On the other side of burnout, there’s light. Jesse Taggert and Amy Wilson share their journeys toward resiliency, what it feels like to fail at something you love, how to rest up, and how to keep going.
Jesse Taggert is Director of Design at Truss, former Director of Design at CA Child Welfare Digital Services, and Lead Product and Design Strategist at 18F.
Design researchers are the tip of the spear on government civic tech projects. We go in first. We ingest massive amounts of emotional data by talking to users and stakeholders in dysfunctional, yet vital, systems. Working shoulder to shoulder with stakeholders and career civil servants, we learn about the pain, the broken parts—and the opportunities for hope. And all of this occurs on a healthy project!
When a project fails or stalls, design researchers feel the users that will continue to suffer, because they have witnessed the pain while doing primary research. At the same time, we feel for the stakeholders and career civil servants who have invested time and hope (so much hope!) that these new methods will finally help them deliver on their missions. I am still haunted by the dedicated civil servants I have met, who don’t get the luxury of recovering from burnout. Design researchers may also feel hurt or angry from suffering through toxic team dynamics. We move on to other projects, but we never forget.
I’ve experienced burnout two times in the past five years; from failed or stalled projects, from internal politics, from work that needed such enormous change that it felt like we could hardly breathe. I think of my work on these projects and what I could and could not have done differently. Therapy, time off between jobs, good friendships, and meditation all helped me get through some tough spots, and I’m grateful I could afford to do so.
These days I lead a team of researchers and designers at Truss, a gov-partnering vendor with strengths in product strategy, human-centered design, development and infrastructure. I still work in civic tech but from slightly more distance. I aim to bring value by scoping out projects where my design team has a chance of impact. I am actively fostering a team that has psychological safety, design excellence, and strategy skills—vital skills in government work for sure.
There is no easy solution to the challenges of doing government change work. It can help to think of yourself as part of a movement that will take years to effect change. Keeping engaged with civic tech peers helps; but so does maintaining relationships with people far away from these challenges. I am motivated by a sense of interdependence—I’ve focused often on the “back office” applications that allow civil servants to perform their jobs better. Every day when I show up to work, I think of the folks I’ve met inside government who want to do better.
What keeps you showing up?
Amy Wilson is a former Presidential Innovation Fellow, and is currently balancing a sabbatical and a role as the Chief Community Change Officer for VentureScope. She specializes in building and sustaining cultures of innovation with a social good mission.
In 2015 I started the job of a lifetime as a Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF) during the Obama Administration. Three years later, by the end of my detail, I was hailed as the best candidate to lead a new GSA Center of Excellence on Transformation. But by then we were in the midst of a major shift in administrations, and uncertainty had taken hold across the government and the nation. This rocky transition and other factors—unsustainable personal sacrifices, and resistance from other innovators—ultimately led to my burnout.
When I began the fellowship, things looked very different. Huge technological shifts in government had just happened during the Obama Administration in organizations like PIF, 18F and USDS, as well as platforms such as Challenge.gov, and the mindsets started to shift as well. My work would be to define and scale the impact of these changes.
Weeks before the election in Fall 2016, I started working to translate two years of research on innovation and transformation into action at the General Services Administration. As the Administration transitioned, the future of this defining and scaling project appeared to be in jeopardy. Still I knew that, as former US CTO Todd Park, has said, “government is a relay race.” By Spring 2017, I decided to continue the next leg of the race. I convened innovators across government, and more than 150 people showed up in that first meeting to co-create our future. I committed to convening this group every two weeks.
That was the beginning of The Better Government Movement (the Movement). In the end, nearly 5,000 people joined the Movement in under two years, with more than 2,000 people from 112 agencies attending more than 100 workshops to form a shared language and community.
But at the height of this transformative work, I faced a few major personal and institutional hurdles. I made a lot of personal sacrifices to help this work thrive, between learning how to code Innovation.gov, juggling hundreds of volunteers, and getting into the weeds on every project. I knew my late nights weren’t sustainable, but seeing results pushed me to sprint harder.
At the same time, other key government innovators gave us a lot of pushback, and I was told that that they would resort to Machiavellian ways to preserve their legacy. On top of that, my biggest champions were not political appointees, and so they were not allowed to make decisions or have any power. The Administration needed at least a two-week approval window for each convening and talk, and there was no budget to expand the team.
Despite all the challenges, as the four years of my fellowship came to a close, it seemed like we were poised to take our hard work from the Movement and do it on a larger scale. With my new role leading GSA’s Center of Excellence on Transformation, I hoped the momentum would alleviate my burnout and give me a new challenge. Instead, my hopes were quickly dashed. White House leadership said I needed to align to the work they were doing without stating their vision. Two weeks later, the White House ordered the Administrator to reassign me back to the PIF program and dismantled Innovation.gov.
That week dealt a major blow to creating the better government that we’d envisioned—and to my ego. I learned that it was important to focus on self preservation and the ability to strike a delicate balance between being attached to an idea or project and being committed to it. Because after all, I needed to put the oxygen mask on myself before I can do it for everyone else and create the change that we wished to see.
I’ve been on sabbatical ever since my time as a fellow ended last December. Still I remain committed to the cause outside of government, grateful to have sprinted to my finish, ready for what the next generation of leaders will do with the baton.