Jennifer Anastasoff served as the head of people for the United States Digital Service (USDS). She grew that organization from a small team of three to an office of over 200 people in just two years.
On today’s Friction Podcast, she talks with Bob Sutton about fixing government friction
I had been a Presidential Innovation Fellow in 2013, living through a government shutdown and witnessing the failure of healthcare.gov. Then hearing about the slow and steady work that revived it, over a matter of months to a functioning website that allowed people to signup for services that they needed.
Later, when I was at 18F, I collaborated with Jennifer on a few projects. We worked behind the scenes to bring stories of results to the tech folks in San Francisco and elsewhere across the country.
In those early days, before the USDS had a website, I don’t recall the formal statement of values that she talks about on the podcast. I worked closely with many of the folks at USDS and these values were evidenced in the work:
- Hire and empower great people.
- Find the truth, tell the truth.
- Optimize for results, not optics.
- Go where the work is.
- Create momentum.
Maybe they were on the wall somewhere at USDS HQ when I was there for a meeting or just to unwind with people facing the same tough challenges. I do remember the hockey table and that room with the wires in the old townhouse where Teddy Rosevelt used to live with his family. Working in spaces where great history happened couldn’t feel more surreal than trying to figure out if it was really true that A/B testing was illegal.
In the interview, Jennifer talk about how people would say that “in government, we’re not allowed to break the rules…” However, a lot of time it was how the rules were interpreted: “if it doesn’t explicitly say something is possible, than it’s not possible. And that’s just not the case.”
But you can’t just reinterpret things by yourself. We needed technical folks who could work with lawyers and policy experts, doing the challenging work of figuring out a solution that would work and was legal. I have great respect and empathy for the government workers who would routinely say “no” out of fear. It is pretty scary to realize that something you might do in the normal course of your work might actually break a law, which could literally cause you or your boss to be called in front of Congress to explain your actions.
“There’s very little room in all of this for a hero narrative,” she says in the podcast. We accomplished much by giving credit to our government colleagues who stepped up and took a leadership role in this work. We were temporary employees. We could go back to our easy tech jobs, and these folks would need to continue the work. There’s a different kind of hero narrative, which requires each of us to step up in the moment, say the thing in the meeting that no one wants to say, or ask the naive question, or simply read a thousand pages of regulation until you find that one clause that let’s you do the thing. You perform the everyday heroics that let you try something new, and that sets a pattern for you and your colleagues, and future generations of government workers, to be empowered to effectively help the people they serve.
Jennifer Anastasoff is my kind of hero.
Listen to the full interview with Jennifer Anastasoff and hear about the everyday heroics of the how people really make history.
p.s. The work continues. Consider applying as an Innovation Fellow — deadline is July 6th!