there to contribute to the mission of 21st century government with some entrepreneurial elbow grease. Funders of for-profit and non-profit persuasions alike, I’m looking at you, too.