Matthew Burton

Government service is a civic duty

The Internet has changed what it means to be a citizen. Our voices used to be heard merely through voting and the occasional letter. Now, our voices are heard through voting, and getting others to vote. Raising money, and tracking where others get their money. Building civic technologies that let citizens more easily consume government services, and pushing government to be more transparent in its own operations. Without the Internet, “Yes we can” would not exist.

But there’s danger in that phrase. I’ve seen this phrase make people optimistic, and that’s great. But I’ve also seen it make them think the Internet makes their job easy—that democratic participation in the 21st Century = voting + clicking; that truly getting your hands dirty in civics means going to a open data hackathon; and that the Internet is our most powerful weapon in ensuring our government works for us. That’s bad.

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Why designers are more important to government than coders, or: Democracy is a design problem*

I recently said** that designers were more important to successful government than coders are. This statement got a pretty vigorous response from coders:

‘Cause picking the right shade of #0000ff is much more important than an efficient backend.

Definitely. Who cares whether something works, so long as it’s painted a nice colour? ;-)

designers are not more or less important. that is silly. they’re equally important

Design is not the act of making web sites pretty.*** It is the craft of using various tools to encourage a certain outcome or behavior, and its work is driven by countless hours of research and testing in pursuit of the perfect design. This process plays a huge role in shaping the consumer’s world. The same should be true of the citizen’s world. After all, government is just a set of products designed to protect and improve our society. Instead of entertainment or home furnishings, government produces services, rules, and incentives. A speed limit is designed to encourage safe driving; its tools are visual (signs) and psychological (the threat of a speeding ticket). A law that ties school funding to standardized test scores is designed to motivate better school performance.

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Five startup ideas you are free to use (but if you do, you should totally ask me to do it with you)

1. My to-do list model

2. A community-based checklist-making tool. Inspired by The Checklist Manifesto, this site would give you basic tools to build checklists for processes you do in daily life. Those processes could be anything from building a server to cooking a steak. Checklists would be private, but if you’re really proud of your steak cooking process, you could make it available to the rest of the community. Perhaps such lists would be openly editable like Stack Overflow, to continuously update popular lists with the very latest best practices.

3. Remake Vark. Vark was one of my all-time favorite online tools. Then Google bought it and promptly killed it. I think it was ahead of its time. Maybe the time has come to retest the market. (But I would use the web instead of IM as the medium. It’s a richer experience, a lower barrier for non-savvy users, and a less annoying means of delivering ads.)

4. I’m surprised no one has built (to my knowledge) a better, stand-alone version of Campfire. I think synchronous chat is a really underrated means of communication and collaboration. It’d be really nifty if GitHub plugged such a thing into its Enterprise product.

5. I’m surprised that distributed live support hasn’t caught on more with online merchants. Existing customers already help merchants sell their products by leaving reviews. Just about every online store lets customers leave reviews, ostensibly because the content gives potential buyers the confidence to follow through with their purchase. Why not take this a step further and enlist your avid customers as sales agents? If someone is considering buying a pair of jeans, they have lots of questions: fit, care, shade, durability. Providing answers from the mouth of a similar person is probably more effective and cheaper. You could build a network of such shoppers who want to earn commissions by helping other shoppers in real-time, and let merchants easily plug your technology into their site.

Hopefully these are more valuable here than inside my brain.

New York Times: Please make your Travel section a travel web site

The New York Times has one of the most valuable domain names in the world and owns some of the most valuable content on the web. Unfortunately, they haven’t been taking advantage of it, and their new redesign doesn’t fix any of this.

We’re talking about the Travel section. Its content is among the very best travel content in production today: every week, it publishes original, well-written stories across the entire subject: quick tips (how to find deals on rental cars) and long stories; solo adventures and family vacations; local getaways and far-away expeditions. It might be the most extensive, highest quality archive of travel reporting in the world.

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How one government agency builds great web products

This is the third in a series of posts in the aftermath of my term as Acting CIO and Deputy CIO at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The first post was my announcement, followed by lessons from my time as a CIO.

In December 2010, I joined the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as an early member of its technology team. I spent the second half of my three years at the CFPB as the Deputy CIO and Acting CIO. Our team earned lots of praise for its web products (and will continue to do so, I’m sure). Now that I’ve left, I’d like to share some lessons I learned.

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Matt’s post-management tech refresh

Next week, I will emerge from a two-year term as a technology manager. That means it’s been a long time since I’ve made anything with my hands. My tech skills have withered, and I need to get them back.

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Lessons from eight months as a CIO

This is the second in a series of posts in the aftermath of my term as Acting CIO and Deputy CIO at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The first post was my announcement from last week.

I recently emerged from an eight-month stint as an interim CIO. I knew from the outset that my position would be short-lived, which gave me the freedom to be more introspective and experimental than I otherwise would. The golden rule that I took from this experience is this: In a typical medium-to-large organization, a CIO’s job is not about technology. It’s about enabling your team to work effectively, and setting the right expectations among your peers and superiors. In greater detail:

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Moving on

This is the first in a series of posts in the aftermath of my term as Acting CIO and Deputy CIO at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The second post is a set of lessons I learned being a CIO.

Three years ago today, I joined the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In two weeks, I’ll be departing as the Deputy CIO. I have never been as committed to any job as I have been to the Bureau, and the bonds I’ve made with my coworkers will last forever. I’ll miss everything about life at 1700 G St.

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So you want to be an intelligence analyst

Students occasionally write to me and ask for advice on getting a job in the Intelligence Community. (I became an intelligence analyst at DIA after undergrad. I was there for about three years, and after that, I did a few years of consulting for various intel agencies.) The below is a gist of that advice. It is heavily biased by my own experience, and none of the below is meant to be universal.

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An idea for to-do lists

I just watched Paul Graham’s keynote from PyCon, where he asks developers to replace email, among other things.

His talk inspired me to write about a product idea that I’ve been baking for about three years. Since the night I had the idea, I’ve wanted to realize it, and I’ve been through a few false starts. But I’ve never gotten around to it for real. The worst part is, I really, REALLY need this product, because I think it would make life a lot easier for me. I decided that if I shared the idea with everyone, one of two things would happen:

  • Someone else would make it, and my productivity would balloon
  • The knowledge that someone else might scoop me would motivate me to finally make the sucker myself

So I challenge you to read the below and build this. Continue reading

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