Discover more from Slow Build by Nancy Scola
Coding for country
Biden's bid to recruit early-career technologists
The Biden administration has just this week launched the United States Digital Corps, and that sounds a bit familiar — Didn’t President Obama already do this, in the wake of the Healthcare.gov mess? — there’s a reason why this is meaningfully different.
Both the U.S. Digital Corp and U.S. Digital Service (yep, this nomenclature is going to get confusing) are rooted in the idea that federal agencies in the U.S. could right now using a technology mindset in tackling everything from COVID-19 to the ravages of climate change to keeping together the country as a functioning unit.
“Begin your technology career inside the federal government and be part of something bigger.”
— The new U.S. Digital Corps
But the U.S. Digital Service that launched in 2014 was premised on the idea that people with experience in Silicon Valley in particular and the tech industry more generally could be compelled to come to Washington to lend their expertise. The U.S. Digital Corps is, on the other hand, about inducing what they’re calling “junior technologists” to put in time in public service at the start of their journeys. It’s about creating pipeline that produces, to mix metaphors, a crop of native civic technologists.
Here’s how they’re describing the program:
“Begin your technology career inside the federal government and be part of something bigger. The U.S. Digital Corps is a new two‑year fellowship for early‑career technologists where you will work every day to make a difference in critical impact areas including coronavirus response, economic recovery, cybersecurity, and racial equity. More than just a job with a competitive salary and benefits, you will change the way people in America are served by their government.”
The subtext here is that, early on in U.S. Digital Service, there was an air of “Silicon Valley running to the rescue” about the whole project. It’s an idea, though, that somewhat quietly fallen out of favor in federal digital tech circles in recent years. The thinking now isn’t that people who built their career at Google or Facebook or other companies don’t have something to contribute. It’s that they aren’t saviors. They’re human beings who can be usefully tapped to contribute to a complex, often complicated system that has different motivations and goals than the commercial sector.
We actually talked about this idea some weeks back in our interview with Code for America co-founder Jen Pahlka, who later served as deputy CTO of the U.S. and whose organization inspired the U.S. Digital Service in the first place. I asked Pahlka about whether tensions between the tech industry and Washington made USDS a more difficult project to pull off than it once was. No, she said, because people who work in tech and the industry itself aren’t one and the same. Instead, she said, what is making things a bit more challenging is that there’s more of a desire to put into leadership positions people coming from government, not the private sector. Here’s Pahlka:
“In the early days, there was sort of this vibe that I think people are now a little embarrassed by, of, if you were from a big company, it was, ‘Okay, it’s so great you’re here. Let’s put you in charge.’
Now it’s a little bit more, ‘Okay, you’re from a big company. I’m so glad you’re here. But you’re new to government and you need to actually take a back seat and learn all the stuff we’ve learned, because it is different. And, frankly, it’s harder.’”
The U.S. Digital Corps’ reason for being is, in part, to shore up the idea that working in government tech is a worthy career track all its own, the way otherwise might be thought about being a lawyer in government.
(For those of us interested in the weeds, the U.S. Digital Corps is housed in the General Services Administration, while the U.S. Digital Service is part of the Office of Management and Budget, which is itself part of the White House apparatus proper. Why that matters is probably a discussion for another time.)
Pulling back a bit, we’re arguably seeing the signs of a revival of the tech-in-government push that started under Obama and arguably laid mostly dormant under Trump. Biden yesterday selected a selected a new head of the U.S. Digital Service. That’s Mina Hsiang. Hsiang is a veteran of USDS, where she’s largely focused on health care challenges like the pandemic response. Her two predecessors, meanwhile, each came to the role right from Google.
The U.S. Digital Corps is meant to launch this fall.
This week’s deep read:
Suffolk University Law School’s Quinten Steenhuis and David Colarusso look at COVID-inspired “digital curb cuts,” or “improvements designed to increase accessibility that benefit people beyond the population that they are intended to help.”
Steenhuis and Colarusso write that evidence suggests that some of those changes should stick around should we ever move past the pandemic:
“Courts and third parties designed many innovations to meet the emergency needs of the pandemic: we argue that these innovations should be extended and enhanced to address this ongoing access to justice crisis. Specifically, we use the Suffolk University Law School's Document Assembly Line as a case study. The Document Assembly Line rapidly automated more than two dozen court processes, providing pro se litigants remote, user-friendly, step-by-step guidance in areas such as domestic violence protection orders and emergency housing needs and made them available at courtformsonline.org. The successes of this project can extend beyond the pandemic with the adoption of an open-source, open-standards ecosystem centered on document and form automation. We give special attention to the value of integrated electronic filing in serving the needs of litigants, a tool that has been underutilized in the non-profit form automation space because of complexities and the difficulty in obtaining court cooperation.”
You can read the full paper here.