The Situation Report: Silicon Valley Disconnect

Valley Girl

Gag me with a spoon, Erie Meyer. America’s self-described “foremost technologist named after a great lake…working on service delivery” at the U.S. Digital Service recently described in a Twitter post what her former career was really all about.

Although there’s no serious Valley experience detectable in Meyer’s official bio, this issue is actually a very serious concern among those who have been critical of the new digital service stars recruited from Silicon Valley to help save government from its Luddite past. As the argument goes, Todd Park—the digital service recruiter-in-chief—has staffed the government’s digital service teams with a bunch of wide-eyed techies who have been unable to divorce themselves from their former Silicon Valley mission of designing click-bait, or as GitHub Evangelist Ben Balter put it, working to “implement the button for those clicks.”

So far, “implementing buttons” seems to be right in the USDS sweet spot. Consider their accomplishments: A College Scorecard website for the Education Department; a “revamped” online presence for the Federal Election Commission; and a Web template designer for static government websites. There have been others, but nothing revolutionary.

This is a big problem for the USDS at the White House and its sister organization, the General Services Administration’s 18F. Both organizations should be bracing for a major slap in the face from the Government Accountability Office, which is planning to release an audit of their progress to date. And The Situation Report has picked up strong signals that these particular digital audit pages will make a loud thud when they fall on the desk of U.S. Chief Information Officer Tony Scott at the Office of Management and Budget.

Deep Throat Meets Demosthenes

On May 16, MeriTalk will begin publishing The Federal IT Papers—An Exclusive Insider Account of IT Decision-making Gone Wrong. This weekly series of stories is based on a book-length work by a current senior Federal IT official who goes by the pseudonym Demosthenes—a great orator in Ancient Greece, and the name chosen by Valentine Wiggin in Ender’s Game. Our author insisted on anonymity due to a fear of reprisals.

PapersIn our first installment, Demosthenes takes issue with the government’s infatuation with the U.S. Digital Service and the way in which career Federal IT workers are treated.

“The problem with the USDS is that they make all these promises and have cachet. They are in the West Wing after all,” the author wrote. “When they recruit people, the mind-set coming in is that everyone who was working in Federal IT before I got here is shit. As a result they get rid of everyone who knows anything.”

In one case, a USDS specialist recruited from Silicon Valley by an agency CIO went so far as to undermine the CIO who hired them. The result? According to Demosthenes, the agency head decided it was time to get a new CIO.

“And now I see them embedding themselves in preparation for this next administration, and I can’t sit idly by and not speak up. Somebody has to pierce this bubble and say, ‘hey guys, thanks for importing a whole bunch of really smart people who don’t know the first thing about how to get shit done here. Thanks for bringing in a bunch of people who don’t value my contributions and don’t want to hear about what has worked and what hasn’t.’ ”

You can read more of The Federal IT Papers starting May 16.

Beyond Escape Velocity

Let’s make it three and go for the hat trick on digital services. My left coast listening post reports that it’s no coincidence that GSA’s latest innovation partnership in San Francisco will be located right next door to the West Coast 18F. My Market Street surveillance station has picked up strong signals that the so-called Superpublic Innovation Lab is part of GSA’s master plan to extend 18F’s presence both physically and politically—reaching a hiring velocity that makes it virtually impossible for the next administration to escape the pull of government digital services.

GAO Visits VA

My Vermont Avenue surveillance station in Washington, D.C., has noticed unusual Government Accountability Office activity at the headquarters of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Sources tell The Situation Report that auditors are interested in VA’s progress on identity theft prevention. In particular, investigators want to know how far VA has come in eliminating the use of Social Security numbers as a key identification number for veterans.