Why I Help "The Man", and Why You Should Too

In 2008, I wrote the below piece on my old web site. The response was huge--multiple people from the tech sector told me they switched careers after reading it--and it affirmed my view that service is critical to a functioning government. I'm republishing it, along with other old works, here.

Three years ago, when I told a mentor from the tech sector that I was soon leaving my job as an intelligence analyst to start a technology Masters program, she replied, “It’s good that you’re getting out of that field.”

She didn’t like the Intelligence Community’s work, and in her eyes, the longer I stayed, the more it would corrupt me. I’ve always thought of it in reverse: the longer I stayed involved, the more opportunities I would have to change it. Afterall, if you want something to get better, should you entrust the job to those who caused the problem in the first place? Or should you take care of the problem yourself? To me, it’s a pretty simple question. (That’s why I still work with the Intelligence Community as an outside consultant.)

Unfortunately, among my colleagues — fellow politicos and geeks who are trying to reform the U.S. Government — my mentor’s philosophy seems to be more popular than mine. It’s a philosophy that won’t get us very far. By not engaging our government directly, and instead choosing to merely blog about it from afar, we are surrendering the most important, most influential roles to the very people we want to get rid of.

Our community of would-be reformers consists of bloggers, Web developers, engineers, activists, philanthropists and writers. We believe in things like government transparency, election reform, and weakening the influence of lobbyists and campaign donors. And we are using technology to help make these things happen. The Internet has given humans an unprecedented potential to influence our government. Partly because of the independent, libertarian spirit of the Web, and partly because this community is by and large ashamed of the last eight years, we see our work as challenging the establishment.

Perhaps that is why so much of our work is about influencing that establishment in a bottom-up, grassroots fashion. We are preoccupied with outside action — blogging, fundraising, flash protesting, and building Web sites that get the public to collaboratively fight government opacity — as a means of changing what we don’t like about DC. There are some notable exceptions: John Wonderlich’s Open House Project is connecting House members with information architects to create a more transparent, coder-friendly Congress. But for the most part, we are doing little to change the government from the inside out.

Recently, I’ve seen two glaring examples of my mentor’s philosophy taking hold:

1: I attended David Isenberg’s Freedom2Connect conference. An early session on “Politics, Democracy and the Internet” focused on how those of us in the room — engineers, developers, writers, and advocates — could use our skills to reform politics. Most of the discussion was about getting politicians to endorse network neutrality, make their schedules transparent, etc. Everything was fine for me until Donna Edwards, a panelist and, come November, a likely rookie Congresswoman, offered advice on building a government we can trust. A commenter from the audience corrected her: We should suspect our government, NEVER trust them.

The conversation turned to Barack Obama’s Google for Government initiative, a concept for a Web-based clearinghouse of government contracting information. It is an honest attempt to make the contracting process more transparent, and those of us in the auditorium were perfectly suited to help make it successful. But while the panelists discussed it, the audience carried on their own conversation via a simultaneous chat room, where one guest suggested that any DC-born government transparency effort was just a ploy to cull citizens’ private data: “Google government = the NSA logging our data forever?” he quipped.

While probably a joke, it was nonetheless a joke rooted in a mindset: our mission is to fight government, not improve it. This attitude is not constructive. It shows not only an unwillingness to cooperate with the government, but a refusal to even take seriously the government’s own reform efforts.

The session ended without anyone mentioning government service, which is just as much my fault as everyone else’s. I left with the sense that many of my colleagues are not about to start helping their government.

2: After the conference, I ran into a Dave Winer article called What if our political process became conscious?. One passage struck me:

I’m not expecting very much from people who live “Inside the Beltway.” I don’t live there, never have, don’t even like visiting the place. To me it’s much like the arrogance of Silicon Valley. You can’t pop out every four years get us to vote for you and then go back into your nest. Politics belongs to all of us, in this country, the people are the government.

Dave’s article is about the Web’s ability to make politicians more responsive to the public. He’s right: it’s great that the Web can force bad public servants to pay attention to us. The Web has even brought down a political veteran or two, and it has been essential to the popularity of a few reform-minded presidential candidates. But by devoting ourselves to Web projects that target elected officials, we are missing out on the ripest opportunities for reform. In characterizing DC as nothing but a swamp of politicians, Dave ignores a fundamental fact:

Elected officials don’t run our government. Government employees do. Every citizen interested in changing our country must understand this.

Even if we elect good people to write good laws, those laws still need to be executed. That responsibility falls to the three million people who make up the federal workforce. They are the ones responsible for the day-to-day operation of our government. If we want to change the government, we can’t ignore the bureaucrats who make it run. There are problems to be solved at their level as well. All our talk about Congressional transparency and election reform hasn’t made the government more efficient or less wasteful. Such problems will not be solved by a Web site that lets the public track Congress.

Even if Web activism reaches remarkable heights and forces every member of Congress to be a slave to the citizenry, those 3 million employees won’t notice a thing. No matter how much we influence DC from the outside, the government will always be run by those on the inside.

I’m not suggesting that such sites are a waste of time. If I thought they were, I wouldn’t spend so much time creating them. I think they have the potential to create an informed, active citizenry, which is essential to a strong democracy. But most government functions start at the desk of a federal employee, something our Web sites will never be able to monitor. That employee can execute the policy, quickly, slowly, or not at all. They can facilitate illegal policies, or they can blow the whistle on them. In the future, such responsibilities will fall to employees like Jim Comey. They will also fall to employees like Monica Goodling.

Comey is the former Department of Justice official who protected his bed-ridden boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft, while the White House tried to usurp the AG’s authority and the law.

Goodling is the former Department of Justice official who, at the behest of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, fired federal prosecutors for not giving preferential treatment to the White House’s agenda.

I chose these two examples for a reason. Comey and Goodling prove that the idea of government reform is not owned by any single political party. Both Comey and Goodling are conservatives, but with radically different understandings of good governance and their responsibilities as public servants. When under pressure, Comey remembered his pledge to defend only the Constitution and the law. That is the kind of person we need in the government: the kind of person who, in addition to working hard, does their job without regard for the Top Boss’s opinion. Goodling, on the other hand, blindly supported a person and a political platform. This philosophy — regardless of the platform it serves — will always lead to injustice. The government needs to rid itself of such people.

The only way to change the population of DC is by engaging the government. If we don’t, DC will backslide. Dave Winer says he avoids DC because he doesn’t like the place. Maybe it’s the other way around. By staying out, it only becomes more inhospitable.

If reform-minded citizens shun their government, their ideals will be poorly represented where it matters most. And as they forego opportunities to serve the public, those positions of influence are necessarily filled by more and more people who don’t give a damn about our cause.

Am I expecting you to move to DC and take a desk job at the USDA? I’m assuming this essay has a narrow audience, so, no, I don’t expect you to do that. What should you do instead? Two suggestions:

Encourage government service

Tell your students, your nieces, and your blog readers how important these jobs are. Redefine the connotation of the word “bureaucrat.” Cast it as an opportunity to help this country at a time when it truly needs it.

They’ll complain: The government is slow and inefficient. You can’t get anything done there. And the money is terrible.

These are all fair complaints. The federal government is not a dynamic organization. But if you’re a dynamic person, you’ve got an advantage: you’ll stand out. The government is teeming with problems that need solving. If you like that sort of work, you’ll have a field day. The bureaucratic roadblocks are infuriating at times, but while getting traction is hard, impressing superiors is not. While laggards are common, the people at the top are sharp. They get it. And when they see good work, they recognize it.

As for pay: The first year will suck. I remember my starting salary: $31,397. Pretty rough. But had I stayed, it would have tripled by my fifth year. Not bad. Why such a fast rise? Cubes are emptying faster than the government can fill them, leaving lots of room to move up. Half of today’s government supervisors, and almost 40% of the entire federal workforce, will retire in the next three years.

Reread that sentence. That statistic should be enough to entice college grads away from finance (if not, show them this). But it also underscores the importance of changing public attitudes toward government service: 25-year veterans are being replaced by 25-year-olds. The CIA just doubled its workforce. Someone is filling those jobs. Let it be people we know and trust.

Provide your services to the government

Working with the government doesn’t mean living and working in the Beltway. You can contribute from anywhere now. As Web addicts, we understand this. Many of us prefer working remotely. So if you’re like Dave and hate going to DC (and I’ll be honest, I don’t like it either), you can still compete for government grants to help them do their jobs better.

I do. I work from New York on Web apps for the Intelligence Community.

Such opportunities used to be monopolized by companies like Lockheed and Northrup Grumman and SAIC. But this summer, when the Director of National Intelligence launches a Web platform called A-Space, this will change. A-Space uses an open development platform that can be extended by third party applications, the spy world’s version of Facebook Apps. Any American coder can make a Web app for the Intelligence Community. This is a seriously big development; the IC is asking for your help. Consider offering it. If you don’t like the work they do, that’s all the more reason to have a hand in improving it.*

But if you aren’t convinced, there are plenty of other government bodies that could use your help. Approach the Library of Congress about building a better THOMAS. Or the Social Security Administration about correcting the errors in their database. Or FEMA about streamlining their response efforts. Or the FBI about improving their stone tablet-based FOIA process. These organizations could use our knowledge. We should tell them it shouldn’t cost that much to build a content management system. After that, we should build it for them.

I make this sound easier than it is, of course. You can’t just email info@fbi.gov and get them to deploy the script you wrote last night. You need to establish trust and have a line of communication with the agency first. That means that citizen-based software development must be institutionalized.

What we need is a foundation that serves as the middle man between government needs and programmers’ abilities. Even better, we need a community of coders who are committed to improving the inner workings of DC, and doing it in a way that inherently promotes transparency while fighting government waste. We need a Mozilla Foundation for the government. A stateside Geekcorps. A geeky Americorps. An army of impassioned programmers committed to improving the government’s information services, both internal and those it provides to the public. It would make government more organized, accountable and effective, and it would save them a lot of tax dollars. And the result — open access to the code that runs our country — is a great first step toward the kind of government transparency we’re after.

This is still just an idea, but I’ve floated it with people in both the free software movement and the national security community, and everyone has reacted positively. I’ll be writing about it more on this site in the near future.* (I’ve also discussed it with Doug Rushkoff, who recently proposed a similar idea, which may or may not have slipped into my subconscious.)

So, why do I help The Man?

I help The Man because he needs help. If you think our government is broken, then you should help, too. I’ve just given you two suggestions. If you have other ideas, let’s talk.

Two weeks ago, I was in DC for a meeting sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation. The room was filled with people involved in various Web-based efforts to make legislation more accessible. Most of us, myself included, have recently tried to reverse-engineer the Library of Congress’s anachronistic legislation archive, THOMAS. But near the end of the meeting, we discussed the idea of directly engaging Congress — as someone put it, doing something WITH the government, not TO it. The reaction to this suggestion was heartening.

“What we’ve learned from the Open House Project,” said Sunlight’s Greg Elin, “is that whenever we sit outside and build things, we learn that there are people inside who want to do the same thing.” Looking around the room, CivicWiki’s Maclen Marvit said: “We have a lot of development manpower in this room, and it’s all committed to the cause of better governance. Why not work more closely with those who are doing the governing?” Congressional staffers in the room said they were open to it.

The opportunity for real reform is there. But we, the would-be reformers, first have to acknowledge that cooperation with the government might be the best approach.

This philosophy goes against the grain of the reform community’s favorite mantra: “Change won’t come from the top down.” They say we have to focus on increasing public participation — registration, voting, Web-based fundraising, Web-based transparency, and so on — so that those in Washington understand whom they are beholden to. I believe in those causes, and all that bottom-up, power-to-the-people stuff is inspiring. But even if we do change our government from the outside, our success will be short-lived if we don’t have guardians on the inside who can enforce those changes.

*If you want more information on becoming an A-Space developer, or to discuss the open source government software idea, please write to me.

Thanks to Laura, Clay, Nancy and Doug for reviewing drafts.

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Update: Reactions and responses, Tuesday, June 24, 9:30 PM

For the most part, reaction to this essay has been pretty positive. The comments I got from others at PdF this week were a huge validation. I’ll be posting here in the near future with updates about where this is going. Stay tuned.

Here are some responses to others’ questions and criticisms:

Where’d you get those retirement statistics?

The statistic about federal workforce retirements is from this document (PDF). See the second chart on page 35.

The netroots is a political movement. The policy prescription here is another animal completely…Just like bloggers and netroots dreamers, they’re in the game to steer public opinion towards some end…the direction the executive branch takes are steered from the top and the top is run by politicians and everybody wants to be on top.

This is from the first commenter, chmiel. Chmiel’s a friend of mine from ITP. He’s also a former Hill staffer, so it’s understandable that he thinks bureaucracies are controlled entirely by politicians. But he’s wrong. I’m sure that’s been wrong for a long time, but it’s especially been true for the last eight years, when the executive branch has operated completely independently from the will of Congress.

Regarding his first thoughts about netroots = politics, netroots people being disinterested in government, etc…I agree. That is why I wrote this. My thesis is that the netroots are way too concerned with politics and not enough with government. My hope was to convince them that they SHOULD pay attention to government. As he said, they’re “in the game to steer public opinion towards some end.” They think that end is better politicians. I’m saying, that’s not enough. As Doug Rushkoff wrote on Monday, and Mark Pesce talked about on Tuesday, something more has to happen once your dream candidate gets into office. Change won’t just start magically happening.

Another friend wrote and said that better public servants wouldn’t lead to better public service:

Bureaucracy is an inherent part of any large organization. I’ve worked at many where everyone I met was dedicated, smart, and decent, yet the system as a whole was just one big piece of shit. It was impossible to point a finger at anyone and say that they were contributing to the problem, yet they all were.

I’m not claiming that dynamic, reform-oriented people will make our bureaucracies any less bureaucratic. To understand their effect, refer to the Comey-Goodling comparison. Government will always be enormous. So if it’s going to be enormous, isn’t is better that all those people be honorable instead of slimy?

Finally, Mike Tanji, a former colleague from DIA, posted on his own blog about this. He had a few comments, but there’s one in particular I want to talk about, because it made light of something I failed to make clear:

Focusing on the functionaries is important, but without influence from the top there is no hope for real change. I have lived through numerous “reforms” under various guises but none succeeded to any significant degree because the fundamental metrics never changed. If the bottom line is that I’m rated on how many widgets I produce, I’m not going to give two-s***s about whether or not I follow the TQM approach or use my mad ‘black belt’ skillz or if my efforts were culturally sound: I’m friggin’ going to show up at the end of the year with a ton of widgets.

I agree. It’s not enough to have better people at the bottom. We need better managers as well. But what I failed to explain was that the new people who fill seats at the bottom will eventually (and these days, quickly) rise to the management level, where they will have a real say over what the priorities should be. Remember: 40% of the workforce, half of all managers, gone, in three years.

Originally published at matthewburton.org.

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