DC Days

Last week I was in Washington, DC for the Code for America Summit where as well as attending keynotes and sessions I was also presenting on a panel – my first in-person talk (apart from our work All-Hands in December) since the before times (2019).

I was subbing in on the panel because Sam wasn’t able to make it to DC and truth be told this added some anxiety to this comeback as Sam’s ‘Tiger Who Came to DInner’ workshop is both brilliant and properly aligned with the session pitch ‘Great stories move people to action’ whereas my schtick is closer to openness via stream of consciousness than anything as thoughtful and useful as what Sam had to offer.

Then Fatima, the brains behind the whole session, had to drop out the weekend before the conference due to a family emergency. Cue mini panic attack in a New York hotel (I eased into the conference with a trip to the LES). Thankfully Luke stepped up, roped in Lauren to join the panel, sketched out a ‘chain reaction’ format with questions for each of us that played to our strengths and for the most part met the audience expectations. 

Ahh yes the audience. The rooms were BIG and fancy. My rough count had just short of 200 people in the room for our session – and we had no walk outs (though one person did fall asleep!).

Anyway it seemed to go okay despite my nerves. It was reassuring that I can still squeeze a performance out before the adrenaline drains out. Nothing I said would be a shock to anyone who reads this blog – the power of openness, blogging, agile comms (lots of mentions of Giles), better presentations (mentions of Russell’s book) and being loyal to the network.

I do think that in a sea of earnest my self-deprecating and painfully honest presentation style was a refreshing change even if people were wondering what I was babbling about – I even got a few laughs! It was really fun, the three of us had just enough differences in our experiences (UK, Canada and US) to keep things interesting and just enough in common to keep it coherent. With zero rehearsal we landed our timings and had time for a Q and A that overran and a I had a literal pat on the back from someone I’d never met and later overheard someone say it was their favourite session. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Elsewhere while I really enjoyed the overall vibe of the event and meeting folks I found the programme a bit uneven if I am honest. I do find it odd that they didn’t pre-announce the morning keynotes either day and some of it seemed a bit more HR for America or Governing for America than Code for America but there were some highlights.

Clare Martorana, Federal Chief Information Officer was open, honest and inspiring. The thing you realise quickly at these events is that actually we have it pretty easy here compared to the US. The hoops they have to jump through to just get the opportunity to try and make things better are remarkable and as such they are a long way behind in some areas – despite the amazing efforts of so many talented people. More than one person on a stage joked about nobody running out of work anytime soon!

The multiple ovations during the session about the IRS on the day they announced their direct-filing trial was great – especially as I know Merici was/is working on it. The Healthgov.gov reunion panel was great and insightful, especially looking forward to the challenges and opportunities for digital in government (but I do find it weird how much of a ‘civic tech’ origin story it has become – like nothing happened before then. Though I guess the myth of GDS is a bit like that here as well. mySociety is 20 though!).

Hearing from Gulsanna Mamediieva from Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation was inspiring as was the work at Syracuse, NY where they’ve introduced apprenticeships to help with their hiring difficulties and to ground their employees in their communities – also having apprentices up on the stage in front of that huge audience was brilliant.

I went to a couple of sessions about recruitment (shocker I know!). Again I came away mainly thinking I’m glad I’m not having to do it there! Honestly, American bureaucracy is something special. The limitations and restrictions around job titles and descriptions, the lead times for hiring, the lack of empowerment for actual hiring teams combined with an even bigger gap between private sector tech salaries and public sector ones that we face and it is a really difficult landscape to operate in. The impressive thing though is how many people and organisations are working on it – there is a real passion for the work and a realisation that it needs fixing.

The session on ‘term limited’ roles (things like the Presidential Innovation Fellowships and others inspired by it) and efforts to convert those into longer term commitments and how they support the wider pipeline of talent into Government was fascinating. I really liked this session – we have the No10 Innovation Fellowships but that is reasonably new and I’ve long thought we should do more things like this – and love the research that Partnership for Public Service had done. Also their Glassdoor for Government website is genius.

There was a session about ‘strategic comms’ that was really about ‘content design’ and one about ‘open source’ that was really about ‘shared ownership’ and which could learn a lot from the LocalGov Drupal gang but given our ‘storytelling’ session was mainly about ‘working in the open’ I can’t complain 😀

As ever there was a lot of corridor conferencing – I spent a lot of time chatting to friends from home of course (thanks to James, Anna and Dominic in particular for the company) but also folks from Canada and Australia as well as folks from Sacramento, Oakland, Boston, DC, New York and Seattle (that I remember – some of the post session stuff is a blur!) and it is amazing how similar all our experiences, challenges, opportunities and frustrations are. 

The big difference I find in the US is how many of the contributors to the civic/gov tech / digital government environment are these ‘third players’ – neither Gov nor supplier. They are a mix of non-profit and academia and think-tank but also seem to ‘do’ things. Obviously Code for America itself is in this category but there seem like loads of them and they are intertwined in every aspect of transformation there. I’m a bit jealous as I kind of think that middle space might have been perfect for me as I am not sure I quite fit in either supplier or public service that neatly.

Anyway I really enjoyed it and I wish we had something of the scale here in the UK. Next year it is back in Oakland and while I love the city I suspect I won’t be able to pull that one off so glad I snuck into this one.

On the topic of location – the venue, the Omni Shoreham, was beautiful. Set in gorgeous grounds, with lovely conference rooms with high ceilings and great AV. It was, however, a maze and the wifi sucked.

It did allow me to stay in Adams Morgan for the first time though and I loved it. The vibe was friendly, the food fantastic and the beers flowed freely. I’ve tended to stay in slightly soulless tourist areas when in DC and this was a revelation. 

Thanks Code for America and Fatima for the interview to the panel. 

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