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.

Our most powerful weapon in building a strong, people-powered government is the same as it’s always been: participation in government service by a broad segment of the citizenry. In fact, I believe we should treat government service as a civic duty. The Internet should be an accessory, a honing steel for our blade, not the blade itself.

Online citizen action has focused mostly on our democracy’s political process: it helps us vote, promote our causes and keep an eye on our elected officials. It can get us results in Washington in the form of better laws and better leaders. This is good. But we have a tendency to celebrate these victories a bit too early, as if they constitute actual progress, and that the remaining work will “just happen.”

Bumper sticker celebrating the passage of the Affordable Care Act. "Yes We Did!"

Oops

Laws, policies, and decisions do not guaranty results. Every American should have learned that in the past year. Legislation that budgets medical care for our veterans doesn’t count if VA hospitals are not well run. A law that attempts to transform the health insurance industry does nothing if it can’t be delivered. A national security law that threatens our rights might be scary. Something even scarier is when a powerful agency stretches that law further.

If your city just passed an open data law, that’s good news. But you haven’t opened any data yet. Executing this law requires systems and staff to provide the data: database engineers, API developers, web developers, web designers, systems engineers and administrators, security engineers, data scrubbers, privacy specialists, and project managers. And their work will continue not just for months, but for every day the law is on the books. What could be more democratic than helping provide the very service you are so eager to consume?

At the federal level, there are 2.6 million such Americans who do this, 85% of whom live outside the DC area. These are your neighbors, not faceless people in a monolithic tower in DC. They are the people at the ground level who keep our water clean, our borders safe, and our servers up. These jobs aren’t glamorous. Their titles don’t convey power: everyone seems to be an analyst or an advisor. All technologists are lumped together as “IT Specialists.” I know it can be hard for a private citizen to see how this work leads to any tangible change. Citizens see it over the course of several years, not over the course of a weekend. But the change is real. If we want a government that works, an excellent civil service ought to be at the top of our priority list.

I know that the actions we take online, and the real-world actions we take through the help of the Internet, often feel more impactful than the work done on the inside. Many people wonder, “What is the government doing all day, anyway?” When it comes to building an Intelligence Community that keeps us safe while respecting our privacy, we can do many things from home that feel more impactful: we can press for more transparency, boycott companies that are complicit with the NSA’s operations, encrypt our personal communications, and so on. Those things are important.

But the far more important work will be done by those on the inside. The Intelligence Community employs software developers, systems administrators, information security managers, privacy officers, FOIA officers, intelligence analysts, translators, inspectors general, and policymakers. Our entire cause for a better balance between security and privacy can be boiled down to the work these people do: Who do you want doing this work? The Internet empowers the public, but these people—those who do the work of our government—will always have more power. The arithmetic is simple: Government + great people = Great government.

Why, then, does our community of civic-conscious technologists so seldom celebrate government service or encourage civil service among our peers? I once worked in the intelligence community. Far from being commended, some members of this community saw my work as a betrayal: I was one of Them. My conservative friends feel the same about my recent work for a financial regulator. We often talk about “The Government” as an alien being, a system with a mind of its own that is out to get us, rather than something that is truly under our control. A member of our community—someone who might be here today—recently said to me, “Our government clearly isn’t going to innovate, so we’re going to have to do it ourselves.”—as if the two options were any different. In a democracy, our government is the very mechanism for doing it ourselves. “By the people” ought to mean that we treat our government as a product of the public, not an adversary of it.

Perhaps we think that no matter the quality and values of the people who serve our government—people who are just like us—that government is innately against Us, the People.

There is some truth to that. Our government does have great people. And very often, arcane rules and culture keep those people from doing great work. This should not come as a surprise to you, whether you have government experience or not. Everyone wants government to work better than it does. Yet when was the last time government performance was on the national political agenda? When we talk about government performance, we do it superficially: We say, “Damn that government. Can’t do anything right. Too much bureaucracy.” Of course it’s due to bureaucracy! But if you want to actually do something about it, you have to understand the problems at a deeper level. Problems like government hiring, performance management, and IT auditing are boring problems that no one wants to hear about. But these are the nuts and bolts of government. They may sound like easy problems, but they aren’t. We need to start paying attention to problems like these if we want the government as a whole to work better. The public never gets exposed to these problems, because most poeple are only on the receiving end of government: they never see how the sausage is made. If they did—if they had a role in delivering government services as well as paying for them and receiving them—we’d be talking about the nuts and bolts a lot more.

This sounds like a huge burden. Am I really proposing that everyday people understand the ins and outs of their government? If we want to have a day-to-day role in guiding it, then yes, absolutely. If we want to determine which laws we pass and which wars we fight, then we need to understand the government that will have to execute those decisions.

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Along with the ability to make ourselves heard, the Internet has brought us lots of tools that “just work.” They integrate seamlessly into our daily lives, running in the background to make transportation, food, housing, shopping, childcare, and many other essentials seem effortless in comparison to 20 years ago. There’s a temptation to expect government to work the same way, and that it should act silently in the background, letting citizens go about their daily lives in peace while it makes tiny adjustments like a Netflix playlist.

But these tools deceive us: their ease of use belies the effort that went into creating them. Making our government “just work” will take an enormous amount of hard, human work, and that work should come from all of us. Our government doesn’t work like Apple or Amazon, and we shouldn’t want it to. Private companies have transactional relationships with their customers: one side pays for something, the other provides it. But democracy is a co-op: our customers, owners, and managers are one and the same, and if we want something from our government, we have to do the work of providing it. Have you worked your shift yet?

Categories: Essays

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this article which has landed on my radar with uncanny timing. One challenge is the average Joe may agree with you but is unsure exactly “how” or “what” to do, particularly if he feels powerless. A few concrete, realistic action steps for people who feel overwhelmed, disconnected and confused about how one person could meaningfully engage would be terrific! Thank you again.

  2. Excellent article Matt, I really wish you would blog more consistently. Your voice is important.

  3. Mr. Burton,

    There are no ‘citizens’ or ‘governments’. Government is just a group of men and women forcing people to pay them. Any other concept of ‘government’ is based on logical fallacies, and just brute force. There is no Social Contract or any other agreement between ‘governments’ and so-called citizens. It is completely arbitrary. If it were valid, then the arrangement would not be created via threat, duress, and coercion as no real contract is.

    Michael J. Scharen

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