Waldo Jaquith: Open Government Technologist
Waldo Jaquith talks about the challenges of promoting and implementing best practices for federal and state government procurement of custom software, including open source.
Waldo Jaquith, an open government technologist
- Waldo and his team created a playbook to help legislatures fund and provide oversight for software projects.
- Government RFPs used to be 300-500+ pages; Waldo’s team set a cap at 20 pages, requiring them to be minimally prescriptive.
- Simplified RFPs got released more often, made smaller companies more likely to be considered, and made the contracts get awarded more quickly.
- Vendor arrangements were changed to time and materials agreements. The government retains copyrights to software developed for it.
IVAN STEGIC: Hey everyone! You’re listening to the TEN7 Podcast, where we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business, and the humans in it. I’m your host Ivan Stegic. My guest today is Waldo Jaquith, a technologist with extensive experience in the government, nonprofit and for-profit sectors, who lives down in Charlottesville, Virginia.
I was lucky to meet, and very briefly work with Waldo, at the National Day of Civic Hacking at the White House in 2013. He is currently a fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown, but he’s also been at 18F, a federal office that collaborates with other agencies to fix technical problems, amongst other things. He was a fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation, the Director of U.S. Open Data and has worked for the White House Office of Science and Technology policy where he created ethics.gov.
Hey Waldo. It’s a pleasure to have you on.
WALDO JAQUITH: Good afternoon. Good to be on with you.
IVAN: And you’re joining me from Charlottesville, Virginia, aren’t you?
WALDO: Yes, I’m about, oh, a 20 minute drive out of Charlottesville, up in the mountains. Charlottesville’s in a valley. It doesn’t think of itself as such, but it is in a valley and I’m up in the mountains overlooking it.
IVAN: You know, Charlottesville has so many different connotations for me now than it did back when we first met at the White House.
WALDO: I suppose it does. The thing about Charlottesville, it was a good lesson for me. In Charlottesville we say August 12th, but in the rest of the country they say Charlottesville, that the geographic shorthand for a terrible event doesn’t apply in the place where that event happened. There’s always an us-versus-them schism, it turns out that comes from that, and I didn’t know until I found myself on the wrong side of that schism.
IVAN: Oh dear. How were you on the wrong side?
WALDO: Well, by being in Charlottesville.
IVAN: Oh, I see [laughing] right.
WALDO: That’s the wrong side. I would say we were very much on the right side morally, but in the terminology, ideally you don’t want it to be your town that is named the shorthand for a terrible incident.
IVAN: Yeah, that’s really interesting because we refer to the Minneapolis riots here that happened in May of this year, but we refer to it as George Floyd, and I guess I don’t know what the rest of the country refers to it as.
WALDO: I think George Floyd, but that might say more about my interest and beliefs than what the rest of the country actually calls it.
IVAN: Very interesting. So, you are at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown, and you are a full-time fellow over there. What’s your role there and tell me a little bit about the Center.
WALDO: Sure. The Beeck Center is an experiential hub at Georgetown University. And the mission is to equip these future, global leaders at Georgetown on outcomes-driven solutions and create a sort of ecosystem of ideas for social change. And so it’s divided up into a few pieces, fair finance, corporate impact, sustainable student impact and data and digital. And that’s where my work lives at, at data and digital. The stated mission of which is improving livelihoods by better government service delivery and responsible data use.
So, it’s an academic organization, but really focused on outcomes and a lot of collaboration with students. It was an easy decision for me to join the Beeck Center, because I looked at the roster of some of the folks who are fellows and have had fellowships there, and I thought I want to work with these people. So that was an easy decision.
IVAN: And you talk about it as an experiential hub. What does that mean?
WALDO: Well, I was going to say I’m not an academic but I guess I’m literally an academic.
IVAN: You’re literally an academic at Georgetown. [laughing]
WALDO: [laughing] I used to be on staff at the University of Virginia, and a lot of academia is focused quite reasonably on research and study, as opposed to impact, as opposed to doing the thing, the supposedly researching of the thing. And the Beeck Center and really strongly focused on, sure there’s research, like you gotta start somewhere, but on impact, on positive outcomes on the world, as opposed to leading it as an exercise for the reader to use research to have a positive impact. And I admire that.
IVAN: And is every fellow at the Center doing teaching of students and has interaction with students? Or is part of it like a think tank where it works outside of the interaction with students?
WALDO: I think everybody at Beeck, all the fellows, have significant interaction with students. I’m not a teacher, I have no formal teaching role, I’m not in a classroom, not that I hope many professors are in classrooms at this point in our COVID existence. But the work with students is overwhelmingly collaborative on the projects, where we actually work with them as partners in the work that we’re doing, as opposed to in something closer in traditional student/teacher relationship.
IVAN: And what is one of your current interests at Beeck right now? What are you focusing on?
WALDO: I joined Beeck with my partner in this work, Robin Carnahan, to develop the State Software Collaborative. Our work there is in getting state governments to team up to develop open source software for their and all of our collective benefit.
IVAN: Wow. That sounds like something the federal government should be doing as well.
WALDO: You nailed it, yes. [laughing] It makes no sense whatsoever that Robin and I had to leave our positions as feds working in technology for the federal government for a private university in order to do this thing that is very much, I think, the role of the federal government. But that is what was necessary to advance this work.
IVAN: What kind of pros have you experienced by working in a private institution that maybe you didn’t have working for the large machine which is in the federal government?
WALDO: Here’s the thing about working for the federal government, as I’ve been in and out and in and out. It takes forever to take anything done. Like just years and years for what would take weeks, maybe even days sometimes, in the private sector. But, when you do get things done in the federal government by God, they’re done. Like inertia is so heavily on your side that the impact, both over time and the breath of that impact, is increased enormously. That said, being able to actually work fast is pretty great. Just to be able to have phone calls with other parts of government or interviews this like. I would never be permitted to do this in my position as a fed.
I didn’t bother even applying, there is no point, because it would’ve taken months and the answer would’ve been no. So, although the impact is never nearly as big in the private sector, to be able to move faster and more nimbly really is intoxicating in comparison. That said, give it a couple years, and I’ll pine for the days of being in the federal government where I could have so much impact, so I’ll just keep going back and forth forever. It’s a revolving door.
IVAN: Bouncing between one to the other. [laughing]
WALDO: [laughing] Yeah, people condemn the revolving door between government and the private sector, but usually it’s people gradually increasing their salary by going back and forth. And for me, I haven’t managed that yet, I just decrease it. [laughing]
IVAN: So, that’s actually an interesting segue to 18F, because it feels to me like 18F was trying to bring that agile process and that agile mentality from the private sector, from software development, into the government. At least that’s what it looked like from my perspective, which is very much an outsider. Is that an attempt? Do you think that’s actually what happened?
WALDO: Oh yeah. I think 18F has been more effective than any other organization, but certainly right up there with US Digital Service, it’s partner organization, it’s part of the Office Management Budget in bringing agile to federal and also state governments which 18F also works with. And 18F is I think it’s seven years old now, or was it six? There was just a birthday a few months ago, and I think it is more effective than ever.
A great thing about working at 18F, and it’s true of government generally, but is that the organization iterated rapidly, but also over a broad enough amount of time, that when I was able to join a couple years after 18F had started, I got to be able to begin my work where 18F had collectively managed to raise best practices up to already. And to be able to begin at such an elevated level is helpful.
And then over the course of my nearly four years there, I was able to participate in even further lifting those practices, knowing that people have joined 18F in the months since I’ve left. And they’ll be able to pick up where I left off in figuring out how to use agile software development practices and user-centered design and product thinking in a way that actually works in government, that is compatible with budgeting practices and oversight practices and procurement cycles and security practices, and so on. I hope in a few years the work that I did will look crude by comparison to what 18F has managed to advance by that time.
That’s it. 18F’s impact really has been blunted by the Trump administration, who seems to be no particular fan of 18F. 18F has to be cost recoverable, and that’s been the case since 18F was created under the Obama administration. It acts like a consultancy within government, in which agencies must hire 18F and must pay 18F at the actual cost for the employee’s time and for office space and overhead of employees who aren’t billable and so on. And the effect of this is that, well it reminds me a little bit of the Post Office actually. There aren’t many parts of the federal government that are expected to be profitable, but 18F and the Post Office are two of those, and that really has a way of hamstringing the innovation that could otherwise be happening within the organization.
IVAN: So, you refer to it as cost recoverable and profitable. That’s the same thing.
WALDO: Well, cost recoverable would be you zero out perfectly your income relative your expenses, and profitable is every penny beyond that. I’m not sure if 18F has had a fully cost recoverable year. It may have by now, but it lost money hand over fist the first year and a little bit less the second year, and every year it gets closer and closer. And at this point it’s a rounding error how much that gap is.
IVAN: I actually tried to do some research on the efficacy of the program of 18F and the numbers and the dollar amounts, and the data kind of stops in the beginning of 2017. Which makes a lot of sense based on the fact that it’s a different administration. I want to take a step back. If you could just describe exactly what the US Digital Service is and what 18F is in comparison between those two things. And where does the name 18F come from?
WALDO: So, after the debacle of healthcare.gov, and that was the website that backed the Affordable Care Act, like you needed a website to go to to sign up for health insurance, that website didn’t work. On day one, it was one or two people I think, managed to get through the gauntlet that was the failing website to actually sign up for healthcare. But people are required to sign up by law, so it’s a problem that they can’t do it on the website that you’re supposed to use for that. And there were many lessons that came from that failure.
One of those lessons is that government has to employ technologists directly as employees of government, instead of outsourcing all of that knowledge to the private sector. So, from that came 18F. It is housed at the General Service Administration, it’s part of GSA, which is the agency that buys everything. Does all the fleets of cars that the government needs, GSA buys all of them. It is the second largest real estate holder in the world, behind only the Vatican, for the total value in square footage of the real estate owned by GSA, and that became a relatively natural place to put 18F.
So named, because GSA is at 1800 F Street, at 18th and F. There were many other attempts at names that couldn’t get through approval of COMS, but that was the one that made it with a trademark available and so on. About a year after 18F started, also was started the United States Digital Service. US Digital Service is very different than 18F. 18F, like a vampire, must be invited into your home. It may not cross the threshold without that permission, [laughing] and that whole process of getting that contract signed and to work with agencies takes many months, you know, contract negotiations between agencies and to figure out how the money’s going to change hands and so on.
US Digital Service on the other hand, is part of the White House. It’s part of the Office of Management and Budget. So that’s the part of the federal government that is in charge of figuring out who gets how much money. You know, after Congress allocates in broad strokes, OMB executes that and often has discretion as to exactly who gets what, for some lines of funding. So they sit there, and the US Digital Service also promoting agile and product thinking and user-centered design and so on, they get to say, “No, no, no Agency X, you blew the last time we gave you a $100 million. That was for nothing. So, to give you more money you have to agree to some conditions. We’re going to assign your CTO, for instance. An employee of the US Digital Service will be your CTO. We’re going to give them a team of developers that will also be US Digital Service employees to be housed within your agency, and we’re going to use that to make sure you get your act together.”
So, 18F is the carrot and USDS is the stick, and because USDS is part of the Office of Management and Budget they deal with much larger dollar values in the work that they do than 18F does.
IVAN: And how did you become involved with 18F? What was the genesis of that involvement?
WALDO: I had been at the White House in 2011 to October 2012 in a very unimportant position, but that I enjoyed the heck out of. In that time I got to know, as a technologist working directly in the Office of Science Technology policy, I got to know the US Chief Technology Officer at the time, Aneesh Chopra, who brought me on, and then by the time I left, Todd Park had become the Chief Technology Officer and I got to know them and their staffs who I worked with them, of course.
And so, after that came the debacle of healthcare.gov and the Affordable Care Act and the realization that something needs to be started.
And so, when 18F was getting underway as a concept, many of the people who I’d worked with just months prior were involved in creating this and they had reached out to me and said, “hey, we’re starting this thing. Are you interested?” And I had just gotten funded to do work by the Knight Foundation and then by the Shuttleworth Foundation that I really wanted to see through first. So I waited until that funding and that planned lifetime of that project, over three years, was over, and then I joined 18F.
You know, that was an easy decision, much like joining the Beeck Center, because I just looked at the people who I admired most in the government technology space and they were all at 18F. It was a really exciting time where so much was happening, so much was possible.
I was pretty sure I was going to work for a Clinton administration in September of 2016 when I started 18F. But yeah, it was just people I worked with and people I wanted to work with and really admired the work of. And I find in general if I can work at places with people who I just admire the work of, it’s going to go well, and I’m gonna be happy about it.
IVAN: And so you were there for three or four years at 18F?
WALDO: Yeah, I joined summer of 2016 and left this spring, the spring of 2020.
IVAN: What was the proudest thing that you created at 18F?
WALDO: Standing on the shoulders of giants at 18F, I was able to begin at a pretty high level by rapidly being taught what other folks there had figured out about best practices. And something we realized early on is that we could do all we wanted with clients, particularly state clients. I joined to work with State agencies which I did the most of, we could advise them on all sorts of best practices. But what they would say to us is, “Gosh we’d love to use this agile approach you’re describing, but ultimately we have to do what the budget statement says that the legislature used when funding us, and we have to adhere to their oversight process. And when we received this funding three years ago for the legislature it said we were going to do a, b and c, and the software would have features x, y and z.” So, it’s neat that our user research shows the users don’t need those features, but we have to do them because our success is evaluated on that basis with that metric.
And that’s when we realized, Oh no, we need to go deeper, we gotta go into state budgeting processes. So, Robin Carnahan and I and several other folks at 18F who I worked with closely made a deep dive, funded by a program called 10x that is run by GSA. It’s sort of an internal funding mechanism for federal government, where if people have ideas worth funding at a venture-capital like wa. You can easily access, I think it’s may be $10,000 or $20,000, I forget, to explore that idea and prove it out, and if it’s good you can get a $120,000. And if that’s still going well you can get, I think it’s like $300,000, and so on. I think there’s four or five rounds of funding available.
And so we were able to tap into some of that funding, getting sort of an internal grant and talk to state legislative officials from around the country and realize like, legislatures have no idea of how to fund tech. For them, they just throw $50 million at a problem and pray that five years later it’s going to go well, and they have no control in the interim. And so our output of that was a document which could be found at agilebudgeting.org. It’s about a 40-page long playbook about how legislatures can fund and provide oversight for these big software projects, because they only succeed 13% of the time. You spend more than $6 million on a big government software project, you have a 13% chance of success, and that’s only on the metrics of cost schedule and performance.
You could have something within budget, within schedule that met the metrics of success, but that don’t solve the actual problems that users have. That would still be chalked up as a success, it’s really quite a bit lower.
That document was a runaway success. We thought it had an audience of one to two people in each state legislature. We figured optimistically 100 readers, and I think we’re coming up on a 100,000 downloads of this document at this point, which I did not see coming. I mean, GSA wouldn’t let us promote it, we couldn’t do interviews about it. It was just a PDF in a GitHub repository, there wasn’t even a website for it.
When I left federal government, literally day one I registered agilebudgeting.org and moved the document over there. I was just blown away at the success. And then we were able to get further funding from 10x to turn that into an actual training program. We’re able to work with legislatures in three different states, in Texas and Colorado and Michigan, and teach them what’s in that guide book, and it was great. And I think that’s now self-sustaining. Legislatures are fired up enough about this, they’re teaching each other about it.
But we’re really trying to get at the root of the problem of how these failures happen, and the root seems to be federal funders or state legislatures providing funding with requirements that don’t allow agile, basically they make it impossible. So we’ve, I wouldn’t say solved, but we have, I think on a self-sustaining path, a solution underway that states are using to be able to fix that. Next up federal funders. I don’t know how [laughing] we’ll do that, but one problem at a time.
IVAN: Does the idea of issuing RFPs come into the mix of where the problem is located as well?
WALDO: Yeah. Yeah. Even if they budget correctly, then the next problem is the procurement practices, which I’ll tell you when I joined 18F just seemed, procurement seemed super boring. And if I actually thought about it, it just seemed terrifying. So, I decided that would be what I would focus on, [laughing] the thing that frightened me. And it turns out to be a really huge problem, because the procurement offices, the part of federal agencies or state agencies that are in charge of issuing contracts, they want to buy software the same way you’d buy a bridge. Where you’d say, “alright, has to be this wide and this tall and bear this must weight over this much time and use these materials,” and so on. And if you do that for custom software, you’re sunk.
Like you’ve already defined all the requirements up front, and who defined them, well they don’t have any actual tech folks working for these agencies for the most part. So they just took the last contract or the last thing that they bought, and they just reused that. They just hand these things down. It’s grim. So, I was able to work with a team at 18F of career procurement folks, and we put on workshop after workshop after workshop, these series of three-day workshops with federal agencies to prove out a better process.
And I say we like we were totally wrong upfront by the way, but what would be better like, figuring out how to do this better came out entirely from our clients saying, “Well, no that’s not a good idea, but you know what would work for us,” and doing that over and over again. And the secret, by the way, is these RFPs, they’re like 500 pages, 300 pages, they’re enormous. And they just keep getting longer, because when a project goes badly they’re like, “Well, let’s take the thing that went badly and say you can’t do that,” and put that in the RFP, and we’re about 30 years into this process and they get bigger and longer. And because of that, to get a contract it’s not about who does the best work, it’s about who has the best lawyers who can respond to RFPs.
And when you put out a multi-hundred page RFP, there are maybe, maybe 10 companies in the whole country who can respond successfully that contract and potentially get it. So, what we figured out is they need to be way shorter. We set a cap at 20 pages.
IVAN: Ooh. That’s still a lot.
WALDO: Oh, yes, yes, but it’s a huge improvement. And we say for custom software it’s super easy. You just provide any core requirements, which might be like it needs to run on Windows, or it needs to use AWS, or whatever, like, actually like hard and fast, sorry we can’t get around these requirements. You might have five or six. Then everything else, you say, “Look, we have a backlog of some user stories, here’s a couple dozen. We’ll work when work gets underway to actually figure out what these stories need to be, but this is about what we’re looking to have done.”
Then, it’s a time/materials contract. It’s not “Okay, we got a bid for $120 million and $110 million and $90 million, I guess we go in the $90 million.” Instead you’re saying, “Look, how much do you want an hour for a team? Propose how many scrum teams and what sort of skill sets you want on there, and we’ll figure out the blended rate of how much it’s going to cost us an hour.”
And by the way, vendors, you’re not going to own the copyright. This software will be owned by government. We’re paying you, the vendor, to build custom software for us. So, it’s a time and materials agreement. You’re paid for your time, and if you need to fly people to our office to do user research or whatever, we’ll reimburse that, and that’s it. You own nothing.
And for some vendors they don’t want to touch that, they don’t want anything to do with it, because they want to own the software and then license it back to the agency that paid them to build it, which is like paying a company to build a house, and then you also pay to rent the house.
IVAN: And renting it as well. Yeah.
WALDO: It would make no sense. But that’s the norm. And so, by changing those RFPs to not be super prescriptive. but just minimally prescriptive in allowing the agile process to uncover that work, is really helpful. But there’s a bunch of work from agencies that’s required for that, you can’t just hand the work over to a vendor and then walk away for three years and hope it worked. You got to be involved every day.
There has to be a government employee who’s that product owner. Who’s involved. It’s their job now, it’s at least 30 hours a week to oversee that work and make sure it’s going well. And if the vendors not performing, you don’t even have to fire him, you just stop assigning them work and they’ll go away.
Which contracting wise is a huge difference. If you have to end a contract that’s bad. It looks bad for the vendor, you’re liable to get sued. But if you could just say, “Look, this isn’t really working out. Your work isn’t up to snuff. We’re going to stop assigning you work.” Cool. They go away and you give a contract to somebody else.
WALDO: That’s it. That’s the different approach to procurement that has made such an enormous difference.
IVAN: Waldo, that makes so much sense, and I wish there were other organizations that were following that kind of process. I see RFPs show up in my inbox all the time, and I’m so often dismayed and discouraged from responding to them, because I know we’re going to do a good job. I know we would be a wonderful vendor for a particular Drupal installation and taking over maintenance or building a new site. But the document is so insurmountable that it’s just like, Ah, I just give up. I wish they would just ask me to do a small project on a small basis for a short amount of time, we could prove our worth, and we could continue from there. And if it doesn’t work out that’s fine.
WALDO: Yeah. That is vastly better. One of the reasons why these RFPs are hundreds of pages is because our procurements in general are such a pain for all parties involved, for government, but also for the private sector responding to these things, and whoever gets the contract, that everybody wants to do them as rarely as possible.
WALDO: There’s an agency I worked with for years, part of the Department of Defense, and it took years, two to three years for them to write an RFP to get it on the street, to get the proposals, evaluate them and select a winner. And because the contractors are so intermingled with actual feds in the physical facility, they had to set up a separate facility on the other side of Washington, D.C., a special building that when you’re working on a procurement you have to go there everyday.
So, whatever your commuting pattern was, you chose where you live on the basis of your commuting to this agency. Nope, gone now. Now you’re going to go in the other direction and work in this special building for years. And, in effect getting them to use this new procurement process, is, they didn’t have to do that anymore. This is all so fast and easy. It got to where they could go from, we want to award a contract, to having it awarded in 30 days. And we said, “That’s actually too fast, maybe make it like 45, you’re probably cutting some corners.”
But, it’s so much easier and one of the things that makes it easier is if you could do them more often without it being painful they don’t need to be for $100 million. One procurement officer can handle half dozen RFPs all at once. Otherwise you have a handful of people working on one RFP for years. And this turns out on its head and because of that it, becomes possible to issue an RFP for work that’ll be a couple million bucks, which is nothing for federal agencies, but for a small software development shop, $2 million bucks is huge.
I mean that could reasonably be a third quarter of income for a year in a way that’s reliable and predictable and ideally if you’re working with a good agency, like impactful and something that people can feel good about. So, to your point about the difficulty of bidding on these things, a really important thing that needs to change is for government agencies, instead of awarding a big monolithic contract to instead break it up, because it’s gonna be broken up by whoever gets it anyway. They’re going to sub all that out.
So, just do that same breaking up on the government end of things, and that way you can award to small vendors, that otherwise could never get these contracts. And the work, by the way, is so much better. Like you better believe that Lockheed Martin just doesn’t really care about yet another $50 million dollar contract, but if you give five $5million contracts to a few different small tech shops, that’s huge. They’re giving you their best and brightest, and particularly if it’s open source. They’re giving you their best and brightest. They’re going to do their best work, it’s going to make that company. And, if you give that contract to Northrup or Lockheed or Deloitte or something, you’re going to get their third-tier folks, basically the worst folks that they can give you and get away with, because they want to maximize their profit.
IVAN: Now the work that you did with the procurement teams, did you end up with a document and a website like you did for the budgeting process?
WALDO: There are a handful of blog entries on the 18F blog about that. But a lot of that made it into that agilebudgeting.org document, in which I had just thought were pre-requisite documents. And. I think a lot of the readers are people who really care about changing those procurement processes, I think they’re reading it like, yeah, budgeting, blah, blah, blah. Oh procurement that’s what I’m here for. So, I’m pretty well documented there.
IVAN: Wow. The thing that you talked about that I’d really like to hear was time and materials, and then the government owning the software and being able to do whatever it chooses with that software. Because at the end of the day, this software is being created for us, right? It’s being created for the people. The people own the software, we should be able to do whatever we want with it, and everybody should be able to use it. So, it should be open, it should be available, and anything that it creates should also be open.
I know you’re a large proponent of open data.But did you see the policies change while you were there as well in terms of open data? Or how does that relate to the procurement of software?
WALDO: So, open data generally isn’t something that has to go through procurement offices. But in both cases, it requires a shift to transparency, which agencies are not generally comfortable with. Now, I’ve got to say, in 18F, anybody we worked with had to hire us. They chose to work with 18F, they chose to want to work in the open.
So, it’s a really easy audience. I think if you just set me loose among government agencies and advocated openness I would think, Why isn’t this working? It’s always worked before. Well yeah, because I worked with the kind of people who hire 18F. That said, there are some really good arguments for open source that can lead to better policies around openness that can then benefit open data as well. One really important argument for open source is what you just made which is, if we the taxpayers are paying for something, we should own it. In fact, as a matter of law, any work of government is in the public domain.
So, my argument for open source to federal agencies is, “Because you’re legally required to, that’s why.” That seems easy.
But there’s a second argument that requires a little more time to argue for than one sentence, but I think it’s also really important that when government makes their work open source, and they make it clear upfront to the vendors who will be developing it it’s going to be open source, incentives change completely. I can tell you having worked on developing software, that I know nobody would ever look at the source code to, “Ah, I don’t really care how great it is. Like, does it work pretty well? Cool I’m happy.”
On an organizational-wide level, you’re not going to put your best and brightest on those projects. But if it’s open source, if every commit is on GitHub. Well now you care, because a lot of these smaller shops they get to show screenshots of their work. But often what they’re producing never sees the light of day in a public sense. Their clients might rely on it everyday. Maybe there’s some HTML the public can see in the browsers, but that’s it.
And so to be able to say, “Now look, you can actually see a product we’ve built, all the source, all of our work, it’s in the public.” That becomes a powerful sales tool.
But there’s another layer in which this is useful. And that is the employees you’re going to put on those projects. You want the work to look good, so you need your best developers on that. And for those developers, often for the first time in their lives, they have a public portfolio of work that they can point to and say, “These commits are mine. This work I did on this project that you can see on GitHub even while I’m building it is mine.” So, when they go to get another, or a promotion, or whatever they finally have a portfolio of their work to point to.
And so the incentives for these employees change too, where they want to be doing their very best work, because it’s finally a chance to prove how good they are. And the result of this is that the work that government gets is really excellent, because everybody’s incentives are aligned and that’s so important.
IVAN: Just thinking about how public software changes the perspective and the sales of the marketing of individuals in companies leads me to think about the upcoming election and the voting machines that we have, and the fact that they are so black boxed and so closed source. And I’m wondering out loud now what that would look like if there was a federal mandate that all software in voting machines was open source. First of all, from a legal perspective, is that even possible? Can we even do that?
WALDO: Oh Yes. Yeah we could. The argument that some activists would make is that, “Look, voting is ultimately up to the states, and the federal government has no say over that.” The thing is the federal government does have say and enforces all kinds of regulations about voting, so that’s not entirely true. But also, that’s often just solved through funding. When the Help America Vote Act passed almost 20 years ago now, HAVA provided a great deal of funding to modernize election equipment, but only if you complied with the federal standards.
So, an easy solution there is really and better than unfunded mandate is to say, “Hey, everybody has to upgrade their voting software. Good news. We have produced the software that it could run, so you have to use this software. However we’re going to provide the funding, say a one to one match or a nine to one match, whatever, somewhere in that range, to states. Work with any hardware vendor you want, but they have to meet the following standards. And, of course, they have to use our open source software. So that way, the private sector continues to get the money they’re accustomed to getting, which otherwise would cause them to protest mightily, and you wind up with national standards.
And if some state says, “Well, we’re just not gonna take any Federal funding for our election equipment, because we’re really committed to close source for some reason,” they can do that, but they’re not likely to do that. And certainly some future iteration of their Board of Elections would decide that was dumb, we passed up free money, let’s take them up on that. So, I think there’s a range from just flat out mandating it, all the way to tying it to funding requirements. I would love, love to work on that project.
IVAN: Oh my gosh.
WALDO: I’d really hoped in my time at 18F that that would be something that could happen, but obviously that’s not the world that we’re living in now, but I think that’d be huge.
IVAN: No, that is definitely not the world that we’re living in right now, And I would love to work on something like that as well. That would be just amazing to bring that kind of open source mentality and funding and just a giant push towards source code that powers our elections that anyone can look at and everyone can verify.
WALDO: Yeah. And there has been one good shift in elections which is the move to voter-verified paper trails. So, that even if the software is terrible we have an audit trail, there is paper that you can use. I remember taking part in a recanvas after an election for a tight election here in Virginia in 2005. And so for one county I went along for the canvas and watched the recount, and it was absurd. They would just turn on the machine and it would say, you know, 1001 votes for this guy and 912 for this guy. [laughing]
Well that’s not a recount in any way. But now, overwhelmingly in the majority of the country, you can take those paper ballots and inspect them. You can rerun them through the equipment, you can audit a subset on them to make sure the equipment is working properly. But that was really eye opening for me 15 years ago, thinking, This is nothing. This is a charade. So, even though it is true that these systems now are overwhelmingly black boxes made by Diebold and ES&S and so on, at least they’re auditable black boxes and that’s a step forward. I take my progress where I can find it.
IVAN: I can tell. I have this fantasy idea that maybe on November 3rd the administration will change, and there’ll be a different government in place and a different administration, and that in the beginning of next year the first thing that hits President Biden’s desk is going to be electoral reform. And one of the items there will be something to do with open source and federally-funded voting machines. That would be amazing.
WALDO: I share your fantasy. It is a fine fantasy.
IVAN: Let’s try to work towards that Waldo. It has to happen eventually at some point. One last question before we wrap it up here. We had talked about the White House Office of Science and Technology policy. This was President Obama’s brainchild. He believed that government is more accountable when it’s transparent. And he basically wanted to put in a central location all of the lobbying reports, ethics records, campaign finance filings and make it real easy for someone to find them. And you created ethics.gov. And if you go to ethics.gov right now you see a blank page with nothing on it. And maybe the redirect is just broken right now.
IVAN: Tell me about ethics.gov. What was it like working on that? How did it evolve and why is it not up? Why is it gone?
WALDO: Sure. So, on the campaign trail in 2007/2008, then Senator Obama got in the habit of promoting a conceptual website that he said he would create if elected, which would be a central website that you could go to for information on matters of public ethics. He named different types of data that would exist there over time, such as campaign finance data, or foreign agent registration act or, different things like this. It was three quarters of the way through his first term that his staff, what I’m presuming here, reviewing his promises and realizing, “Oh no, there’s some stuff he said he’d do that he hasn’t done, we haven’t done at the White House at all. Now what?” This was on that list.
So, I was brought on to, this is what is known in electoral politics as a checkbox exercise. He said he was going to do this thing and it hadn’t happened, Oh God, how are we going to get it done? What he didn’t know at the time is the reason I was the correct person to work on this is because I didn’t know all of the reasons why I was a terrible person to work on this. That is that the data that he proposed to bring together on one website was from agencies that would never agree to share their data like that. They would have nothing to do with it.
They balked at the very suggestion, wouldn’t respond to phone calls or emails when asked about it, it was a turf war thing. So, I came in all starry eyed saying, “Well, I work for the president and the president’s in charge of the government. And I’m supposed to do this, so if I tell them to turn over data they’re just going to do it.” Right?
WALDO: [laughing] No.
IVAN: [laughing] Right.
IVAN: What do you mean no? Come on.
WALDO: Definitely not.
WALDO: I knew enough about the technology, and that was easy. But had they got somebody with actual federal government experience I would have said, “Are you out of your mind?” So, the process was to try to help do a little more documentation about the different promises that President Obama had made, and then set about finding where that data lived. And luckily in every case the data did exist publicly, just in very strange or difficult to find formats. And then write the conversion scripts to take these often in like durable data formats and turn them into actual standard open data file formats. And then bring that altogether on data.gov, run by the way by the team at GSA that wound up housing 18F.
So, I got to work with some of those same people again when I went back to 18F five years later, and get the website designed and built like I just did that, I think we got that off the ground in April of 2012, so it was certainly in time for the reelection campaign. GitHub, I think it might’ve existed by then, but it wasn’t well-known so I didn’t know what to do with all of the source code for this, so that never became public, regrettably. But, what we had was an effective website.
And my favorite battle from that, by the way, was with the Department of Justice, who maintains the Foreign Agent Registration Act website. Nobody cared about the Foreign Agent Registration Act until 2016, when suddenly we had a bunch of people in government who were actually registered agents of foreign governments. But the Foreign Agent Registration Act just says that if you want to lobby on behalf of any foreign entity, you just have to register as doing so. That’s all. It has to be known publicly.
So, they didn’t provide any sort of bulk data, there was no CSV file or XML, it was just a website. So, I emailed whoever, I don’t know how I got in touch with somebody at the Department of Justice and said, “Hey, can I get this data?” And he was some tech guy who was like, “Yeah, sure, we’ll figure out how to get that to you in CSV.” And then it got kicked up to the food chain and I got an email from some attorney at the Department of Justice saying, “Absolutely not. You can’t have this.” And I wrote back with, I’m sure something like, “But the president said.” [laughing]
And the response went to somebody way over my head, like somebody who actually worked in the White House, like the physical building. Almost everybody worked for the White House or at the White House, we worked next door in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Like, there are way too many people working at the White House to actually work in the building you think of as the White House.
Anyway, somebody who actually worked in the White House got some email saying that I was, I forget the exact line, it had some legal meaning, but basically I was an emboldening terrorist, I think is the best translation, by proposing to provide bulk data of this. Whatever the phrase was they used, it’s like pulling the emergency brake. Like it’s supposed to trigger immediate reaction. So I was told that this went way up the food chain and never told exactly how high. But somebody had to make the call.
My boss was the Chief Technology Officer of the US, and his boss was President Obama, so I don’t know exactly how far up the food chain meant, way up the food chain somebody had to make the call to say the Department of Justice could go screw themselves, which is what happened. And so, instead of trying to get data from them, I said, “I could just write a scraper. I could just load every single record on the Foreign Agent Registration Act website and save it in a spreadsheet and just write a system that will do that every week.” And they’re like, “Yeah, go for it.”
WALDO: And then told the Department of Justice to go screw themselves, said we’re going to be running the system and getting the data out and there’s nothing they can do about it. So, that’s how it went. That was a real lesson for me on how government actually works.
IVAN: And the point there is that anyone can write that scraper, and so whether they had provided that bulk information to you or not, would not have caused you to be a terrorist anymore than if they had not provided it. I mean, that’s just ridiculous.
WALDO: That is correct. Oh, it’s just absolutely absurd. And so the website was up for years, and all the data kept updating. God bless the team at data.gov, I’m sure they had to do some work to make my software keep functioning. And then one day it didn’t. And then the data was still available at data.gov so you could still get it, and really it made more sense to have it on data.gov, the central place for data than some special website anyway. I checked earlier, and several of the data sets that I could think of weren’t to be found there. I believe it’s still available in general, but no longer with any centralized concept like it once was. And I’m not sure it makes sense to have a special place for that anyway.
IVAN: But at very least you could redirect ethics.gov to the right place on data.gov.
WALDO: Oh yeah. Like to have this thing on my resume, like “I went to the White House and built this thing that doesn’t actually exist anymore,” is not awesome, but it really adds some color to my point that I had a really unimportant job at the White House. That helps demonstrate the truth of that matter.
IVAN: So if this nightmarish hellscape is over very soon, what do we do from a technology perspective, with all the things that have stopped updating, and with all the things that have broken, and that have been purposely destroyed. How hopeful are you that we can pick up where the Obama administration ended four years ago and start building again. What’s the next step? How do we do that to heal ourselves?
WALDO: There are two types of people in the world. There are sandcastle builders and sandcastle kickers, and we’ve had all our sandcastles kicked down for a few years now. The only way to fix that is a lot of people building sandcastles. It’s just a bunch of hard work. I’m lucky to know and have worked with a lot of the people who have winced everytime some bit of infrastructure has been kicked over in the U.S. over the past few years, knowing that we would have to rebuild it, and that’s what will have to happen. And I hope we can rebuild better and stronger and more resiliently, fending off attacks that we didn’t know existed, that could be coming from. A call could be coming from inside the House is what’s happened here.
I do know that we have some great civil servants, some who have left government and will return, others who have stuck it out, who will do the work that it takes to fix things, because that’s what we’ve always done, and that’s what we will keep doing.
IVAN: Inspirational, and something I would like to contribute to in whichever way I can in the future as well.
WALDO: Thank you.
IVAN: Keep me in mind in the future if something comes up that you think I can help with.
Waldo, thank you so much for spending your time with me today, it’s been a true pleasure.
WALDO: You’re welcome. I enjoyed talking to you. It’s like a quiz that I know all the answers to. [laughing]
IVAN: How fun. [laughing]
Waldo Jaquith is a technologist with extensive experience in the government. He also once saved Al Gore’s life, but we didn’t get a chance to talk about that today.
WALDO: [laughing] It’s true.
IVAN: He was also named the Champion for Change by President Obama. You can find him online at waldo.jaquith.org.
You’ve been listening to the TEN7 podcast. Find us online at ten7.com/podcast. And if you have a second, do send us a message. We love hearing from you. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thanks for listening.