Shaking up the status quo machine

Lane Becker was formerly the Director of 10x Investments for the General Services Administration and the Director of Products and Startups for Code for America. He’s currently launching The Public Interesting, a strategic consultancy reimagining today’s public institutions for tomorrow’s world. 
The US government is a gigantic, federated behemoth, with millions of people across hundreds of agencies responsible for a huge and diverse set of critical, complex functions, the majority of which most people never hear about though they rely on them every day — to drive their car, feed their kids, and protect their rights, just to name a few. 

When you’re that big, and that necessary, there’s not a lot of room for change. People count on you to keep on keeping on, so they can keep on driving, feeding, and feeling safe. The practical effect of this is that doing something new inside the federal government is really, really hard. In an environment wholly dedicated to the maintenance of the status quo, the disruption and instability that accompanies the implementation of a new idea, regardless of the improvement it might deliver, has a cost associated with it. 

All of which explains why, when new ideas are occasionally instituted, they almost always flow down from the top. At the agency where I spent the last four years, the General Services Administration (GSA), we would receive a dictate, memo, or edict once or twice a year, and something new would happen. It might be a revised strategic framework guiding the agency’s work, yet another re-organization of the agency or some wing of it, or even the invention of an entirely new department, complete with SNA (shiny new acronym). Whichever it was, the goal for the agency was always the same: Get back to normal as quickly as possible. 

The job of a dedicated civil servant, it follows, is one of maintaining this status quo: managing infrastructure, ensuring stability, and promoting predictability. For the most part, that’s a good thing, and for most civil servants it’s more than enough. But what to do if you see something that does need to change? It’s a truism that the people who are most likely to understand how to solve a problem are the ones who have to deal with it every day, but it’s equally the case that these folks are the least empowered in a ruthlessly hierarchical environment to do anything about it. These are also the people who are the first to feel the tension when the world changes but government stays the same.

10x the Effort

When we set out to build what would eventually become GSA’s 10x Investments program, this was the question that was top of mind for us. How might we make it possible for civil servants in the federal government to improve their work by testing out their ideas and ensuring that change was implemented? And, as middle managers with no political power, how could we overcome these forces ourselves? What would we need to do to create something new from inside the machine rather than atop it?

Our program, I’m happy to report, is now in its third full year of operation. 10x is a stage-gated investment program for the United States government. Its mission is to fund the exploration and development of new project ideas sourced from civil servants across the federal landscape that significantly improve how our government uses technology to serve the public good. The name comes from the idea that the program aims to deliver ten times the value of the initial investment  — 10x — as measured through cost savings, improved efficiencies, or scale of impact. 

10x provides resources to voices that wouldn’t find a stage otherwise by providing an alternative path to delivering something of value that doesn’t require climbing the hierarchy in order to be heard. Though I wasn’t a high-level political appointee, I came into government mid-career via a high-profile technology team founded during the Obama administration — an unusual starting point for a federal employee, and one that gave us a degree of legitimacy and autonomy relative to many of our peers. Recognizing this, we took as one of our primary goals spreading the opportunity this afforded us as far and wide as we possibly could, in the service of the larger goal of improving how our government works for the public. 

Of course, that’s a lot easier to explain on the other side of several years of the program’s existence. In the early days, no one on our team would have been able to articulate any of that, beyond our strongly held belief that civil servants needed better support to explore their ideas about how to improve their work. 

We got there, eventually, and learned some lessons along the way.

Don’t start from scratch

Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the US patent office at the tail end of the 19th century, is famously credited with saying that “everything that can be invented has been invented.” While he was arguably quite wrong — the Internet, for one; White Claw, for another — it’s not surprising that this take is attributed to someone who worked in government. Genuinely new things don’t often get built inside federal agencies. At GSA, even when we did get a new department with a fancy new name, it was repurposed (people and processes alike) from one that had previously existed.

We decided to try the same thing, on a smaller scale, for the program we wanted to launch. I started at GSA in 18F, an internal consultancy tasked with helping federal agencies build modern digital services. When I arrived, 18F’s executives had just carved a chunk of appropriated dollars out of an existing fund authorized to develop new, good-for-government products and services, then used these funds to launch the “Great Pitch,” a “Shark Tank” style idea competition.

The Great Pitch was an excellent and well-executed concept that funded several successful projects, including what would later become the US Web Design System. But the program struggled to sustain itself after the initial burst of effort. People on the winning projects found themselves in a position of needing support from the Great Pitch management team and were frustrated to learn that there wasn’t a team at all.

It was an unusual setup — a program with funding but no office to support it. We saw an opportunity. We offered to solve the problems that were stacking up in the absence of leadership, spending the next year alternating between advising existing Great Pitch winners, testing sustainable models for funding additional projects, and building out the support necessary to establish the new process we were developing as a program in its own right.

Once we’d gotten through all that, we started slapping the label “10x” everywhere, adding it to our documents and email signatures and prefixing it to our Slack channels. People started referencing it in casual conversation, then in official meetings, and a new program office was born. 

This approach had a significant benefit over starting from scratch — it gave what we were doing precedent. This made what we were trying to do less immediately frightening, which helped to mitigate either outright rejection or the more common “wait it out” response from the civil servants whose support and participation we needed.

Invent a process

You know what people inside the federal government love? A good process. Process is what keeps a status quo machine like the US government humming along. It stands to reason that if you want to ensure the same result as last time, the best way to achieve that is to do the same thing again. And how do you do that? By taking all the same steps that you took before. Write them down, and voila! Process.

If you’re looking to institutionalize something inside a process-driven organization, your best bet is to create, document, and enforce a new process that captures the bulk of the actions necessary to achieve your desired outcome. Does it matter if it has the force of law or regulation behind it? No, it does not. Don’t get me wrong — having your process enshrined in law is a great (though by no means foolproof) way to ensure that people follow it, but the truth is that for most civil servants inside the US government, a good process is much more carrot than stick. It allows them to get done what they need to do in a way that has clarity, certainty, and defensibility. 

One thing you learn when you quietly take over day-to-day management of a large chunk of appropriated funds with relatively flexible rules about how those funds can be spent is that those funds get spent pretty damn flexibly. Early on we struggled to figure out what money had already been spent, who it had been spent on, and what if any outcomes had resulted. We also needed to ensure that it wouldn’t be as difficult to track going forward. Our solution? Design a repeatable, templatized process for requesting, disbursing, and reporting on our fund that was as clear and straightforward as possible, require adherence for everybody who wanted funding, and obsessively track and document how the funds were spent.

This approach gave us the leverage we needed. We were doing the gritty, necessary job of cleaning up a small mess before it ballooned into a bigger one. We were then able to use the goodwill and support this afforded us to repurpose these funds in a way that embraced the spirit of exploration and invention that had initially motivated the creation of the “Great Pitch,” but with clearer instructions and a better paper trail.

A well-designed process assures its participants that someone, somewhere, approves. Be that someone.

Befriend the hard stops

One of the most frustrating challenges when developing something new inside the federal bureaucracy comes when you hit what our team called the “hard stops.” These are the people who have the authority to tell you that what you’re doing simply must not be done and that therefore you must stop. Immediately.

There are plenty of these inside your typical federal agency. My personal favorite inside GSA (if favorite is the right word) was our legal department. Tasked with the job of ensuring nobody breaks the law, federal lawyers are understandably as conservative as they come. Ours were no exception. When we wanted to spend our funds on a project, we had to execute an internal contract known as an IAA, or “Inter-Agency Agreement,” which laid out exactly who and what the money could be spent on. Unlike in the private sector, federal contracts specify what you can do, not what you can’t do, which makes them significantly more restrictive. Each contract required extensive legal review, and if our lawyer decided that any part of the project we were proposing was outside the bounds of our funding authority, or conflicted with any law in any way, that was it — project over, before it even began.

Here’s the thing, though. The hard stops expect you to do one thing when they tell you to stop, which is to stop. When you don’t, things get interesting. We tried a number of approaches to not-stopping over the years, but in the end, the one that worked best was just making friends. We recognized that the folks who kept saying “no” to us were doing so not out of malice but because they, like us, were dedicated to delivering on the mission of the agency. Our lawyers were literally tasked with being defenders of the status quo, and what we were doing with 10x was anything but. It was new, different, untested, and didn’t have an obvious precedent or a clear path forward.

Eventually, we realized we had to get these folks comfortable with us so they could see that although our approach was different, our goals were aligned. What we were trying to do was in service of the agency’s mission, and we needed their support to do it well. We wanted them to see that we were willing to be careful, to listen to and address their concerns, but also that we needed their partnership in getting things done.

When it came to GSA’s legal team, the difference between where we began and where the relationship is now is night and day. Between formal meetings and over informal coffees, we developed a relationship with the lawyer assigned to our team. Dealing with legal went from something we dreaded to something that got us excited. Our lawyer taught us how to structure our projects to ensure they would pass legal review and even designed some clever contract templates that significantly lessened the time it took to get a project off the ground. By the end of my term, we referred to our lawyer as the fourth member of our three-person team because of how critical his contributions had become. We even put his picture on the team page of our slide decks. 

I’m not saying it was perfect — we still lost some legal battles — but it was better. Equally importantly, we had gone from feeling like we were fighting our agency to feeling like we were contributing to it, without compromising our vision, our values, or our ability to deliver. 

Give credit where credit isn’t due

Doing new things in government is a very particular type of difficult, so some people just aren’t that into it. Generally speaking, that’s a good thing. If everybody wanted change, things would get chaotic. Sometimes, though, you encounter people who aren’t just uninterested in change but are actively hostile to it. Some of the people who had successfully climbed the career ladder in our agency had gotten that high up by playing the status quo game better than everybody else, and when they saw us tossing out new, unvetted ideas with no authority behind them, their interest might have been piqued but so were their defenses. If what we were doing didn’t work and that blew back on them, it had the potential to upset all the methodical work they’d put into staying out of everybody’s way.

Let’s call these types the “soft stops.” They might not have the power to kill what you’re doing outright, but they do have the position and the authority to make life difficult for you, and if they perceive you as a threat to their carefully managed career path, they absolutely will.

Unlike the hard stops, who usually operate from a place of responsibility, these folks are attuned to personal reward and don’t respond well to appeals to duty or mission. Of course, when you get something out the door, they’ll see that it’s working and suddenly come around. Once the danger of failure has been minimized and the congratulations have begun, they’ll want nothing more than to attach themselves to your accomplishments and take credit for them. 

Painful as it might sound, the best strategy for dealing with the soft stops is to let them take credit for your work. Share it with them, and do so as honestly as you can. The process of institutionalization is a long one, and showing that something is working is only the first step on the road to enshrining what you’ve done into the daily function of an agency. If the goal is to build something that endures, ensuring that everyone around you feels ownership and take pride in it is the smart strategy. You’ll need the support of the soft stops to make this happen, and you won’t get that if you don’t give them credit, so take a few deep breaths and then let them have it.

Take the long view

I came into government mid-career from the tech private sector. When I got to GSA, I was used to moving at startup speed, trying to get so big so fast that no one would be able to topple us over. That’s definitely not how things work inside a federal agency. Letting go of my need for speed was one of the most important things I learned during my time at 10x, because it turns out the syrupy pace with which federal agencies operate is actually a significant asset when creating something new. 

Bureaucracies are ultimately just the many people who make them up, with their quirks and foibles and values and desires. For your program to thrive, you need these people to buy into it, and there’s no way to do that except on a day-by-day, person-by-person, conversation-by-conversation basis. Success in this environment means winning people over to your side, working to connect the dots between your goals and theirs. By the time we had 10x firmly established, we’d met and won over people from across the agency — in the budget office, strategic communications, customer experience, acquisitions, Congressional affairs, and at least five other offices I hadn’t even known existed when we began. Occasionally it felt as if figuring out who we needed to talk to next was a job unto itself.

If that sounds like it takes a lot of time, that’s because it does — months, sometimes years. But look at it this way: The US government has been around, as of this writing, almost two and a half centuries. The average American corporation can barely make it to the 20-year mark. The federal government, clunky as it can be, mostly works. This is in no small part because the focus is on consistency, stability, and reliability, and because once change does happen, everyone works to return to normal again as quickly as possible. What was once new and different soon becomes part of the landscape. 

Strange as it might sound, our greatest hope for 10x is that it will successfully fade into this background. We don’t want it to be a flash-in-the-pan or yet another pilot program that fizzles out once people lose interest, but a critical piece of infrastructure supporting the mission of our agency and the work of its staff. Sure, that effort might take the team years, but for the opportunity to be part of a revolution that creates space for generations of civil servants to come it’s worth the effort.