Episode One Hundred and Sixty Eight: Continued Careening 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

Sat next to Frances Berriman at the Code for America Summit (“Wow, I’m seeing the magic happen!”) on opening day, and already feeling pretty good about the next section. An early morning: a 4:30am wakeup for a 7:25am flight (you can tell I’m paranoid about arriving in time at the airport) that ended up being delayed until 8:25am, because I know you’re totally into the logistics involved in transporting my meat/water hybrid body a few hundred miles south a bit.

1.0 Continued Careening

I briefly alluded to this a few episodes ago, but it looks like the cat is out of the bag now, at least it is if you’re the kind of person who’s, I don’t know, some sort of completist and enjoys stalking me on multiple platforms. I’m making no assumptions, so here’s the bit where I write about career number four.

Since the Great Laying Off in May, I’ve been doing a bunch of freelance consulting that’s been very interesting, but it’s been the kind of lucrative interesting as opposed to intrinsically interesting. At the same time, it’s been increasingly clear to me as I’ve looked at what I’ve written about that there are some things I care quite a lot about now: I obviously incredibly admire the work that friends and strangers have done, and continue to do at the UK’s Government Digital Service. And I’ve written about a peculiar sense of public duty, and about missing the particular phase of the UK’s web history that resulted in going through the BBC as a sort of rite of passage. There were definitely two things that stood out to me as a result of all of this forced daily habitual introspection: healthcare and government. And not even, necessarily, “Government”, just the fact that things can and should be better. That if someone tells me that something like a quarter of residents enrolled in food stamps in San Francisco get de-enrolled due to administrative overhead, that this happens to people who have specifically been identified through voter-enabled legislation and deemed to have been deserving of assistance – this is a Bad Thing that should be fixed. And the chance to do so with technology and people and cultural change to build a better world, and to leave it in a better place than I found it, is super compelling.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified as well as excited. At dinner tonight with some of my new colleagues and partners, I did kind of introduce myself as being the (willing) victim of a particularly well-executed conspiracy.So: what does a Content Director do for Code for America? The discussions that I’ve been having around the role involve as much strategy as they do actual curation and development of content. I think the organisation has a window right now to be very specific, and to act as a standard bearer in terms of what we believe should be the *minimum standard* of government in the 21st century. That we (we!) can be an exemplar of what government can be like when it uses the best tools for the job it’s responsible for doing and when it focusses on serving those from whom its power derives.

And boy does Code for America have a big job. After living here for three and a half years, I’m still amazed by how *big* America is. Jen Pahlka, my new executive director, was recounting an anecdote about how America has on the order of around sixty *thousand* independent, distinct police jurisdictions, compared to the around sixty thousand total police *officers* that Canada has. America, as Douglas Adams would say, is *big*. And unique in that it believes in – and carries out – ideological devolution of power to the lowest local level. The job of bringing up *all* of America’s local governance up to a standard worthy of existence in the 21st century is a giant one, and they currently do this work through three different areas: by working with companies through an incubator/accelerator program, by working with governments through fellowship programs, and by working with citizens through volunteer brigades. But it’s a mammoth job, and we’re impatient people. So part of my remit as Content Director is to make what the organisation does replicable. When a government or partnership creates a better way of enrolling children into K12 education or develops a better, more humane way to deliver food stamp assistance, how do we help that knowledge spread as far and wide as possible and in a replicable, repeatable way?

Such meaty problems with such delicious ingredients. People. Organisational change. Communication. Being in the gaps. Bridging technologists with strategists and policy specialists. Spreading the knowledge of how to do proper user-centered research. Learning how to communicate in more humane, accessible and understandable ways.

And at the same time, even though I’m British, a deep-seated belief that America wants to be good. During my interview process I’d talk about being taken by my then-girlfriend and now wife and mother to our son to the Jefferson memorial in Washington, DC where she was living at the time when we first started our trans-atlantic relationship. America got a shit-tonne of stuff *right*. And they’re really, really good at the propaganda and branding. Believing that all people are equal? Check. That power derives from the people? Check. Sure, there’s a whole lot that might have gotten wrong along the way. But I believe that the founding principles of this country were sound and admirable. And I want to help them be good, not least of which because my son’s an American until I get around to filling in the paperwork for his British citizenship.

And I’m scared, not least of which because I look at people like Tom Loosemore and Ben Terrett and Russell Davies and Roo Reynolds and Leisa Reichelt and numerous others at GDS who I haven’t even met and they’re all *so good* at what they do. People who’ve done, as they say, the hard work of making things simple.

But then I remember that the team at Code for America is great, too. That I’m not on my own, and that I’m going to be working with a bunch of smart, passionate people who believe in what they do and have the tenacity to pull it off, too. And that whilst Code for America doesn’t have the unique primordial soup starting conditions as GDS did, it does have a bottom up mandate it’s claimed for itself in government for the people, by the people.

So: terrified. Excited. Energised.

12:31am. And it’s an 8am start tomorrow. As ever, send notes: I appreciate and read them all, and try to reply to as many as I can.