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.

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.

18FX

Just finished my last day at 18F. Dropped off my #FedEmployeeInABox at UPS. Feeling all the feelings right now, but mostly gratitude for the opportunity to use my technical skills to benefit so many people.

I wrote this Medium essay about my experience.

(Edit 2020-01-24: added a copy of the Medium article here for posterity)


Leaving 18F

Two years ago, when I accepted the opportunity to serve my country within the US government as part of 18F, the digital consultancy within the General Services Administration, I had some unspoken expectations. Now that my two-year term is ending and I am leaving government, I have reflected on how my experience did and did not meet those expectations, and some new expectations about what I’m going to do next.

I expected career government employees to resent and resist the technical hero narrative.

And they would be right to do so.

All the press I read about 18F and the U.S. Digital Service and the Presidential Innovation Fellows before I started suggested that everyone was a Silicon Valley Mensa member with a big-name tech company pedigree, and that all these experts (who seemed overwhelmingly younger than me) were swooping in to government to fix things and rescue the befuddled civil servants from the dragons of Byzantine regulation and bureaucracy and bad technology.

Those stories are false. They perpetuate a larger false narrative that the government is a monolithic, faceless force, bent on making people miserable, made up of “them” and that all the rest of “us” are powerless to affect it. That story is just wrong. The government is us. Its effectiveness and illumination, darkness and implacability, are our own. Our Constitution says it clearly: “We the people” — not us the people and them the government. I’ve not ever felt that quite so clearly as while working within the government.

The truth is that most 18Fers are not from Silicon Valley and do not come from big-name tech companies. Our team lives all over the country, and our distributed-first ethos allows us to span many geographies, including my own, here in Kansas. Sure, we have some experience doing technology at a faster pace and with a newer toolset than government is used to. But most of us had very little experience with how government operating authorities, regulations and procurements work. 18F is not made of up of experts in government. So there’s learning and negotiating in both directions.

Whenever 18F has been effective as civil servants with technical skills, it has been due to active and engaged partnerships with folks already in government, who were already working hard at reforming technical attitudes and processes long before 18F existed. We are not heroes or saviors. We are partners, in a long process of reimagining how technology can help improve people’s experience of digital government services.

I expected my spirit to be slowly ground into dust under the harsh stone wheel of government bureaucracy.

Based on my previous experiences doing technology within large, bureaucratic organizations, I expected to barely manage the two years of my term before I ran screaming from rules and procedures that made little sense to my personal mental model of the Way Things Should Be. Imagine my welcome relief at finding that my 18F colleagues shared my feelings and had already done so much work to make onboarding and getting questions answered downright pleasant.

I won’t lie. There are things about government that make me want to pull out what’s left of my hair. But most of them are the same things that any large organization suffers from: processes to mitigate risk (and blame), rules and traditions whose original motivations are now opaque if not completely lost, and the kind of small-p political squabbles that constitute fairly normal human interactions. (There are large-P Politics too, which I’ll get to later.)

I am grateful for my fellow travellers in government, and to the Slack channel #scream where catharsis was always a keyboard smash away. The quality of good humor is not strained.

I expected my fellow 18Fers to be really smart.

I was not disappointed. Everyone is really smart.

Better, everyone is really fun. I’ve had so many delightful conversations with folks while waiting for meetings to start. Our Slack channels are emoji-filled rivers of humanity and brilliance and sympathy and insight and puns and fascination.

Better yet, there is a culture of empathy and learning and humility and humor that is a joy in which to participate. I have been personally stretched and challenged by the hard work of the diversity guild, the “hey guys” Slackbot response, and the community of engineering peers who take documentation, testing and code reviews as seriously as any code, and I am a better person for it all.

Best of all, the lack of ego makes the air feel lighter, like hiking above the smog. Folks take the work very seriously, far more seriously than they take themselves. I was inspired, every day.

If you know me, you know I’ve loved The West Wing since it debuted nearly two decades ago. My favorite character is Charlie Young, who in this scene joins the president’s staff. I’ve thought of this scene often during the last couple years because of the final exchange between Charlie and Josh Lyman.

Charlie: “I’ve never felt this way before.”

Josh: “It doesn’t go away.”

I expected to do the minimal two-year term of service and no more.

It is possible to work for 18F for more than two years. Many of my peers serve a second two-year term, working the maximum of four years. I knew of that possibility when I started, yet based on what I knew about my own capacity for working within bureaucracy, I expected to be quite ready to leave after two years.

So I was surprised, in the fall of 2016, a year into my term, that I could imagine serving another term. I was working on a very interesting project (login.gov) and feeling hopeful about the work we were accomplishing.

Then the election happened.

We don’t talk about candidates or political parties at work. An essential part of the culture and ethics of the civil service is the non-partisan nature of our work. Our oath is to the Constitution and we serve the people, not a party or an administration. Still, it’s not an exaggeration to say that every morning since Election Day has been a challenge to summon the will and focus necessary to do the work. It is demoralizing to work within a system headed by an administration that does not respect the system. I believe my colleagues feel this too, not just at 18F but throughout the civil service. The reason is obvious: the current administration does not respect the civil service and is actively working to dismantle it.

I am not registered with a political party. I believe in people organizing themselves to improve the welfare of our species and the planet we share. That’s the tl;dr of the preamble of the US Constitution.

So that’s what I’m going to keep doing: helping to organize to improve the welfare of our species and the planet we share. For now, I’m going to do that outside of government.

I expect to be sad for awhile.

A few weeks ago someone asked me what I look for in an ideal co-worker. Without hesitation, I said someone just like the people I work with at 18F. I spoke quite passionately about all the virtues of the people I have worked with for the last two years. Some of those words probably made it into this essay.

That person responded, wow, you must be sad to leave. I had not, until that moment, realized the depth of my emotional attachment to my colleagues and to the work and to the institutions which we serve. I will indeed be sad for some time about my decision to leave, and I apologize to all my future employers and co-workers right now, because 18F has set a high-water mark for me in terms of what I expect from a workplace.

In a few days I will no longer be an 18Fer. I’ll be an 18FXer, an alum. It is one of the proudest professional badges I will ever wear.

I expect to focus more on the process of building things, and less on the things.

The real product of 18F is not software or websites or improved procurement policies. The real product is the process by which we make those things: focused on the people who use the things we help build, in open, agile collaboration with the partner agencies we serve. The product is the process. The artifacts we produce are the means, not the ends. We don’t have an enthusiastic commitment to open source because it necessarily produces superior code (though it often does). We do open development because the process of working in the open is a good exercise for government. Like voting, it reminds us that the work belongs to all of us.

It took me a year to realize all that about the 18F product. Once I did, it became far easier to trust that we were delivering it, every day. Of course, producing great websites is a requirement for this process-as-product. If we failed to deliver great websites, it would be hard to trust that the process really has the quality we claim it does.

My own epiphany during these last two years has been that it takes deliberate, conscious action on the part of individual team members to perpetuate the culture of open process. Openness doesn’t just happen by itself. Someone needs to remember the disciplines: daily standups, retrospectives, sprint planning, documentation, agile methodologies, adherence to team practices, working in public. Like democracy itself, open process requires daily practice, permission to fail and be messy, reflect and try again.

I expect to experiment more, in direct conversation with the people who use the things I build.

Before I started at 18F, I knew intellectually the value of user-centered design and user experience research and iterative development. Now I know it in my bones. I’ve never worked at a place where design and user experience professionals numbered as many as software developers. It has changed forever my appreciation of the varieties of human experiences, of suspending as best I can my assumptions about how things are supposed to work, of trying things out to validate hypotheses, of changing my mind and trying something else. Learning as I go, listening to others’ experiences of the things I build, and trusting that their experiences are not a value judgement of me, but that instead we are working together to build a thing that benefits us all.

These obviously aren’t new ideas, or even new to me. What 18F did was give me an opportunity to practice those ideas as a technologist every day by treating them as core virtues, not nice-to-haves.

I expect to be politically involved.

Political engagement is a continuum, from alive and breathing on one end, to running for office and active leadership on the other. I have never been particularly politically active. In my cynical 20s I voted only in presidential elections, reluctantly, and even then doubted the effects. Back then I believed that my vote did not matter, and that organizing to affect political change was not very effective. What I’ve come to believe is that my individual vote doesn’t change the election. My vote changes me. It moves me along the continuum, and turns me into someone who cares about the outcome because I have invested myself in the process. It connects me to “we the people.” With all the obstacles to voting that exist in this country, it’s an experience being denied to large groups of people. That’s not right, and it’s not good for our democracy.

One thing I have learned from my time in government is that the long, slow, difficult repentance from cynicism looks a lot like showing up, doing the work that needs to be done, and trusting that it matters.

So what I’m doing next is going to be a lot of listening to people who have been politically active for a long time, trying to learn from them, and using my technical skills to improve the systems that power the democratic process at the local and state level. Make it easier for people to register and vote. Make it easier for people to run for office. And make it easier for the candidates who reflect my values to win those elections.

If the 2016 election had turned out differently, would I be leaving government now? Probably not. I’d probably be content to do another term. Am I leaving because I don’t want the efforts of my labor to reflect well on the current administration? Partly, but that’s a pretty minor reason for me. The American people benefit from improved services far more than any administration does, and I respect my colleagues who are staying and continuing the work. Mostly I’m leaving because, while the unjust parts of the American story sometimes threaten the whole, I still love this place more than ever. I respect the history and integrity of the office of the president and what it stands for, and I don’t ever want to feel again like I’ve felt for the last six months.

Because here’s the thing: our current president disgraces the office and undermines the trust necessary for democracy to work. And by its daily silence and denial, the party that claimed and elected him disgraces itself and the democratic institutions of our country. I believe how we fix that starts with our local school boards, and our city councils, and our county commissions, and our state legislatures. It starts with deepening the bench of folks, inclusive of all genders, ethnicities, colors and classes, who feel empowered to run for higher office. So that’s where I’m headed next.

If you have specific ideas about how to do any of those things, I’d love to hear from you.