I’ve joined the White House’s U.S. Digital Service

The need for effective government services is rising, while confidence in our ability to deliver them is dropping. More than ever, day-to-day interactions with government are powered by digital systems, and yet far too many Federal IT projects arrive late or over budget. Others are simply abandoned. These failures are often felt by those who count on it most — working class Americans and people who turn to government in a moment of need.
The U.S. Digital Service on whitehouse.gov

When you’re presented with an opportunity to help transform how the federal government works for the American people, it’s really hard to say no.

For five years and counting, I’ve had the honor and privilege as a lead developer of WordPress to play a role in a large, incredible movement to democratize publishing. From my home in D.C., I’ve closely watched open data and open government efforts. I feel very strongly about an open, transparent, and efficient government — boosted in no small part by WordPress and open source.

I’ve long admired a number of my new teammates, especially Erie Meyer, Gray Brooks, and Haley van Dyck, for years of tenacity and hard work trying to change government from the inside out. I’ve always felt I could be more effective helping government from the outside, by continuing to work on WordPress. After all, we’ve all heard horror stories of all sorts of red tape, from hiring to procurement and everything in between. And we’ve all heard how difficult government itself makes it to launch good government digital services. While many of us may have have wanted to help, few thought they could. Fewer knew how.

But then the U.S. Digital Service was formed, from the team that helped rescue healthcare.gov. It’s dedicated to tackling some of government’s most pressing problems, ones that directly affect millions of people’s lives. The formula is simple: take what helped turn around healthcare.gov and apply it to other high priority projects across government.

In this day and age, public policy must be backed by effective technology to succeed. The American people need our help and our government has asked us to serve, as doers and makers, creative thinkers, and specialized technologists dedicated to untangling, rewiring, and redesigning our government.

In January, I joined the U.S. Digital Service.

When I was approached, I have to admit that I was nervous to step back from the day-to-day buzz of WordPress because I’ve invested so much. But the community stepped up, in most cases not even knowing about my life change. That’s the beauty of open source, and the fantastic WordPress community in particular. WordPress continues to play an important role in my life. With Matt Mullenweg’s support and encouragement, I’m taking time away from Audrey, where I’ve worked since 2010. I’m still actively involved in the project, just not full time.

The U.S. Digital Service is the real deal. I’ve been astounded by the impact we’ve already made. We’ve recruited some of the best and brightest. Don’t just take my word for it — do what you can to learn more about this movement and come help us make government better. If you haven’t seen this video yet, take a look. (A few of you have noticed me in the background.)

It’s my nature to look for the hardest problems to solve. I like to take on big challenges and spend every ounce of energy working to solve them. I believe in what we’re doing here. The stakes are high. No matter the challenge, I know what we’re doing will change millions of lives.

I thought I had made the most of my decade in D.C. I’ve witnessed a lot of history. I knew I’d have some great stories to tell my future kids and grandkids. I was there. I saw it. That was only the beginning.

An hour to make government better

I had the pleasure last week of spending not quite an hour of my time at the U.S. General Services Administration reviewing the public APIs of three federal agencies. We all sat around a table and they let me rant while I worked to understand their documentation, tested their APIs, and discussed what could improve the developer experience. They took copious notes, had great questions, and were even deploying adjustments on the fly.

In talking to GSA’s Gray Brooks, I learned dozens of federal agencies are lining up for these review sessions. It’s an exciting time to be a consumer of government data, and it makes me really happy that they’re encouraging citizens to actively shape this process. It was obvious how helpful it was for these government technologists to hear an outside perspective. If your local government is on the path of “Gov 2.0” see if you can offer even just a little bit of your time to share your expertise.

Unlike someone like Eric Mill of Sunlight (who also gave a round of feedback yesterday), I’m not a regular consumer of government APIs. But as a lead developer of WordPress, a citizen, and a taxpayer, I feel very strongly about an open, transparent, and efficient government; open government data; and an open web enriched by accessible APIs.

You can follow the GSA’s efforts at 18f.gsa.gov@18f, and GitHub. For the record, the U.S. agencies were ForeignAssistance.gov (State/USAID), FEMA, and the FDA.
Bonus: About three years ago, when Ben Balter was at the FCC, he wrote an API Terms of Service that was heavily inspired by WordPress.com’s own TOS. Ben is now a government evangelist at GitHub — where you can now find WordPress.com’s TOS. Anyway: it turns out that the TOS he wrote for the FCC is now used by more than 20 other federal agencies, and the GSA is pitching it as a common template for all agencies. That’s quite the body of derivative work.

WordPress: So Easy a Congressman Can Do It

The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform launched a new site on WordPress today. This is really cool for a few reasons. Rep. Darrell Issa tweeted about it this morning, saying WordPress is “rare” for government and said it was “to support fast improvements in response to your feedback.”

https://twitter.com/#!/DarrellIssa/status/180331770506518528

Government moves at a pace best described as glacially, so for them to recognize that WordPress can help them react quicker, that’s just huge. I’ve learned in D.C. that ease of use and speed of development are very rare things for .gov sites, even those built on open source. Not to mention cost-effectiveness in an age where federal government IT procurement is being upended. Look, they even created cheesy WordPress-in-government infomercial:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38PlJ9kMPKY

The video takes a shot at bad government websites, and while the new site isn’t the prettiest thing in the world, I like the point they’re getting across: Government can excel on the web using the same free publishing software as many of their constituents. It won’t be rare for long.

Related: Ben Balter’s post on WordPress and government from last week is making waves.

Bonus: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently gave their WordPress site a new coat of paint.