Notes and Reflections by feoMike


my turn in government is now over.

In the spring of 1987, i became an alumnus of a jesuit high school. the jesuits hammered into us (figuratively and literally) the principles equity/justice, service and critical thought. they were so good at it, that for more than 25 years, i have attempted to carry on these ideas in my government career.

today, i become an alumnus of government. i am leaving government service to take a position in the private sector. i really want to reflect on my time in govt. my government experience has mostly focused on working in the nexus of technology and policy; places where technology is used to help some policy issue. mostly the common thread of this experience is with geographic technology and data. i have had the great pleasure of working on a slew of policy issues. these issues span from rare species conservation to fire modeling to health care informatics to housing.

the problems government tries to solve are inordinately complicated. generally, no other entity has the scope or even close ability to begin to solve them. by and large, when the govt. attempts work on large problems, and here i do mean focusing as opposed to just rhetoric, then measurable achievement far greater than nearly any other effort can be seen. these are not problems solved in a tweet, some facebook thread, journalistic long form, a single research paper or even private equity. these and the other problems government works tirelessly to solve are enormously complicated, nuanced, and rife with subtleties that are often misunderstood and overlooked. there is almost never a single cost per unit, production output or other measure that is analogous to business. there is never a silver bullet and never a policy solution that takes one tact. rather most all of the time there are suites of levers and counterbalances effecting a direction of change.

for the past four years, i have spent most of my time, as a technologist, in meetings with lawyers, policy makers, research experts and industry analysts. i would estimate that less than 20% of my time was dedicated to meeting w/ developers or tech implementers who focus on the technology solution. i would put that estimate in the 4 years i worked at the FCC to be higher, but less than 30%. for my more than 15 years in state government, it was similar. in all cases it is because policy makes the difference, and technology supports the cause. technology is not the end product.

in my experience at CFPB, we were implementing a new statute to avert the next housing crisis. a bi-partison congress directed the bureau to implement regulation for which a market solution clearly wouldn’t work (see headlines from oct 2008 and on for reference - search housing collapse ). this makes intuitive sense; most people would say it is worthwhile to put checks/levers in place to prohibit the world from losing $13 Trillion in wealth in a year. the tool the CFPB had in place is a regulatory function to assemble data from the industry about what, when, where, how and from/to whom lending happened. with this information, assembled and made publically available, trends and early warning signs can be identified so that next time significant shifts in the market are as dramatic as they were beginning in 2004, financial regulators might be able to take action. what the team at cfpb put in place is nothing short of heroic. they had to balance data collection burden on the industry (things that raise the cost per unit to the they are trying to protect), information security (b/c after all we are talking about private individuals and the amount of money they are borrowing), implementing congress’s intent in law without a guidebook other than the legislation, and a highly toxic partisanship where nearly any constituent could derail something with a loud enough voice and a fearfully enough doomsday scenario. all of this on top of existing law and practice which goes back 30+ years and has at its core foundation attempting to protect the unalienable rights of all americans to be treated equally. this is not a solution that technology of and by itself can fix. some smart bros from huli can’t be airdropped in to automagically fix this; or put it another way, they could be but their fix wouldn’t matter. the cfpb changed regulatory function, they were transparent with literally thousands of stakeholders about that function and the delivered a policy solution which became the requirements for a technology build. those stakeholders include banks, credit unions, non-depositories, IT vendors, community groups, other regulators, etc. all that time tech people like myself were in the room. when the real technologists took flight they rocked tech implementation, b/c there was a direct pipeline to the policy fold. last year they collected 14M rows of data in about 4 days and significantly reduced the burden on industry to collect it, while shattering the time to market in delivering the public data which will be used to ensure any early warning signals are heard. next year, they will do all this and more given the new rules congress asked them to put in place. the point i am trying to underscore here is this; in order to solve this problem, and do it right, one has to do more than simply adopting agile or getting some googlers, or holding a hackathon. it takes years of constituent engagement; policy people tirelessly evaluating every possible alternative, ensuring that it doesn’t violate congress’s intent, or jeopardize the administrative procedures act, or the federal acquisition regulations, and does indeed make the primary goal successful.

in my experience at the FCC, we were solving to how to raise the bar for the baseline high speed internet access to all americans. one might also argue that, oh, the market will solve for that as well. if that is the case, why then has cable penetration been steady at ~84% of the us population for more than 10 years? the reason is because private sector investment will only go so far. so the tact that the FCC and the NTIA took, as directed by congress and the american reinvestment and recovery act, was three fold; (1) write a broadband plan to outline goals and strategies for investment, (2) develop a broadband map to see where the gaps are and (3) use the map to identify gaps in availability so that we could then use the $4B high cost fund of the universal service fund to spur innovation in getting internet connections to ALL americans at above 10-25MBS down. again, this is a long sticky problem. this problem isn’t going to take the best googlers of the world with a blue sky room dreaming up an api on a new white board. in fact they have been working on it, and still we are 84% cable (and substantially less for fiber) penetration; most of that new fiber in places that already had the benchmark speed. i had spent lots and lots of time with the team who did the plan, and lots and lots of time with the team who did the map. in both cases, there was tireless dedication to policy problem solving. technology (sure while important to me) was a sideshow. just like in the cfpb case, the tech team here rocked it. they rocked it because the map met a policy function. several weeks ago, the connect america fund awarded ~$250 million to serve places where we identified gaps in service back then; gaps the private sector would never have served otherwise.

my experience in state government follows this same pattern. yes, i was involved in technology and mapping for issues like understanding california’s population growth and impact on resources (in particular to reduce carbon footprint), and where are shortages of healthcare providers to serve needy populations and where should the state invest bond money to protect its great natural resources legacies and balance human impact. but just like the two above cases, the core efforts, discussions and outputs where where the smart growth council or the health care workforce council or secretary for natural resources moved a policy lever that otherwise opened investment or attracted resources or convened parties to continue solutions. never in any of my experience did a single map or piece of technology take center stage. it is always about the policy.

if one wants to take a tour in govt., please by all means, i highly highly encourage every/anyone to do so. we need the best and brightest minds. we need this, b/c the problems to solve are the most complex problems there are; because they affect people; b/c it matters more than widgets. my time was unbelievably rewarding. i still get chills thinking about text i helped write that ended up in executive orders for state govt., for federal govt, testifying in front of congress, or in statute/policy. these experiences far outweigh the deployment day excitement (and believe me there was some terrifyingly exciting days deploying software in government - the NBM team remembers; then there was the accepted pull request during the live demo i gave before the FCC) and use of the technology itself.

but here is the thing. come, but please don’t come in with arrogance. please come in having read a civics book (over a rails book). let me be frank, a new web site won’t change someone’s hunger, or housing or healthcare. look up and read all of the enabling statute that created the entity for which you work. it describes the bounds. then read the administrative procedures act, the FAR and any other policy doc you can find. understand the controls, the tensions and understand the issue. forget technology until you really understand what the key metrics of the problem are. then find the policy team and soak in everything you can from them. they are the true gears to the issue. they are hardly ever wrong, nearly always right, but mostly they care and they know the depths of the problem. then you can think about writing some code; it might be years, but rest assured if you stick it out it will matter to people.

from my first day in government to my last, i have had the great pleasure to work alongside tremendous policy individuals. working with them makes me humbled. people like marc/carrie, bob, jim/mike, madelyn, joe, lynette, … jon, anne, jennie, julia, ron, paul, ren. expect that doing this pre-work will take years.

as i become this new alumn, i take on the role of a constant cheerleader. government is the best place to work. the people are amazing and i have never met any their equal. i am proud to have graduated from that jesuit high school. i am proud to have had a service career. i am proud that i learned some critical thought. mostly, i am proud to have worked on equity issues (human and natural resources) for over 25 years, will continue to do so, and will always advocate for other technologists to go into government.