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Government Groundbreakers

For getting the public sector up to speed.

Government Groundbreakers
[Illustration: Jonny Wan]

45. Megan Smith

CTO, the United States of America

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Job: Advise President Obama on science and technology policy and liaise with various federal agencies to deploy technology as a policy tool.
Background: Former VP at Google X; ex–CEO of PlanetOut.
Goal: “To help more Americans be part of this ‘innovative nation’ and bring diverse people, especially our youth, into innovative, fun, better-paying jobs”.
Recent product: TechHire, which Smith helped launch, creates public-private partnerships to develop new IT talent through fast-track training methods like coding bootcamps. It then places the graduates through non-traditional hiring methods.
To do this work, you most need: “Compassion, ingenuity, and grit.”
Lesson learned on the job: “Great collaboration across a diverse set of people with all different skills can result in extraordinary things.”


46. Hillary Hartley

Deputy Executive Director, Communications & Creative,18F

Job: Oversee design at a scrappy new government office that devises efficiency-boosting strategies for federal agencies.
Background: 2013 Presidential Innovation fellow; graphic designer.
Goal: To use cutting-edge design and technology to build user-centric tools that improve interaction between the public and private sectors.
Recent product: FBOpen, a Google-type search engine that simplifies and streamlines the process of finding information on how to do business with the government, whether you’re a potential contractor or an aspiring civil servant.
To do this work, you most need: “People. 18F is a hub of practices and programs, but most importantly, people. Everybody joining us is an impact junkie who wants to make things better.”
Lesson learned on the job: “Don’t take no for an answer. No should be interpreted as a maybe, and then you keep pushing.”


47. Jose Cisneros

Treasurer, City of San Francisco

Job: Supervise public funds in San Francisco, from collecting taxes to investing the city’s money to providing local regulation of the financial sector.
Background: Managed capital-investment program for San Francisco’s municipal-transport system; former financial manager at Bank of Boston.
Goal: To give citizens “a way to be a little more successful at managing their money.” Example: Helping to create bank accounts for those who rely on payday lenders.
Recent product: Kindergarten to College, a first-of-its-kind program that seeds a college savings account for every kindergartener in the public school system.
To do this work, you most need: “An interest in being innovative.”
Lesson learned on the job: “If we could stay more attuned to what folks in the community need, we might find some new directions.”


48. Christine Leonard

Executive director, Coalition for Public Safety

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Job: To reform the criminal justice system.
Background: Served as an aide to Senator Edward Kennedy and as director of legislative affairs in the Obama administration’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Goal: “To achieve meaningful criminal-justice reform—better laws and policies that make the government more effective and fair.”
Recent product: The three-month-old coalition itself, which Leonard helped to forge. The unique bipartisan effort’s founding partners–and odd bedfellows–include the ACLU, Koch Industries, the liberal Center for American Progress, and the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition.
To do this work, you most need: “Perseverance.”
Lesson learned on the job: “Try not to make assumptions about other people’s beliefs, and instead try to listen and see where you can find things you can agree on. It’s less about why someone comes to the table and more about what you can get done once you’re there.”


Bonus Round: Megan Smith

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

I try to wake up a little earlier than I have to. I make coffee. And I kind of read email and wake up the kids. But I try not to be super-rushed in the morning.‬

What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?

How small the teams are–and how deeply effective they are, even though they’re small. 

What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?

There are a couple I like a lot. I really like what Marc Andreessen says.

How do you keep track of everything you have to do? Can you send us a snapshot of your to-do list?

I’m constantly writing or drawing. I have different notebooks, and I am sort of famous for them. I draw and write in my notebook.

What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?

Sometimes I go different places. One of the things is, for me, my job is so broad that I’m constantly moving topics. Traveling around. Context switch. Whether it’s doing different things within the city I’m living in or being with different communities. I like to see what this group of people are doing or what that group. Shift context and location. There’s a really cool place–Chautauqua. My mom used to run the children’s school there. There are lots of different topics people are talking about. So it’s a good refresh place. It’s like a TED conference founded in the 1870s. My mom lives there now. All my cousins go. We all go. They’ll do biotech and then the Civil War. Edison was there. Mostly for me, I think it’s just good to context-switch a lot, and I do that a lot in my job–work on different topics.

Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?

An Omidyar fellow, Forest Frizzell, in Honolulu. All the people in county jail were all being put through one person. The system is a disaster. Everybody was missing court dates. He fixed it.


Bonus Round: Hillary Hartley

Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?

A lot of times it’s physical. I like to go to museums. I have a ton of creative and designer-y friends. Twitter is flooded with things that I bookmark.

What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?

How collaborative our team is. When we hit the walls of bureaucracy, we’re generally able to figure out how to get over and around them. It’s such a pleasure to work with such awesome partners.

What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?

There’s two. I just got turned on to Humans of New York. I love it. I am totally addicted. The other one is the two guys that act out famous paintings. It’s amazing. Fools Do Art.

What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?

I’ve had a tag on Delicious that I’ve used for a long time. I tag things ‘inspiration.’ That was a huge source for me for a long time to go back to that tag and that master list. Outside of that, it goes again back to physical things. I find a lot of inspiration from physical products–and trying to figure out what has made those successful and work and what’s beautiful about them. I remember several years ago reading a retrospective on Oxo and their methodology and just their process in early days of pre-buzzword design thinking and getting down to what really makes something work and makes it beautiful.

Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?

I’m thinking of friends, actually. The first person that came to mind is a friend Daniel Burka, who is a designer and has had a pretty awesome career. He has done a few startups in San Francisco and is now at Google Ventures. I’ve seen him empower the clients they’re working with.


Bonus Round: Jose Cisneros

Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?

Even though it’s a struggle to get myself there, working out at the gym is the best way for me to get my mind working.

What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?

Collecting taxes can be really fascinating and exciting.

What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?

What’s Instagram? I am really not on social media.

What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?

I usually try to read news that is totally unrelated to city politics or financial empowerment.

Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?

I’m always inspired by leaders like JFK who are not afraid to push back on convention.


Bonus Round: Christine Leonard

Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?

On the weekends, I find the greatest inspiration in spending time outside and playing with my kids.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

I thank my husband, who wakes up first with our youngest son before their morning commute, then make a cup of coffee.‬

What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?

We all agree about the problems–we just need to craft consensus-oriented solutions and to stay focused on our core goals.‬

What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?

I go back and read the research from the National Academy of Sciences. I try to stay focused on the root problems and the facts in order to stay focused on the most impactful, effective solutions.‬

Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?

Malala Yousafzai. Her courage is uplifting and motivating, a reminder of what one person can do.