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“We the People” Form the Government We Need

Whether serendipity or providence, July 4th is my final day as a federal employee with the Defense Digital Service.

During my nearly three-year “nerd tour of duty” with DDS, I’ve come to appreciate the important role the Department of Defense and our military services have in protecting the independence our nation declared on this day. These are the biggest lessons I’ll take with me from my time in the Pentagon.

The military’s greatest strength is its people.

DDS was my first experience working on anything connected to national security. Before joining, I ignorantly viewed the military as secondary to the private sector. I was wrong.

The uniformed personnel with whom I worked are the smartest people I’ve ever met. Their commitment and passion for the mission are a given, but their brilliance, strategic insights, and execution are second to none. Nearly all of the officers detailed to DDS held advanced degrees from prestigious universities, some commissioned after successful careers at leading tech companies, and many established and ran side businesses.

I learned more from them during my time at DDS than they did from me.

Talent needs empowerment.

Unfortunately, our uniformed talent and their civilian counterparts are constrained by an outdated system that prioritizes stability, order, and hierarchy over the type of innovation, risk-taking, and meritocracy that is so desperately needed to meet emerging (and present) threats.

That isn’t just my opinion: The Bipartisan Policy Center found “the current [military personnel] system is typically poorly coordinated, lacks accountability, is unable to obtain specialized talent, and fosters a groupthink mentality within the force. Now is the time for fundamental reform.” The book Bleeding Talent asks more bluntly, “Why does the American military produce the most innovative and entrepreneurial leaders in the country, then waste that talent in a risk-averse bureaucracy?”

DDS’s model of entrusting and empowering technical talent regardless of rank runs counter to how bureaucracy traditionally operates, but our results converted many skeptics.

If there is one lasting impact I hope I’ve had at DDS, it is contributing to an environment — both a physical space and a culture — that prioritizes people over process.

No one else is coming. It’s up to us.

For the majority of Americans who have not served in government or the military, it’s easy to see these entities as the domain of “others.” Unfortunately, the data supports that view. Fewer and fewer Americans have direct experience with public service.

The percentage of Americans with military experience declined from 18% in 1980 to 7% in 2016. The number of people on active duty dropped to a third of what it was at the end of the draft era. On the civilian side, the number of people employed in the Federal workforce is nearly the same as it was in 1952 despite a growing population. Further, most civilian positions are filled by individuals with prior federal experience.

The result is a Government increasingly disconnected from its users, the citizens it serves, and a citizenry disconnected from the mechanics behind those services. Those of us who join the government with private sector experience can bring exposure to new technologies and ways of doing things that, when paired with the institutional knowledge of federal employees, can drive incredible change.

But that change is predicated on people showing up. We need you, especially those of you experienced in modern technology and software development practices, to take an active role in the day-to-day administration of our government.

The Defense Digital Service, United States Digital Service, 18F, and the Presidential Innovation Fellowship have created opportunities for technologists, designers, and strategists to contribute as full-time federal employees. The newly established Military Direct Commissioning Program enables mid-to-late-career professionals to serve in uniform at ranks up to Colonel. Traditional government openings on USAJobs are easier to apply to and be selected for thanks to hiring process reforms.

For those not looking to change careers, the Defense Innovation Board takes public comments on topics of national security including the ethical use of Artificial Intelligence. There are countless ways to contribute.

On July 4, 1776, America’s Founders signed their names to the charge that:

Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

That is our right and our responsibility: To maintain the government they won for us, we must take an active role in its continual improvement.