Two postcards from the middle of burnout explore why we’re so prone to chronic stress—as individuals and as an industry—and why that’s so hard to change.
Dave Guarino was the founding engineer of GetCalFresh at Code for America, which has assisted 800,000 Californians through the application process for the SNAP program (food stamps) in California. Dave left as Director in February, 2019.
To be honest, it was never supposed to work.
The status quo was that people had to fill out 200 questions. And then they had to go over many of those same questions again in a telephone interview.
Our work started as a single-page web form with four questions: the only four required under federal law. It filled out a PDF (superimposing a drawn signature) and faxed it to the county.
It was a protest.
But it worked. The county said, “sure, we’d like, maybe 8 more questions, but no, we most definitely don’t need all 200.” And so we kept going.
That was five years ago.
My mental model of the work differed from some others’. I didn’t conceive of it as “making a better online application.” To me, the goal was to inject a new entity into the system, one that was wholly focused on client access and experience, and that had the leverage to push a stable equilibrium in a different direction.
One of the things I learned was how easy it is to compromise a goal. The status quo is not random chaos. Every bit of the status quo exists for a reason—it’s just not necessarily a good reason. And, sure, “good” is a function of your values, but often it wasn’t even for a logically consistent reason, or it deeply contradicted the very aim of the program itself.
No one designed it this way. It’s 100 years of small things piled up.
And I found the deeper I got—the closer to the root issues—the more abstract the problems became, in contrast to the very tangible, obvious problems I saw on the ground. I started to feel that same distance that…well, is why things are how they are.
The hardest part to me? Making tradeoffs about short- and long-term change. Both are necessary. But long-term change is both less certain, and less within any one person’s direct control.
It gets tiring working on long-term change while remaining close to the very concrete pain on the ground, pain we seem to be conceding can’t be solved in the short term. Pain that could only be solved a few years from now, maybe, if a bunch of things go right, things outside our control.
When you’re getting emails and texts from people every day saying, “I called, but the phone tree just hung up on me. What else should I have done?” And you know why that happened, but you don’t have an answer for what they could have done—that’s tiring.
It was never supposed to work. But for many of the problems we sought to solve, it did work— fantastically so, compared to what I thought possible. And I find respite in that.
But that phone tree still hangs up on people every day. And my best answer for why? It’s that—when weighed against the real costs and tradeoffs to make it otherwise—it’s how we, collectively, want it to be.
The author works on a federal innovation team.
In the civic tech space, and at my organization in particular, we talk about burnout a lot. It’s not hard to see why. Everything is harder than it should be, whether it’s getting access to systems and tools, convincing bureaucrats that you’re actually here to help, or tunneling through code, policy, or laws. When I first got into government after a cushy job at a big tech company, I saw everything as a problem to fix and was excited at the possibilities. Now, after nearly four years of trying to fix things, much of that drive feels dulled, that excitement turned too frequently to exhaustion.
I’ve been exhausted from pulling 16-hour days for weeks at a time, stumbling toward fast-casual food just before closing time for my only significant meal of the day. I’ve been exhausted from managing tense relationships with people who want the opposite of what will be good for our users. I’ve been exhausted from telling new employees that I’m sorry but your laptop won’t be ready for another two weeks, and yes you will have to submit a form for that because I couldn’t convince IT or HR or God otherwise. I’ve been exhausted from the mundane, from the complex, from the processes and the principles. And, of course, from being a Federal employee in 2019, which is an exhaustion that takes its toll every day, without fail.
Some people see burnout as a currency: we pay with our sanity to do this work, accrue burnout, and then recuperate in some way to work off our debt before getting back in. Others see it as an unreplenishable fuel source: you start with a bunch of fuel, and then get as much done as you can before exploding. I’ve heard people talk about burnout less as an attribute of the victim and more as a systemic issue—that the solution lies in fixing the system, not the user.
My journey here has taught me that there are various flavors of burnout. There’s being totally fried, where your brain is crispy and your hair stands on end. There’s burnout that feels like being stuck in molasses, unable to move though struggling to free yourself. And there’s burnout that comes with being overwhelmed, with being submerged, not-yet drowned but having resigned yourself to that fate.
I wish I could say I’ve found a consistent solution—that time with friends, or vacations, or therapy, or exercise, or eating well, or getting sunlight, or anything worked for me with any regularity. The truth is that the cure I need is different every time, and it takes energy to find that next cure—energy that is in short supply.