Your government could use your help. I know this because while I spent the past ten years developing websites for entertainment startups, designing innovative software tools for banking and health care in San Francisco, the systems and infrastructure for my city government have gotten more-outdated and less-relevant. It never occurred to me I could help.

Embarrassment of riches

When I worked for a huge health care company, I had all the best things. I worked for an internal “innovation” agency, which meant that we partnered with others groups in the company and helped them realize their dreams. We got to automate or improve some part of their jobs. Sometimes we just sketched out ideas to make it happen, other times we built full-blown software to help people understand their health goals or help doctors and nurses track specimens in the hospital. The work was varied, but the money was always there.

The systems and infrastructure for my city government have gotten more-outdated and less-relevant. It never occurred to me I could help.

It was the same in following gigs, where I worked for a mobile group designing the latest apps for an otherwise hulking and slow company. Our task was to be on the cutting edge of hardware, software and techniques. Retaining talent is tough in Silicon Valley when startups promise to sell their company and earn their employees a cool million (which seldom happens, by the way). But, dreams being what they are, people are lured away from big, slow companies to smaller, nimble companies. This almost entirely leaves out government. Government is frequently thought of as slow and ineffectual. Ronald Reagan summarized this nicely during a 1980 debate against then-president Jimmy Carter:

“The nine most terrifying words in the English Language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”

What happens in government

Not too long ago, I was out of a job and looking for a career change. After working more than a decade in technology, taking government assistance wasn’t my first bet. Out here, it’s demonstrated that “leveraging your network” is the way to find a job. LinkedIn is less than a twenty-minute walk from my apartment, after all. I went to see what the Employment Development Department (EDD) had to offer and I was invited to attend a workshop in return for financial support from California, so I took it.

When I arrived at the Oakland EDD, I found a building that looked like it was last-updated in the 1970s, with worn gray carpet, disinterested guards ambled near the door. An air of uncertainty filled the space as government workers and unemployed people wandered aimlessly looking for the workshop. Beige computers with large CRT monitors lined the walls. A queue formed to get into the room for the workshop, where we were asked to sign our names in order to qualify for financial support. We had paperwork that was designed for data-entry. The first concern was that we wrote clearly and filled in the appropriate fields. More than anything, we were complying with the expectation of the system that would take the information from our form. Nothing about the experience responded to the fact that half of the attendees didn’t speak English as a first language. When the workshop was finished, we were prompted to upload our resume into an awkward-looking though smartly-designed website. The computer next to me froze and a government worker tried to help the person, but could not.

For all the resources I was given in my corporate work, little of that thinking was being applied to government.

Most people working at the EDD seemed frustrated, though eager to help. It seemed clear to me that the systems they used were not their choice, but were necessary in order to help the people who came for help. For all the resources I was given in my corporate work, little of that thinking was being applied to government. The computers and the systems they had were old and difficult to use. When I visited the EDD in San Francisco, I was surprised to find that it was in a nondescript basement with more beige computers. Considering the proximity of the San Francisco EDD to some of the world’s top technology firms, there was little evidence of support for improved technology in government.

My work has always been to help improve existing systems. When I saw people struggling in both Oakland and San Francisco, I knew something needed to be done. People in government frequently don’t have the skills, nor the time to update the systems they use. After these systems have been built they might lack the resources to keep it up-to-date. Working in software has taught me that building and maintaining software is an on-going and lifelong project. Sadly, it’s not something you can step away from for long. When software no longer meets the needs for which it was designed, people often find themselves putting the needs of the software before their own. Thus, government workers can spend more time struggling with software problems than helping the citizens they serve.

What’s being done

Agencies exist in government like the groups I worked for in the private sector. United States Digital Services (USDS) and 18F are two, relatively-recent agencies that partner with other organizations in government. They act as consultancies with talented designers, engineers, testers and managers.

The United States Digital Service is a startup at The White House, using design
and technology to deliver better services to the American people.

Many of these people come from big companies like Facebook and Google and this work gives them an opportunity to literally give back to their community. Code for America is a group that is similar in concept, except that it is a non-profit and works by partnering with government agencies.

Holistic thinking in government

One of the prime examples of how governments can radically change their relationship to technology is in Singapore. The Singapore Government Digital Services (GDS) is a group that started as a side-project and gradually gained traction until it became a division of its own. The Singapore GDS supports citizens with technology solutions like weather and transportation apps as well as maintaining an open infrastructure for government services.

The United Kingdom Government Digital Service (GDS) is a similar and well-established voice in the software design community. They are known for collecting and sharing their design principles. This sort of transparency and focus on access-for-all is what makes the work of the UK GDS inspiring. They have an excitement for new technologies and methods with an eagerness to learn and share that with everyone.

I’m here to help

Being able to help your government as a digital designer is a relatively new opportunity. Working with a digital government agency can be one way to give back to society. If you are already government employee, you can also find ways to create change from within like the group in Singapore.

People in government frequently don’t have the skills, nor the time to update the systems they use. Working in software has taught me that building and maintaining software is an on-going and lifelong project.

In the United States, you can volunteer for Code for America or apply to be a fellow for one of their projects. By working outside of the government and partnering with agencies that need their help, groups like Code for America have a decent amount of flexibility in how they approach their work.

If you want to get involved directly with government and help move the needle towards change within the organization, the government in Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States all have links to jobs where you can apply.

On the other hand, if government work doesn’t seem like a good fit for you, but you’d like to give back to your community, consider volunteering at your local library or a Code Club if you’re in the UK. Connect with a neighborhood group. Our work as designers is to help people communicate what they need. If we can help others in our community communicate what they need, then we’ve helped ourselves. We can listen to the needs of people and listen to the needs of our government and help them achieve social change.

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