A few days after the election, a friend and former federal government colleague texted me these words: Would you work for Trump? I believe it was prompted by the post I wrote the day after the election about public servants continuing to go to work.
My first reaction to my friend’s question was “I’m so glad I don’t have to think about that.” I had been publicly very clear that I would not take a job in the Clinton administration (not that I had been asked, mind you, but I had worked in a volunteer capacity on both Clinton’s campaign policy team and on the Clinton transition team, and people can make assumptions when you do those things.) We have just been gearing up for Code for America’s next era, taking some of our work with local governments to scale across states and across the country, and my place is here with the team making that happen (and post-election, it is even more urgent and relevant to make government work better for vulnerable people at the state and local level.) So having been clear I would not be moving to DC for Clinton, it was easy to say of course I would not do it for the other candidate.
But as the days go by and people I care about and respect do have to grapple with this question, I realize that my stance is a cop out. And that the question deserves more thought.
The reality is that many of the people who are qualified to do the technology, design, and digital strategy jobs that need doing in government are deeply disturbed by and in many cases fearful of many of Trump’s proposed policies. In transparency, I count myself among them. (Code for America is a non-partisan non-profit, so I must be clear that I say that in my individual capacity, not as the founder and Executive Director of the organization.)
The promise of our movement, by which I mean that of Code for America and a larger community, is to make government work by and for the people in the 21st century. Trump’s statements indicate a lack of commitment to those ideals and could endanger many of our fellow Americans. If a new administration succeeds in some of the goals of our movement, in getting government to move faster and work more efficiently, will it result in a government that works better for the American people — one that makes it easy to file your taxes, take advantage of veterans’ benefits, or manage your student loans — or a government that’s more efficient at building a registry of Muslim Americans? A government that’s more effective at enforcing mechanisms that suppress voting among minorities?
These are questions that will test our values, in theory and in practice. For me personally, for Code for America as an organization, and for the larger movement for 21st century government, these values are rooted in the goal of inclusive government for all our people, non-partisanship, and a belief in the value of government. In my time working in and with government, I’ve mostly seen bureaucrats with a genuine desire to make government work better, but who’ve been hamstrung by laws and policies enacted by mostly well-meaning politicians. But I also know that there’s a political force in our country trying to make government not work. Hobble it, then ridicule, punish, and starve it for being hobbled. The problem with that strategy is that the vast majority of government, at least by spend, needs to work for the American public. Just look at the federal budget. The size of each block in the diagram below represents the amount of money allocated for that function in the 2016 budget:
Yes, this is President Obama’s federal budget. We don’t know what a Trump federal budget will look like. It’s possible that some of the boxes I value most as an American concerned with an equitable, fair, and healthy society will shrink under Trump. If that happens, we will see an increased need for tech for policy advocates and community organizers, as well as tools that help scale up non-governmental service provision. But if we do see deep cuts in the safety net, it may become all the more important to reduce the cost of administering benefits in order to preserve the remaining federal funds for the benefits themselves.
When it comes to policies that could harm our communities, whether in civil rights, the climate, immigration, or other arenas, resistance will be necessary to even maintain the status quo. If the Trump administration fulfills its worst promises, people with conscience, fighting from the inside, could be our best hope of mitigating their worst effects. But when it come to how government works, at least in areas like procurement and civil service rules and processes, let’s not fight for the status quo. The status quo didn’t serve previous progressive administrations or the American people well. Our work has shown us time and time again that the status quo in government services is too often a high cost of administration combined with frustrating and prohibitively complex experiences for users — a classic lose-lose. The fight for government services that cost less and serve users better can’t stop. As former Presidential Innovation Fellow Jason Shen says: “One thing is clear — our country cannot thrive without exceptionally capable and contribution-oriented individuals serving at all levels of government.” (And you can serve the way Jason did by applying to be a PIF this weekend.)
So personally, I can’t work in a Trump administration for a variety of personal and professional reasons, including the urgency of the work we are doing at Code for America, of which I’m incredibly proud. But I won’t dodge the question as only theoretical. There are a whole host of considerations I would first ponder. A CfA colleague made an excellent list:
The role. How much autonomy will you have, who will you be working closely with, how well-aligned are your goals for the job with the Administration’s agenda within the given policy niche you will focus on? Government isn’t a monolith, and there’s a big difference between working on Steven Bannon’s communications team and fixing benefits systems for the Veterans Administration.
Your ability to not normalize over time. Can you think of concrete examples of times you have bucked the trend to stand up for what you think is right?
Your reasons for taking the role. Do you think you can get something done? You want to help clearer heads to prevail?
To achieve the above, does it matter which of these scenarios we end up in, particularly if we end up in scenario four (authoritarian leader)?
What would you be doing with your days if you don’t take the role? Which has a better chance of doing the most good?
Whether you have a nest egg set aside to make it easy to walk away.
Every person will have different answers to each of these, and even different questions they will ask themselves. But with all these questions in mind, a chance to work in government is a chance to fight for and hopefully improve government services and government operations. It is a chance to serve the American public consistent with one’s values, up until the moment one is asked to do something counter to those values. If I were asked, theoretically, I would think of the $470B we spend every year on the safety net, and how important it is to make that money work for people who need help. I want people who share my values doing that work, so I should consider myself part of the solution. As long as I felt I could leave without hesitation if necessary, I would serve the federal government because those are our tax dollars, our institutions, our federal lands, and I’d want to help steward them now more than ever.
Public service announcement: Applications for the Presidential Innovation Fellowship are open now through Sunday, December 11th, right here.