Shame, software, and government

This summer I wrote a long essay about shame and software projects. Shame is a topic I’ve been thinking about for nearly 30 years, so the gestation period for the essay was unusually long. I wanted to capture here some of my context and motivation for writing it.

As I’ve written before, working in and around government has highlighted for me the extent to which people in public service will avoid taking risks. The shame essay is my attempt to understand why risk avoidance is such a strong institutional and cultural norm.

Public servants avoid risk because they are trying to avoid the shame of failure. In government, failure can mean public scrutiny, investigations, inspections, audits, newspaper headlines, coupled with the internal personal sense that the value of the work is so crucial and that so many people are relying on us to do it well. High ideals, high stakes, a field ripe for shame events.

When it comes to information technology, a field that continues to evolve at a blistering pace, the patterns of shame avoidance are even more acute. The most common phrases about technology I hear from people in government, sometimes at the highest levels, are variations on “I’m not a tech person” and “I don’t understand how it works.” These statements are ways of lowering expectations, and therefore lowering the risk of shame by shrinking the gap between the ideal and the real.

In our modern, interconnected world, especially in the middle of a pandemic with people reliant on unemployment websites and remote work environments, IT systems pose a huge risk to government’s ability to fulfill its mission. So somebody in government needs to know how the IT works. But for years we’ve consistently under-invested in our government IT systems and in the processes (hiring and procurement) that support them. We’ve made it risky to work in and around government IT, and perversely, we continue to make the problem worse by trying to outsource all that risk to private sector vendors.

So we end up in a vicious knot of low tech IQ capacity, poor risk management practices and shame. What I tried to lay out in the shame essay was how some Agile software practices can help cut the knot.

The Agile process grew out of response to the Waterfall model. All by itself the Waterfall model of software development is not rooted in shame. However, the way it has been applied, particularly in large organizational contexts like government, has reinforced cultures of shame. One reason is that Waterfall requires a careful and detailed (and often time-consuming) upfront articulation of the ideal final result, analogous to the ideal self. Since shame is directly connected to failings of the ideal self, Waterfall projects are perfectly set up for shameful patterns.

This is why bringing Agile patterns to government can be met with so much resistance and why their successful application can be so transformative. The existing patterns of managing high risk are ingrained at literally a cellular level because shame operates at that level of primary biological affect. Shame shapes the fundamental story the organization tells itself. Like the shame experience itself, organizations can feel stuck and powerless. The way out is with trust and empathy, and those are the traits and patterns that Agile encourages us to build, through Agile’s insistence on smaller, less risky changes.

When I see a digital service team helping to transform how government manages risk, the pattern I observe is a group of people learning to negotiate with shame and shame culture. That’s why I often say that the hardest work in government IT is the emotional labor. When I see success, outcomes often include not just stronger systems but stronger teams.


This sermon is from November 9, 2003, on the book of Ruth. I had a meaningful phone conversation with John Linton the day before that helped me unpack this one.

Perhaps you are familiar with the story of Ruth. It’s a love story, really. Ruth lives in Moab with her husband and her husband’s family. Her husband is Jewish. When he dies, Ruth decides to return with his mother, Naomi, to Bethlehem in Israel. Naomi tries to convince Ruth to stay in Moab, but in a beautiful and moving speech, Ruth vows to stay with Naomi forever. “Where you go, I will go,” she says, “Your people will be my people and your God, my God.”

All that happens in chapter one. There are three more chapters filled with intrigue and suspense and beautiful images, including a provocative midnight encounter between Ruth and her husband-to-be, Boaz. The story culminates with Boaz pledging himself to Ruth and buying back the family farm, and Ruth bearing a son named Obed.

The story of Ruth is about chesed. chesed is the Hebrew word that is often translated as ‘steadfast love’ or ‘fidelity’ or even ‘mercy.’

chesed is crucial to the preservation of the ideals of family and the nation of Israel. It is through the faithfulness and kindness of Ruth, her chesed, that salvation comes to her, and her mother-in-law Naomi, and ultimately to the entire nation of Israel and the world. Because Ruth’s son Obed has a son named Jesse who has a son named David, the great king of Israel, who in turn is an ancestor of Jesus.

So there is a certain tidy familial economy in this story that some Christians like to focus on: without the faith of Ruth, there is no King David, without whom there is no Jesus. This same reading tends to view Ruth’s chesed as a kind of duty and to hold her up as a moral example of someone whom God blesses because she has done her duty.

I don’t like that reading, because it makes it seem like Ruth and her story exist only to have a baby, a certain very important baby in Judeo-Christian history. This is the same kind of reductionism that certain teachings about Jesus’s mother Mary can fall into. I don’t like those either.

It is possible to read the book of Ruth as if it is government-sponsored media, a prime-time family drama meant to inspire the Jews to great acts of sacrifice in the name of the family and the nation. As you might expect, I don’t like that reading either.

I hear something else going on in Ruth. The first thing I notice is that while Ruth is the central figure in the story, she is not Jewish. This casts her chesed, her acts of kindness, loyalty and fidelity into a very different light. The key thing about chesed is that it is free. chesed is like a strong desire for someone. You show chesed for someone else the way you show love and devotion for someone. The text is very clear that Ruth is not Jewish but that she becomes Jewish through her chesed. It is as if Ruth is adopted, not just into Naomi’s family, but into the family of Israel. She is a foreigner who acts with loyalty, and it is her loyalty, her faithfulness and not her ethnicity, that identifies her as part of the Jewish family.

The second thing that I notice about the text is that God is not a character. God is referred to several times, but unlike other books of the bible, God never makes an appearance, or sends a message, or communicates, really, in any explicit way with the other characters.

If we read the bible everywhere as if it was about Jesus, I have to ask: who acts like Jesus in this story, if God is not there to do it explicitly? You might think it was Boaz, who responds to Ruth by honoring her and redeeming her and the family. But I think it is Ruth who acts the most like Jesus. She initiates the commitment. She is the first one to say to Naomi, I will be with you always, lo, even unto the end of the age. And unlike the disciple Peter, she is good to her word and doesn’t desert Naomi when things get tough. It is Ruth’s act of love and fidelity, her chesed, that inspires Boaz and redeems everyone.

I like this reading, of the foreign woman as the Jesus figure. But that reading still seems a little too moralistic, as if we have simply replaced the moral imperative of ‘do your duty’ with a kinder, gentler moral imperative of ‘love one another.’

Today’s texts could be read as moral examples: be like this, and God will bless you. Be faithful to your human commitments — family, the church — and God will bless you. God rewards those who are faithful to God. There’s a problem in my mind with that reading: the implied opposite. If bad things happen, if the curse comes instead of the blessing, it is the fault of the faithless human beings. Your child died because you failed to pray; you lost your job because you didn’t give enough money to the church; you ended up in hell because you didn’t have enough faith. We learn from the book of Job that that kind of faith, the faith that says God rewards and punishes based on how good we are, is a false kind of faith. It is the kind of faith that props up governments, institutions, even churches, but it is a false kind of faith.

It is this kind of moralistic reading, the reading where we hear “do the right thing and the right thing is this,” that turned me off to Christianity many years ago. It feels too simplistic to me, and somehow sinful, to read the bible as if it were a collection of stories that were supposed to instruct and inspire me to do the right thing. While I don’t doubt that it is possible to read the bible that way, and that it is in fact *easier* to read the bible that way, I don’t think it is ultimately faithful to the spirit of the bible to read it that way. The bible is at its best, and I would argue, becomes the word of God, when it tells on itself, when the bible deconstructs itself. So I’m looking for the crack, the chink in the armor of the text that points out a backwards way of reading it. Because at least for me, the hardest part of being a believer is not doing the right thing, or even avoiding doing the wrong thing. No, the hardest part of being a believer is learning to receive in the spirit of humility and trust. Learning to receive, whether it be forgiveness, or a blessing, or simply a really good sandwich that someone else has prepared for me.

It is much easier to receive in the sense of being owed, of meriting whatever it is I am being given. “I deserve this promotion because I have worked hard. I merit this blessing because I have given so much to the church. I am owed this because I have given that.” That kind of receiving comes out of fear: fear that maybe I don’t really deserve what I am being given. Fear that it will be taken away. Fear that I will be exposed as not being worthy of the gift. And learning to live *not* out of fear, but instead out of trust, seems to me to be the hardest thing.

Ruth feels to me like someone who lives out of trust. What if Ruth had acted out of fear? She likely would have stayed with her people in Moab and never gone with Naomi. She would not have risked the embarrassment of going to Boaz in the night. Her trust isn’t just blind optimism either. She is newly widowed, probably in a lot of grief, and she makes this incredibly brave vow never to leave Naomi. Why such attachment? I don’t know. The story doesn’t say. Maybe it’s as simple as Ruth loved Naomi.

What the text does say is that everyone who heard the story of Ruth was impressed by it. That tells me that I am not alone in thinking Ruth was doing something unusual. Ruth seems to live in a place I’d like to get to: she acts with hope and trust, not fear and not optimism. She displays an incredible amount of trust in going with Naomi in the first place. She’s in a foreign country with foreign customs. She must rely totally upon the kindness of strangers. Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. The Jewish law proscribed that during the harvest, poor people could follow the harvesters and glean the grain that was left behind in the fields. Ruth takes the initiative and goes out gleaning to support herself and Naomi. While she is gleaning in the fields of Boaz, the owner himself shows up and after hearing from his workers the story of Ruth and Naomi, he offers her protection and invites her to glean in his fields for the duration of the harvest.

A kind of romantic tension emerges with Boaz and Ruth. In my mind, Ruth shows the most trust when at Naomi’s direction she goes at night and in this strange encounter with Boaz, basically says, marry me. Read it. It’s pretty racy, as my mother would say.

The images of the harvest and gleaning in the fields get at the the kind of trust I am trying to describe. It’s the kind of trust that a farmer or gardener must have. You put the seeds in the ground; you water them; you weed the soil. You do the work, knowing that all you are really doing is just making it easier for the growth to happen. You don’t make the seeds grow into something good and beautiful. You can’t make the sky rain or shine, you can’t control the blight of insects or disease. But you can do the work, knowing that ultimately the outcome of your work is totally out of your control.

And then there is the harvest. You receive back so much more than you have put in. You do all the work in the hope that it will pay off, but you are not guaranteed anything. You, the farmer, you can’t make a deal with God where you put in your 80 hour weeks and God rewards you with a good crop. No. There’s more trust in the relationship than that.

I think Ruth, and Naomi and Boaz are great examples. Not moral examples, in the sense of embodying the best principles of their culture and time, but great human examples, in the sense of acting out of trust and love and fidelity.

Hard work to bring in the harvest. The hardest kind of work, really, at least in the spiritual sense. Like coming to the table where the meal has already been prepared for you. You can’t do any work to make it happen; you can only learn to receive it in a spirit of humility and trust.

Why I Hate Matthew

Below is the text of a sermon I preached on November 3, 2002. It was the Sunday just after Paul and Sheila Wellstone died, suddenly and tragically, in a plane crash, just before the election. That election was important because President Bush was beating the war drum and Wellstone, a hero of mine, was an outspoken opponent of the war. It was very hard, at the time, not to see something nefarious in his death and how it affected the election.

What’s missing from the written text is that in my delivery near the end, I started to cry and had to stop. I recall feeling vulnerable and making a half-serious joke about hating that moment, which in the moment gave everyone a little relief from laughter.

I was thinking about that moment this week, as I’ve been doing some writing about shame. I wanted to make sure I had not lost this sermon, so posting here now.

Matthew 23:1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:  “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries[a] wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

I can’t really talk about today’s text without talking about the irony I feel at the very fact that I am up here. After all, I have studiously avoided preaching or even attending a bible study in the five years that I have regularly attended the House of Mercy. So I chose to make my debut with a text that is, on the face of it, plainly opposed to the idea that anyone in the community of Jesus should stand up and teach the others. I could say that I volunteered to preach on this text to save our usual preachers the indignity of squirming their way out of the implications of this text for their chosen vocations. But that would be a lie. I’m not particularly altruistic or selfless. I resemble more the Pharisee than I do the disciple of Jesus.

In fact, as I read over this text for the thousandth time this afternoon, I realized that I have chosen to do a very stupid thing in trying to preach on it. Very stupid in the sense that whatever I say is going to be tainted by the text itself. Usually it’s the other way around, that as a preacher, you try and get out of the way of the text and make yourself invisible. It seems that with this text, however, that to do it justice is to stand and take the bullet, to step in the way of the oncoming train.

Soren Kierkegaard says that irony is the boundary land between the ethical life and the religious life, so if that is true, it seems to me that in order to understand this text, and to try and hear some good news in it, we must venture through irony. We’re no strangers to irony here at House of Mercy, but I’d like to make a distinction when I talk about it tonight. I don’t mean the kind of hip, cynical irony that I, like some of you, tend to banter around. That’s the kind of cheap, imitation irony that is really just a mask for fear. No, the kind of irony I’d like to look at in this text is the irreducible kind, the kind that is a real, inscrutable tension that can’t be passed off flippantly, or resolved by clever words, but must be lived out and experienced, because it is ultimately emotional and relational.

If verbal irony is when you say one thing and really mean another, the emotional irony I’m talking about is when you say one thing is true, and the opposite thing is also true. This is a paradox, a little like the Tom Waits lyric, “I’m glad that you’re gone, and I wish to the Lord you’d come home.”

You see, I’m deeply afraid of this text. I’m afraid because I know that I resemble more the person who does not practice what he teaches, who loves the place of honor at the banquet. I would be just tickled to have people call me ‘rabbi’. I am afraid because I know that inevitably this means that I will be humiliated. Perhaps this is the moment when it comes to pass.

So if you will pretend with me, just for a moment, that I am not doomed from the start, and that maybe there is some good news, even for me, in this text, let’s dig in.

The gospel means good news, but most of the words in this book are bad news, particularly for the Pharisees. Matthew’s Jesus is not a nice person. He’s constantly antagonizing the Pharisees, who don’t seem to have done anything to provoke Jesus, except to simply be who they are. I didn’t know much about the Pharisees when I started writing this sermon; maybe you don’t either. Here’s a little history.

The Pharisees were a group of Jews who first emerged more than 100 years before Jesus was born. Most of what we know about them comes from the Christian scriptures, where they are always depicted as sanctimonious hypocrites, legalistic, and cold-hearted bastards. They are always portrayed as the opposite of Jesus.

The other place we hear about them is from the Jewish historian Josephus, who claimed that the Pharisees were popular, faithful scholars who valued tradition and the sacred texts, simple living and ‘cultivated harmonious relations with others.’

It’s hard to understand how these two descriptions can be about the same group of people. What’s more interesting, I think, is that the Pharisees were probably the most liberal of the Jewish religious sects. They had the most flexible interpretation of the Jewish law, they believed in both divine providence and the free will of human beings, they believed that a person’s soul survives death and is punished or rewarded, in the resurrection of the body, and that the messiah was a son of David.

The Pharisees were, in other words, right on the same page with Jesus.

In today’s text we can see that Jesus thought so too. Jesus begins by saying, in verses 2 and 3, that what the Pharisees say is not in itself wrong.

At this point, I feel pretty suspicious of Matthew. It feels like the Jesus in Matthew’s gospel account is as venomous as the Pharisees he criticizes. In fact, it feels to me that Jesus and the Pharisees are more like feuding brothers, or quibbling siblings, or quarreling lovers, than like bitter enemies. It feels like Jesus might have some more, unspoken feelings toward the Pharisees than just animosity.

At least, those feeling are unspoken in Matthew’s gospel. It’s interesting to compare Matthew with the gospel of Mark in this regard. Matthew mentions the Pharisees more than twice (29) as many times as Mark (12). But in Mark, Jesus feels as much grief as anger. In Matthew, the explicit grief disappears, and we are left with all anger, all the time.

One of the most difficult things about loving those that are closest to us, is that it is very difficult to hold our anger and our grief together at the same time. And yet, not to do that is to be dishonest about our experience. The thing that is hardest about loving our families, friends, and partners, is that we have expectations of them, even if those expectations are never said out loud. Expectations that they will act toward us, will love us, just like we want them to. Sometimes, even needing to say things out loud is the biggest disappointment, since we really want those closest to us to read our minds.

I wonder if Jesus and the Pharisees are a little like brothers. Jesus’ chief complaint wasn’t that the Pharisees believed the wrong thing, but that they were obsessed with believing the right thing, and their obsession was getting in the way of their ability to love other people. Maybe he was most upset that they weren’t loving him the way he wanted them to.

You should know that I am the eldest son of four siblings. I have one brother. Like most brothers, we fight. Mostly, we fight because we are alike. Our biggest fight is over religion. The irony here is that we both grew up hating the Pharisees. And now, there’s a little bit of that sanctimonious pharisee in both of us.

I love my brother. I love him dearly. And no one makes me as angry as my brother. I think we know this about each other. I get angry at him, mostly, because I want him to be more like me, to see things more my way, to agree with me. He doesn’t. He has a profound experience of life that is all his own, and it is not my experience. Last spring he was here in town, and we had a very nice conversation. It was nice because I felt like both of us were able to say things about how we really felt to one another.

I’m always a little shaky, talking to those closest to me about how I feel. Because it requires me to not be smart, at least with my head. Instead, I have to talk out of my gut, which I’m not particularly good at. I feel weak. This is one of my identifying ironies, that the thing that is most important for me to do is the thing that I resist the most.

I wonder if this isn’t true in Matthew’s gospel as well. Jesus and the Pharisees were both steeped in the Hebrew scriptures. If family is at the heart of what it is to be human, then dysfunctional family, and particularly fraternal rivalry, is at the heart of the Jewish scriptures. Think of all the stories about feuding brothers. Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, and most famously, Joseph and his many brothers. (I’m aware that in the Jewish scripture, sisters are painfully absent from these stories, which is no doubt the subject of another sermon).

These brothers suffer jealousy and rage, and compete for what they perceive as limited resources: for attention, love, honor, and inevitably, the blessing of their father. Some of the most famous characters in the Jewish scripture are also the most reprehensible: they lie, cheat, steal and murder their way through the bible, all so that they get the blessing, which is really another way of saying, so that they can inherit the power and love of their parents.

This is a really complicated subject: family, and inheritance, and blessing, and God. It’s complicated for me because of the story of my family. Maybe it’s complicated for you too. I’m going to very intentionally sidestep it and avoid it here, because I don’t know how, in the space of 10 minutes, to broach what is really at the heart of the human experience. This is where I become especially weak.

What I would like to broach, though, is this question: how can we hear some good news in the midst of such a difficult subject? I think I can hear the echo of a way, a signpost, in this text. It isn’t so much what the text says, but what it doesn’t say. I’m interested in the subtext, the context.

I’d like to suggest that the world of Matthew and the Pharisees is more like a sibling rivalry than a fight between the forces of darkness and light. Maybe with that metaphor, we can relax a little about the words that Matthew uses, and instead see them in a bigger emotional context. We can relax because we can identify with what it’s like to be in a struggle with someone that we deeply love. That kind of struggle is complicated. It resists easy answers. It resists cheap moralizing, because it’s a struggle that demands honesty and an honoring of both sides in the struggle.

The first half of the text is basically Jesus saying everything that the Pharisees do wrong. The second half is Jesus talking to his followers about how they should behave differently. The translation ‘you are all students’ in verse 8 is literally in the Greek, ‘you are all brothers’. Don’t worry so much, Jesus seems to be saying, about who is going to be first, who is going to be the favorite, who is going to be the blessed one. There is only one blessed one, and that is Jesus himself, the “greatest among you” who “will be your servant.”

It’s almost as if Jesus is aware of the sibling rivalry, and that he wants to diffuse it. I wonder if maybe Matthew has one intention, and Jesus has another. Here’s what I mean by that.

The first time Matthew mentions the Pharisees in connection with Jesus is immediately after Jesus first calls Matthew to be his disciple. Matthew says that the Pharisees ask Jesus disciples why he is eating with “tax collectors and sinners”.

To my ear, that is a strange phrase. Tax collectors and sinners. It immediately makes me suspicious, because Matthew was a tax collector.

Matthew, known as Levi in Mark’s gospel, was probably not the author of this gospel, but I would like to think it bears some of his personality. I have no idea what kind of man Matthew was, but here’s a little thought experiment, a little armchair psychology, based solely on his profession of tax collector. This was the person responsible for carrying out the economic will of the empire. The tax collector represented the economic disparity between the empire and those people whom it ruled; he represented the ‘haves’ to the ‘have nots’. Matthew worked for the Man, which put him in social limbo. Though he worked for the empire, the empire didn’t really want him. He was a necessary, disposable local convenience. Any other local, with some arithmetic skills and without the strength to resist the will of the empire, would do just as well.

And the Jews, the Pharisees especially, hated him. The Pharisees were about piety and sanctity and purity, and Matthew was a sell-out, a co-conspirator, weakling, unable to resist the lure of a little power and a little coin. So Matthew was really a nobody, not wanted anywhere, a misfit, an outsider. Just the kind of person Jesus seemed to gravitate towards.

I imagine that this gospel was written by a man who deeply loved Jesus, and who was at the same time, deeply ashamed of who he was and what he had done. One of the most common ways that people react when they feel ashamed, is to become angry, combative, belligerent, as if to protect the person inside who feels so exposed and embarrased. I hear that shame in Matthew: polemical, harsh, angry, so critical towards the Jews — his own people who have rejected him, and rejected the person who has taken Matthew under his wing. And because Matthew is ashamed of all that he is and had done, as a pawn of the empire, and because he found in Jesus someone who was not ashamed to call him by name and make him his friend and disciple, Matthew wants to defend Jesus, like a brother defends his brother on the playground. But like Peter trying to stop Jesus from going to his death, I wonder if Jesus really wants a defender.

When I read this gospel, I imagine Matthew puffing out his chest and throwing his weight around, lashing out at the people who he feels are his enemies, the people who hurt him.

All the gospels attest that Jesus was angry at the Pharisees. But Matthew leaves out the grief. He doesn’t hold it in tension with the anger, and I strongly suspect that it was because Matthew himself was so pissed off at the Pharisees.

I wonder if the scene here isn’t more like Matthew and the Pharisees as the siblings, and Jesus as the parent. That’s what I mean about Jesus having an agenda that is different than Matthew’s. Matthew seems to want to just crush the Pharisees beneath his heel; Jesus wants to heal the rift between all people.

Maybe, if I’m more like Matthew and the Pharisees, this is the good news that I need to hear. It’s this: Jesus has intentions that are not mine. Jesus wants things that I do not want. And if like Matthew I feel ashamed of who I am, and want to cover myself with the fig leaf of intellect or clever words, Jesus sees right through that and sees me as I am. And Jesus is not ashamed to call me his brother.

I don’t know exactly what good news to bring to you, other than myself. What I am is full of anger and grief and shame. I know that’s dark, and you’d probably rather not hear it. I would rather not hear it either. But if the gospel is anything, it is the good word that no matter how much we resist hearing it, it will not be overcome. No matter how much darkness we find in ourselves, no matter how much fear, God is not afraid to go in and find us, and to bring us out into the light.

It’s a dark time in the world. I’ve spent the last week especially, feeling sad and angry. I’ve been angry and sad with the world, and angry and sad with God. I think that must be the way it is sometimes with those that we love the most. But like the moment of clarity with my brother last spring, when we laid down our arms and spoke the truth to each other, I have hope that my anger and grief is not forever, that it is not the last word on the subject, that ultimately the last word is God’s, and that it is a good word, a word that welcomes us home, welcomes us to the table, where we eat with our sisters and brothers.

Digital Service is not about technology

There’s an old joke that the hardest problem in programming is naming things. We rarely talk about why. I suggest it’s because naming things is the crucial point of contact between our two audiences. We write code for both people and machines. Machines don’t care about naming except that it be consistent. People, on the other hand, want words to signify to realities outside the code itself. The next programmer to read my code is my audience too, and I need my word choices to signify to their nuanced and lived understanding of the problem we are trying to solve with the code. This is one example of why I have often said that computers are easy and people are hard.

I’ve spent the last five years of my professional life in and around governments. One of the results of that time has been a lot of thinking about the words my colleagues and I use to describe the work we do. So far, the least bad words we’ve found are “Digital Service.” We are not satisfied with those words, because they still confuse some people that we work with. Still, they are accurate, and until we find something better, we’ll probably stick with them. Here’s how I define them.

Digital Service (initial cap, singular, not services) is a specific form of public (government) service designed to bring people with skills and experience with modern information technology from the private sector into the public sector for limited lengths of time. The two goals are modernizing the way government services are designed and delivered, and exposing a particular talent pool to the experience of public service. Digital Service is an idea similar to the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps.

I rigorously avoid the phrase “digital services” because it confuses folks who, when they hear the words “digital” or “technology” immediately place it in the mental category of the nerds/geeks down in the basement who you call when your printer won’t print or your computer won’t start. That’s digital services. Some of those nerds may leave the basement and join a Digital Service and day-to-day use the same skills, but their efforts are directed in a different strategic way.

Because Digital Service is not really about technology. It’s about changing organizational process.

The Digital Service mindset says: governments should begin with understanding what their constituents need and want, and deliver those services in the most constituent-friendly way possible. If constituents needed and wanted tax forms delivered to them on stone tablets, then the Digital Service approach would be to (a) identify that need and (b) work with other public servants to deliver it in the best way that they can. The word “Digital” describes the field in which these public servants have honed their skills, not necessarily the means by which they serve.

Now of course it just so happens that most constituents prefer mobile electronic devices over stone tablets, so it’s quite convenient that those same people committed to meeting constituent needs also happen to be fluent in digital technology.

The problems we encounter in government are the same human problems we encounter everywhere, only more so. The difference is that government impact is at such a bigger scale and with an institutional memory and inertia much greater than other organizations. Because of that bigger scale, there is a lot of fear in government. Government is full of risk averse people, just like other large organizations. Large organizations, in fact, attract risk averse employees, because they are stable places of employment. The consequence of all that risk aversion, however, is that things rarely change. Digital technology changes rapidly in the private sector. The public sector, resistant to change, full of fear, is slow to change. And yet government constituents need and want services built with modern technologies, which governments are very slow to adopt. That tension between what government is suited to provide and what its constituents want provided has led to debacles and lots of time/money wasted.

Enter Digital Service. Why is it that people who have spent time in the private sector working with modern technologies would have skills in managing large institutional change? The truth is that we don’t. What we have is experience working in ways that allow for managing risk. The biggest systemic problems we have encountered in government are not about technology per se. They include:

None of those are technical problems. They are all risk management problems. Like the old joke about naming things, we address them with Digital Service because Recovery From Risk Avoidance Service is a mouthful.

Seeing Color

This letter was published in edited form in the Lawrence Journal-World today. The original letter I was responding to is missing from the LJWorld website [update: they added it], so I’ve attached a photo here. Due to space constraints I left out a lot of things I wanted to say, mostly under the theme of “centering Whiteness” and the fragility of White feelings.

To the Editor,

In response to Bill Klein’s letter of January 17, 2020 “Our common color”.

Mr. Klein asks “why must we continue to identify humans based on the color of their skin pigment?” The answer is history. The phrase “people of color” evolved to describe a group of people who share a common experience of being systematically targeted for oppression, violence and exclusion by White people. The phrase is intentionally political and in reference to Whiteness. White people invented the idea of race, of Whiteness itself, to justify those violent, exclusionary systems. When White people say “color doesn’t matter” or “I don’t see color” they are in effect saying, I don’t see the system of violence that people who look like me created and continue to benefit from.

Like Mr. Klein, I am White. Like Mr. Klein, I used to think that it was morally advanced to try and ignore the color of a person’s skin, to instead focus on intangible internal qualities like intelligence, compassion and integrity that he mentions. Acting as if we are “colorblind” makes the problem of White supremacy worse, though, for three reasons. One, it ignores implicit bias, the attitudes and behaviors we live out unconsciously based on stereotypes we hold. Two, it makes honest racial dialogues impossible. Three, it erases the diverse lived experiences of people of color and White people. Colorblindness is, itself, a symptom of White privilege and White supremacy because only White people can afford to pretend it’s possible.

Now when I see our school board reflect the racial diversity of our community, I celebrate that we have taken one small step toward loosening the knot of exclusion and systemic racism that White supremacy tries to perpetuate. If folks like Mr. Klein are interested, our wonderful public library staff can help locate helpful reading material on this topic.

Candidate climate change wish list

Some things I would love to hear from political candidates in Kansas about climate.

Climate change is a present crisis.

We need to act like it. That’s difficult to do because it’s a slow-motion, planet-scale crisis, and we can only really see it when we imagine it together, collectively. We start by naming it and talking about it and our fear about it.

We can’t fix this at a micro, personal, individual level.

Better light bulbs and electric cars and recycling will not fix it. We need macro level policy and infrastructure investment. We need to join with our neighbors (e.g. re-join the Paris agreement) .

Science is real.

We need to fund and listen to our scientists. That includes:

We need to reduce the amount of carbon in the air.

That means eliminating our reliance on fossil fuels through a carbon tax and investment in alternative fuels, and changing our approach to land use (reforestation, soil improvement, what and how we farm and eat). That makes climate change an economic issue.

Kansas is getting hotter and wetter.

Climate change adaptation is already happening. We need public policy to reflect our need to adapt. We need the state and federal governments to invest in urban, agricultural and ecological planning to reflect that fact. That makes climate change a public health and safety issue.

Housing is always cheapest in the flood plain.

Climate change disproportionately affects low-income and historically disadvantaged communities.  That makes climate change a civil rights issue.

No one expects you, as a candidate, to fix the problem.

That’s not what we’re asking of you. What we’re asking is that you talk about the problem, and that the story you tell about it reflects the anxiety and urgency that we feel about it. It helps to have you reflect that back to us, and that you are not afraid to go up to Topeka or Washington and stand up and say we need to do some big, bold and imaginative things to address it. Not one thing, but many things: it’s about both reducing CO2, and making the kind of structural, policy investments that will help our cities and towns and farms adapt.

Electoral Maps

Early on in 2017 I had two conversations that set me on the path of learning about maps. One was with Mike Gaughan, who suggested that it might be possible to identify neighborhoods in Kansas with larger-than-normal numbers of unregistered voters. The other was with Paul Davis, who suggested that it might be possible to identify Kansas state legislature districts that could be flipped with targeted outreach to just a few neighborhoods.

I knew that one of the big issues affecting election outcomes was how the maps get drawn for political districts: state legislative districts, congressional districts, etc. But how did those political district boundaries correspond to the votes that are cast? No one seemed to have a map that could show me, for any given district, how the votes in that district for a given election correspond to streets and addresses. Or how did a particular neighborhood vote from one election to the next. State elections can often be decided by dozens of votes, so knowing how a particular neighborhood votes (or fails to vote), from year to year, could be a significant datum to understand.

I realized that it was hard to take a research and data-driven approach to a geographic problem without good geographic data. And none of the Democrats I spoke with seemed to have that data. So I decided I was going to create a map-oriented research tool for elections over time.

The Map Is Not The Territory

One fact in particular made the map data hard to acquire and use. Election results are reported to the Kansas Secretary of State at the county level. Each county clerk tallies up the votes (a process called certifying an election) and sends those numbers to the SoS office. Kansas has 105 counties. If you look at a map of Kansas counties, one thing you will quickly realize is that they are all mostly the same size and shape. That’s because the county boundaries were drawn very early in the state’s history without regard to where people lived and without knowing where they would settle a century later. County boundaries ignore population and they do not change over time.

Political district boundaries, however, are entirely about population and they change over time based on relative movements in the population. The idea around equal representation is that each district has roughly the same number of people, not the same number of acres. This is what gives political map drawing its power, because the political district boundaries could be drawn in carefully constructed ways to maximize a particular kind of voter in a given district.

So elections are reported by counties. Counties are about land size and don’t change. Districts are about population and change frequently. To borrow a math metaphor, what is the least common denominator?

The Precinct

The precinct is a geographic boundary that aligns with a political boundary. Every county is made up of one (often dozens) or more precincts. Every ten years the county clerk’s office divides the county into territorial entities in order for the federal government to count all the people in the census. Those territorial entities are called census tracts. Everyone gets counted in exactly one (we hope). Each census tract is also a voting district, or precinct. (It gets more complicated in the ten years between census takings. Read on for more.)

Most significantly, political district boundaries align with precinct boundaries. In your precinct, you belong in exactly one state house district, one state senate district, one congressional district. A political district is, in other words, the sum of its precincts. (Precincts are also vital to how political parties work, which will be the subject of another post.)

So if I wanted a map that would show, over time, how Kansans in specific neighborhoods vote, or if there were neighborhoods with a predictably low voter registration or turnout record, I would need reliable precinct-level election data, voter registration data, and I would need precinct-level map coordinates in the form of shapefiles.

Seemed straightforward enough at the time, I thought. I just need to look around on the internet and between the SoS website and the website, I’m sure I’ll find everything I need.

Oh foolish, silly, naive man. I look back on you now and chuckle at your enthusiasm. Of course, if I had known how hard it was to acquire those data and make sense of them over time, I might not have started in the first place. Deceptively simple problems get a lot of yaks shaved.

Fortunately, I quickly stumbled upon other people who were thinking the same things about maps and precincts, and other people who had been working hard at the precinct election data problem for a long time. I was able to follow in their footsteps.

In my next post I’ll dive into the nitty gritty of the challenges I encountered building the map.

Talking to Democrats

I am not particularly attached to the Democratic Party. Until 2017 I wasn’t registered as a Democrat. (And I only registered as one because the KDP, reasonably, wouldn’t let me help with their data otherwise.) My personal politics are more green/socialist. I just saw the Democratic party as the group best positioned to swing state races in 2018 and defeat 45 in 2020.

So in 2017 I reached out to my state and county parties and started cold-calling people. Would they meet me for coffee and talk about politics and technology? Yes they would!

I asked everyone three questions:

  • could technology have changed the outcome of the 2016 election?
  • if yes, what could someone like me do to help for 2018 and 2020?
  • who else should I talk to?

I’m very grateful for everyone who explained how precincts work, how county and state parties work, how the voter file works, how campaigns work, how campaign technology works (and doesn’t work). I spent several months meeting all sorts of Democrats, in Kansas and elsewhere (thanks to the wonders of the internet) and listening to their answers to my three questions. It turns out I knew very little about how elections work. Everything else I have been doing since then stems from something I discovered while talking to the Democrats that year who were so generous with their time and knowledge.

Follow a Bill

After the election, reading was how I spent my free time in November and December of 2016. That, and talking to my brilliant partner about all I was learning about political machinery. As it happens, she is a professor who teaches social policy and takes her students on field trips to the state capital in Topeka. She suggested that if the state legislature was so important, I should learn how it actually works: find a bill and follow it through the legislative process.

So I went to the Kansas legislature website and tried to figure out how to follow a bill. I found I could search bill text and find bills if I knew their number, but I could not find a feature that would send me email whenever the status of the bill changed: when it was going to be discussed in committee, or voted on, etc. I knew from using the federal site that it was possible to get alerts on federal legislation emailed to me if I created an account. The same kind of follow-the-bill alerts feature did not seem to exist for the Kansas legislature.

I figured that someone must have solved this problem already. The closest I found was which did not have the alerts feature but did have an API that I could use. After touching base with the OpenStates developers to see if the alerts feature was planned (it was but without a timeline), I decided to see how quickly I could prototype the legislative alerts feature myself. A classic yak shaving exercise. I had three design goals:

  • The minimally viable product should take no more than a single weekend;
  • Send alert emails for a single bill or a saved search (like a Google alert);
  • Store the minimum amount of user account information possible.

Since I had been doing a lot of Ruby on Rails development for my day job, I decided to use that tool to meet goal number one. Goal number three was made possible thanks to the wonders of OAuth: I could let users log in using an existing account (Google, Twitter, GitHub, but not Facebook since I did not (yet) have a Facebook account). Goal number two proved to be the trickiest but that was where all the fun was. I found an existing Ruby client for the OpenStates API and after some experimentation, hit on a data model that did most of what I wanted. The end result seemed good enough to me that I decided to go ahead and register a domain name and set up a GitHub organization and a Twitter account. I figured I would use it, at least, and since it could search all US states, maybe others would find it useful.

What I did not know yet was what bill I should follow. This is what yak shaving can lead to: lots of energy spent working on the thing you think you need in order to do the thing you want to do, and then sort of forgetting about the thing that got you shaving that yak to begin with. (I did eventually find a bill to follow: my own.)

Each year since then I have updated the site to reflect changes to the OpenStates API and to make small improvements. But basically the site is as it was three years ago. It does one thing and it tries to do it well. I’m told that the site itself will soon offer the same kind of functionality. When it does I’ll be glad to shut down and treat it as a learning exercise that helped me experience how a bill becomes a law.

How I Spent My Fall Vacation

In 2016 I could not have imagined I would come to know my way around the Kansas Statehouse, and yet two years later I was the one guiding my fellow members of the new governor’s transition team through the entry with the metal detectors and into the limestone catacombs. It’s funny how you find yourself places.

I am starting an accounting of what I was up to between Election Day 2016 and Inauguration Day 2019, and what I have learned the last few years as an accidental activist, things that went well and things that did not. A retrospective of one.

Election Day 2016

It would be too simple to say that the results of the 2016 American presidential election pushed me into politics. There were really a lot of factors that got me off the couch. But certainly I was angry and unmoored on Wednesday, November 9. Not because my candidate lost. My candidate wasn’t on the ballot. I gritted my teeth and voted Democratic on Tuesday, like a lot of people. I felt a lot like I did after the 2004 election. I was not enthusiastic about the Democratic candidate, but the Republican candidate was so obviously a poor choice that I just could not understand why so many of my fellow Americans voted for them. In this case, my primary fear was about the critical issue of the climate. We only get one planet, and science shows that the human species is pretty well screwing it up for ourselves and all the other species. The GOP candidate was going to ignore and belittle the science at a critical moment in history when decisive political action is needed by the world’s biggest economy and carbon producer. That was just unconscionable and unacceptable to me.

The Morning After

The first thing I did after Election Day was read a lot of the morning-after analysis and second-guessing. As an engineer, I was most interested in understanding the tactical and logistical reasons the election had ended the way it had, and what could be done to change the outcome next time. Setting aside the whole mess of presidential candidate narratives, and what campaigns and foreign governments did or failed to do, I took away a few things.

  • The maps are skewed. Republicans had systematically targeted state legislatures around the country, won control of many of them, and used the power of district boundary drawing after the 2010 census to gerrymander their way to control of the US House. It was really ingenious. Hats off to them for the strategy and the execution.
  • The state legislature is where the action is. Having wrestled away power at the state level, the Republican party was able to set the policy agenda and define the terms of political debate. Taxes, schools, roads, budgets, redistricting. This was very evident in Kansas where I live. Since the moment we moved here in 2013, my daily newspaper was filled with budget crises, Supreme Court suits over school funding, concealed carry gun rights expansion. All because the legislature and the governor’s office were controlled by conservative Republicans determined to starve the state government till it was small enough to drown in the bathtub.
  • The Democratic party, during the glamour years of the Obama administration, failed to invest in state and local parties, in campaign infrastructure, and in building a bench of local elected officials who could compete in federal races. School boards, county commissions, water boards, city councils: these local elected offices are where people learn the mechanics of campaigning and governing. Any professional sports fan knows most players don’t jump from high school to the pros. The senior teams develop and groom a pipeline of qualified players who can compete, and the best get promoted. The Democratic party had failed to do that.

I learned all that by reading: the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the great raft of internet pundits, my local public library. We had recently acquired a new chair at my house, and I settled into what became known as my “nest” by our unlit fireplace, books and magazines stacked on the brick hearth.

I spent an unhealthy amount of time on Twitter. I created my first Facebook account so I could start to understand how people could be so affected by that product. I joined every email list for every nascent group committed to resisting the new administration. (I have since unsubscribed from nearly all of them.) And I got ready to get to work.

This is the first in a series of posts. The title of this one comes from one of my favorite songs. I didn’t want to be “just sitting at home, growing tenser with the times.”