October 30, 2014

There's a certain feeling in the air — a belief your candidate can win. You work through the night, travel on cramped buses, write endless lines of code. And then, election night comes: Your candidate wins! You pop the champagne! And you immediately start thinking about sprucing up your resume.

Evidenced by the issues surrounding Healthcare.gov, the government may be facing a serious tech brain drain. So why is it so hard to keep the tech types interested?

"The easy answer is money and resources," explains Harper Reed, former CTO of Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.

But beyond money, Reed explains, there's also an ethos to tech culture that doesn't quite mesh with what government stands for. Tech workers might be younger, or more interested in moving around from company to company, and so "the values that we use to ascribe to government work just don't appeal to them as much."

Of his friends that have helped out in government from time to time, Reed says, "They did it not because they were getting paid, they did it because they thought that it needed to get done. That lasts for a certain amount of time – and then you realize you are on ramen, or maybe haven't seen your child in a long time. And so you [think] I need to go and watch out for number one a little bit more."

Campaigns are Different

Part of the reason it's easier for techies to make a sacrifice when it comes to campaigns is because they are short-term workers.

"With a campaign, you know it's going to end," Reed explains. "You know that there's a mandated date where everything expires, even if the technology lasts a little bit. If you screw it up and something bad happens afterwards, no one really cares."

The same kind of short-termism wouldn't work in broader government jobs, because technology needs upkeep, continuity, and institutional knowledge. And there's no guarantee that servers wouldn't crash the day after short-term workers went home.

Bureaucracy versus the Lean Startup

When faced with the reality of a long-term job, whatever government has to offer might not be enough, explains Reed.

"You can look at a regular job, and if it doesn't have the properties that make jobs good — maybe you can dress how you want, or you get snacks, or the technology is very good or the salaries are good — you just see this disconnect with what is a great place to work versus this bureaucratic giant organization."

Reed sees this as a fundamental problem not just in government, but in other sectors of the economy. "This isn't just something that's stuck with the government, it's stuck with all businesses in the United States, where the larger the business you are, the larger the bureaucracy, the more hoops that you have to jump through — the less likely you are to succeed at technology."

Changing the Rules

Reed admits that government is often bureaucratic out of necessity: "The U.S. government is a huge organization, the rules are complex — whereas if I'm running a Snapchat, I don't have that same rulebook."

Still, he sees the need for change.

"The only way to get anything done in the government, regardless of your party, is through these crazy, gargantuan procurement laws," explains Reed, which means it's hard, even when you assemble a dream team, to get the people you want on the job. "When you have these giant federal contractors that fail over and over again – Healthcare.gov was just an example — that's almost the only choice these governments have based on the procurement problems they have."

government, Culture, politics, Harper Reed

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