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3 Big Lessons From The Top Techies Rebooting The Government

Todd Park and DJ Patil are transforming the world’s biggest bureaucracy into a lean startup. Here’s a peek inside their playbook.

DJ Patil, the U.S. chief data scientist, likes to describe himself as an instigator.

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“We usually think of instigators as people who causes trouble,” Patil says. And in some ways, this is exactly what the band of tech outsiders rebooting the government is doing. They’ve boldly entered the world’s largest bureaucracy with the goal of shaking things up, making services run more efficiently for the American people and introducing fresh new ways of doing things. In many ways, their work threatens the status quo. But Patil believes that instigators have a valuable role to play. “I see instigators as people who bring a technical voice and a different perspective to a set of problems,” he explains. “We want to be accelerants, catalysts, and people who lift up great ideas.”

Todd Park, a current White House tech adviser, is also a fan of jumping on great ideas. During his tenure as the White House chief technology officer between 2012 and 2014, he introduced many of his favorite Silicon Valley paradigms into the government’s newly minted tech corp. He wanted his team to operate like a lean startup. He encouraged platforms to be open source, so that others could adapt them or improve them. He organized hackathons to harness people’s competitive instinct.

Introducing new ideas into the nation’s oldest institution comes with many challenges, but Park and Patil somehow manage to make it sound easy. They’ve given us a glimpse into their strategies for introducing new ideas into an organization that tends to be resistant to change.

Driven by Passion, Not Stock

“Talent is critical,” Park says. This is a lesson that he learned early on in his career, in his experiences cofounding highly successful biotech startups. Hiring the best people is an established principle in the technology world, but unlike the government, companies often have more assets at their disposal in their recruiting efforts. Besides fat paychecks, tech firms can lure prospective employees with stock options and even season tickets to sporting events.

When he became CTO, Park’s job was to build the government’s tech corp. His goal was to hire 500 talented, highly skilled workers to fill a range of roles– from engineering, to UX and UI, to design–by the end of Obama’s tenure. But he couldn’t offer the same compensation packages he was used to handing out to his employees in the private sector. (Prior to his work in the government, Park founded two health-tech companies.) In fact, he would be asking people to take a pay cut.

But Park didn’t think this was an issue. In fact, as he was hiring people for his first business, Athenahealth, he found that the most impressive people weren’t particularly interested in the money anyways. “What I found was that the best people that I worked with were fundamentally mission-driven,” he says. “They were people who fundamentally couldn’t stand the idea of the world not having what we were building. That gave them a level of endurance, focus, and intensity that they would never have had if they were just focused on the stock options.”

Today, as a tech adviser to the White House based in Silicon Valley, Park’s role still involves finding and recruiting the most talented people he can find to send to Washington. He’s now refined his pitch, and focuses on defining the impact that someone will have by joining the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, the government’s internal consulting agency. “We’ve got an amazing mission to sell,” Park says. “To help deliver better care and benefits, to help people coming to America with the American dream, to help students access information about financial aid, to help seniors receive their social security–this is all about changing people’s lives.”

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Every day, Park finds that highly competent, passionate people are willing to leave high-paying jobs and plush offices with fully stocked kitchens to do work that will have an impact. He’s already filled 250 new tech roles in government, with 70 more who have committed to join and are at various stages of onboarding. “We’re empirical proof that amazing people will sign up for a cause because they believe in the mission,” he says.

Don’t Be Afraid To Unleash Data

In a world where data breaches and hacks are a way of life, the idea of organizations storing massive amounts of data fills many people with trepidation: What would happen if our data were to suddenly be made public?

These are some of the concerns that emerged when Patil and Park expressed interest in making the government a data-driven institution. As people who have spent their careers observing the power of data in action, they couldn’t imagine building a Digital Service that didn’t have data at its very core. Part of convincing their less tech-savvy colleagues that it was worth investing heavily in data involved speaking about data in terms that made sense to the layperson. “When people think about what it means to be responsible with data, most people’s minds immediately go to security,” Patil says. “But the place where I think we need to think about what responsibility means as it relates to tracking a child’s data during their education? Or what it means for your health records?”

People begin to see data differently when they are able to manage their own records more efficiently. While Patil firmly believes that data has the power to benefit all Americans, he says it is particularly helpful to those who are marginalized or vulnerable. Foster children, for instance, who are moved from home to home, often lose their medical records or their education records. People who are facing chronic illness who go from hospital to hospital often struggle to transfer their paperwork and must start from scratch repeatedly. This sometimes leads to people getting unnecessary tests, such as X-Rays, which might be harmful. “We need to unlock this data so that you are able to move it from one system to another in a safe, secure, and confidential manner,” he says.

But Park also points out that not all data is the same. Different kinds of data require different levels of security–and there is a lot of data that should be widely available. For instance, it was hugely beneficial to the public when GPS data and weather data was shared. Park has been working hard on an open-data initiative to make certain kinds of available to anybody who wants to use it. “The data that is being made openly available is data that does not implicate privacy in any way,” Park says.

For instance, in September, the U.S. Digital Service launched a website called College Scorecard that publishes data about American colleges and universities with the goal of helping students make smart, cost-effective decisions when it comes to higher education. The team made all the underlying data downloadable, and other organizations have already begun to use it for their own purposes, whether that be college counseling or creating a mobile app for students.

Patil and his team are working hard to make sure that security, privacy, and ethics are always on the agenda and are regularly discussed. There are also robust plans in place for data recovery should systems fail. But with healthy measures in place, he believes that unleashing data can be very powerful and impact the American public in radical ways. For instance, he’s recently launched the Police Data Initiative that brings together police chiefs and data scientists to think about how data can help with some of the most pressing problems of how the police system interacts with the public.

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Change Can Be Easier Than You Think

Patil and Park speak about the momentous changes they are introducing as if they weren’t such a big deal. And perhaps that is part of what has made them so successful at bringing entrepreneurial tech culture into the government. Rather than being overwhelmed and intimidated by big challenges, they look for straightforward solutions and enthusiastically convince those around them to give their plan a try.

Park has found simple ways to tackle what could be major problems. He’s hired hundreds of talented techies to join the government, but there was always the possibility that these people wouldn’t settle into the culture of the White House. So he developed a program that pairs people who have spent their careers in the private sector with Washington insiders who are intricately versed in policy and bureaucracy. “It’s this team-up of folks from the outside with folks from the inside, with their complementary expertise, that the magic happens,” Park says. “What binds the molecule of awesomeness together is their mutual desire to build a better future for the country.”

While companies are driven by meeting the needs of their customers, the government has often been accused of not putting citizen’s needs first. Park’s solution to this was to bring the culture of customer-centricity commonly found in the private sector into government agencies. “What characterizes our work is a maniacal focus on the user,” he says. When tech teams create citizen-facing products, such as the immigration services website, they invest heavily in interviewing users to see what information would be helpful to them and what interface would be most intuitive. This is standard practice at tech startups, but hadn’t been part of the government’s approach when it came to web development. And to simply things even further, he’s had a team of designers develop a standardized design for all government websites so that teams don’t need to start from scratch whenever they have a new project.

One key part of creating this change has been to get others to see what technology can do. For both Patil and Park, demonstrating the effects of their work has been more effective than simply persuading people by arguing their case. In the private sector, this principle holds true as well: Venture capitalists tend to be more convinced by evidence that a product works than by impressive rhetoric. “It’s all about the prototype,” Park says. “The fundamental principle of an agile approach is to focus on a minimum viable product. It’s a way for you to demonstrate what you’re trying to do, but it is also a way for you to learn a ton.”

The tech upstarts in government have treated their outsider status not as a disadvantage, but as their biggest asset. They are not jaded or cynical by the entrenched bureaucracy of government. Instead, they believe that anything is possible.

Hear more from Patil and Park today as part of our Fast Company Innovation Festival.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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