“No man is great who thinks he is.” -Will Rogers
If the last two years in the American experiment have taught us anything, it’s that the character of those to which we give the privilege of high office matters just as much — or perhaps even more — than the structure and function of the government itself. In fact, it’s been a concrete display of what happens when people who believe government doesn’t or shouldn’t work are chosen to lead it.
Since my own political awakening during the election cycles of 2004 and 2006, I’ve been a firm believer in the idea that government, necessary to the functioning of an well-ordered society, is composed of people: your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers, and your representatives from where you live. And that those who represent you and your community well should be rewarded for their service with more opportunity to govern and given expanded scopes of responsibility. Simply put, they must earn and keep your trust as a requirement for the job — and certainly if they are to be given more “power”.
My own time in the federal government started from quiet beginnings in 2007 volunteering to register voters for an audacious candidate from Illinois who was building a coalition of neighbors and friends interested in returning HOPE to the country after a bleak and cynical eight years of drawn out wars, economic fallout, and wedge-issue social politics. The country was ready for something new, something more to believe in.
We were inspired by a candidate who brought out the best in us. He was a man who drew out the “better angels of our nature,” as President Lincoln so eloquently put it. A person who encouraged people to serve the public — who wanted to make government service “cool again”. And that notion, personified by President Barack Obama, permeated his administration — from most of his Chiefs of Staff down to the very last intern class at the White House in 2016.
Throughout our campaign we followed a core campaign motto, the cornerstone organizing principles upon which our coalition was built:
RESPECT. EMPOWER. INCLUDE.
If there was a difficult decision to make, or even during the normal cadence of our daily work, we reflected on and tried to bring ourselves to always honor those three ideals. Then, after a hard-fought and successful election, we carried those values forward into how we governed.
Humility can be hard to find in Washington, DC. It’s a town filled with Type A self-promoters with largely unvarnished ambition. But now, given the benefit of time and separation from our eight years of governance, I only feel more validated that most of our Team #44 was special. For a brief period of time, we set most of that ladder-climbing aside and moved forward as one contiguous administration for as long as we could hold that tendency toward ambition at bay.
I often felt extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time, but I also experienced healthy bouts of Impostor Syndrome at the same time. I would second guess myself continually. Maybe it was my deferential southern upbringing, but it was a habit I had to work to curb. Why was I given the chance to do these things? What did I know better than others?
But there were other times I couldn’t imagine anyone else being better suited to the task. For example, I was only offered the opportunity to join the senator’s general election campaign in 2008 through a happy accident because the first choice for Technology Director for Pennsylvania dropped out at the last minute! But, as I replay it now over ten years later, I can’t imagine my campaign family from those days without the benefit of my decade of experience in enterprise IT and my willingness to join my first presidential campaign at 28 years old. I threw myself into my work and led a small but mighty group of part-timers and interns that kept our systems healthy so the #PAforLife field team could carry the state by 11% and put 21 electoral votes in our column on election night 2008.
While working at the Small Business Administration as my first assignment in 2009, I ran into a former colleague getting coffee and as we were parting ways he said, “Get out of here and go run things!” which settled oddly over me. I assumed — incorrectly and somewhat naively — that any other person from a similar background as the grandson of WWII veterans, the son of a Great Society democrat, born into Native American roots at a similar time in our country’s history, raised to revere our veterans and elders, and taught to appreciate government service, would approach these mid-level government positions in the same way: with respect, humility, and desire to do the right thing for his fellow citizens above all else. In those days, we obsessed over the weekly jobs report, kept up our social media hygiene, and put our shoulders into the Recovery Act to modernize SBA’s systems and get our country’s small businesses back to work powering our economic recovery. Everything was focused on raising the tide of economics across the entirety of America.
“I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.” -Psalm 84:10
My next job was four phenomenal years in the White House working in what was probably the coolest gig I’ll ever have: Deputy Director for New Media. But working in such a high-performing environment with such high-performing colleagues sometimes created pressures all its own.
During tough days and long hours, I would remind myself of a passage that nicely sums up my own attitude toward positions of authority, Psalm 84:10: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.” For me, this translated a bit differently when applied to my own role in public service: “I’d rather be a good steward of our digital platforms than work in a government that treat its citizens poorly.” Or another way of putting it: to be faithful to the trust and responsibility we were given, no matter how big or how small.
Here are some of the types of questions we considered that highlighted or strained this approach:
- How do we use technology to include and empower the voices of those who don’t usually get to interact with their President?
- How do we consolidate data centers to save both taxpayer money and lessen our impact on the climate — no matter how much work it may be?
- How do we streamline bringing more people from marginalized communities to the table and have a meaningful conversation with both sides?
- How do we partner with outside groups to magnify our effectiveness while using government as the catalyst?
- How do we use the power of the Executive to make changes to regulation and interpretation of law to give more freedom, security, and equality to those who may feel left behind?
- How do we roll out modern recruiting tools to attract top private-sector technology talent for two-year tours in government?
- How do we streamline our systems, even complicated ones like getting visitors into the White House campus, so that more people can engage with us faster?
- How do we use government programs to support, uphold, and sustain the least of these across our nation?
- How do we use our voice as Americans to inspire and nourish citizens from other countries seeking to learn more about us, visit, or study in the U.S.?
We recognized that, as staff for a president, we had a fleeting, probably once-in-a-lifetime chance to use our positions for tremendous systemic and symbolic good if we only put in the elbow grease and thoughtful approach to make it happen. Alongside my peers, I was determined not to let the folks depending on us down.
Later in the administration, when the doldrums of governing sometimes caused folks to lose focus or a sense of urgency, our motto got a service-pack update: the North Star. Chief of Staff Denis McDonough embarked upon a mini re-branding campaign inside the White House, complete with stickers bearing a quote from the boss himself to keep us moving and leave it all on the field:
“Every day we use all the tools we have to fight cynicism, to unlock the possible, and make life better for the American people and people around the world.”
Every political appointee went through an on-boarding briefing at the White House and the most memorable moment from the one I attended was McDonough threatening us that if we stepped out of line with regard to the press or ethics that there was no forgiveness — he had a zero tolerance policy for abusing the privilege of being allowed to govern. It instilled a healthy fear in all of us that we only get one chance to do these things right. If that trust was lost, then we all became ineffective. Stepping out of line not only let your team down, but it also let your country down and squandered the opportunity we had all worked so hard to secure in the first place. That was not the way we operated.
Those tenants of the North Star permeated everything. As much as we loved the President and sometimes-candidate, we respected the Hatch Act and strove to keep a bright line between official government functions and political activities. We respected ethics reports and financial disclosures; I painstakingly documented my meager technology stock portfolio and deferred any investments in companies I knew were likely winners in the industry so that I could avoid even an appearance of impropriety during my time in government.
We respected use of travel and security money appropriately, flying economy and carpooling in rental cars for Advance Team trips. We respected the interagency process and briefing our partners from both parties on Capitol Hill and our international allies before major announcements. To make real, effective, long lasting change, like the Paris Climate Agreement or the Iran Deal, most efforts had to involve a coalition of partners and not the United States or the White House going it alone.
We strove to streamline the connective tissue across those communications both internally and externally. And it had effects big and small on everything from ensuring the President, Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and Ambassador to the United Nations were all coordinated on messaging, to ensuring Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and SBA had robust processes in place to ensure that state and local partners of all sizes were coordinating when responding to and rebuilding after a terrible crisis such as Hurricane Sandy.
Some examples of projects much closer to home in my own areas of technology seem very quaint these days: We encouraged and promoted transparency in the form of We The People, allowing people to exercise their First Amendment rights to petition the government for a redress of grievances in a new way online. We used industry leading technology to streamline the Contact Us and Agency Liaison functions of the Office of Presidential Correspondence to reduce the wait time for citizens with casework across various agencies.
We strove to faithfully preserve the digital records we were entrusted with and ensure those archives would be made available for future generations. We crafted some of the most advanced digital outreach efforts ever attempted by a White House. We supplemented traditional media and communications strategies for projects such as the Iran Deal to inform the public of what the deal actually did or did not do. We supplied supplementary live streams of State of the Union addresses that provided side-by-side infographics with data visualization for any policy announcements in the speech. We tried to cut through the noise of spin on cable news on both sides of the aisle and communicate directly with citizens using hard-data as much as possible.
We invited marginalized communities to the White House for briefings and dialog days such as for the White House LGBT in Technology Summit in 2015 that brought minority and underrepresented folks in tech to work side by side with our technology policy staff and public engagement teams. We hosted the amazing day that was South by South Lawn (SXSL) to bring together artists, musicians, and creators at the heart of their government. Seeing the excitement and engagement on the faces of those who would otherwise never have the chance to engage with senior policy people made it all worthwhile to break with the norm of wealthy donors and lobbyists being the ones who usually ended up at the table and who were usually given outsized weight to their opinions.
And finally, in my time at the State Department near the end of the administration, we worked to empower staff with industry-leading digital tools (yes, even secure cloud based email!) that informed and empowered the voices of foreign citizens who were interested in learning more about and working with Americans. And we did our best to equip our embassy staff with tools to do more with less no matter where they were in the world and what the state of technology was — to quickly and effectively get the job done communicating American foreign policy.
To exercise whatever authority of our various offices to faithfully represent our friends and families and neighbors and do a good job that, at the end of the day and the end of the administration, we — and they — could be proud of.
That type of approach to service, the “do what’s right even if it’s hard” approach that the #44 family brought to governance must prevail. But it will only happen if we as citizens reward public servants, both elected and appointed, for being good stewards of our government.
- Government is participatory
- Government is made up of people
- Government is your friends
- Government is your neighbors
- Government is your fellow citizens
- Government is our soldiers
- Government is our civil-service
- Government is our foreign service
- Government is our veterans
- Government is people you trust to make the right decision on your behalf
Or at least that’s what it should be.
- Government is not a bureaucratic black-box
- Government is not faceless, obscured, or hidden away
- Government is not moguls seeking profit over people
- Government is not lobbyists representing special interests
- Government is not political action committees spending overwhelming amounts of money to elect politicians beholden to them
- Government is not elected officials using the levers of power to exploit their position for personal gain or publicity
- Government is not cutting deals with foreign officials for personal favor or business leverage
- Government is not to be left untended
Government serves you — but only if you exercise your will over it as a citizen.
The character of our elected officials and the teams they bring to the work of governing this great nation of ours matters. And that character must be reinforced and rewarded when it does well — and punished, when necessary, if it does badly.
Good government starts at the ballot box and continues through open dialogue. It requires an active citizenry that expresses its will to elected officials and selects those officials wisely based on their policy positions and stewardship of authority. Servant leaders can do tremendous good for the country if supported and given the chance to govern. But those who would use positions of power for their own self gain or merely for the sake of clinging on to power must not be returned to the privilege of governance.
Ultimately, I believe our argument for supporting honest, transparent, and inclusive government that makes a positive impact in people’s lives will carry the day. But it is up to us, to we the people, to secure it and demand it of our elected officials. Otherwise, we will continue to get even more of what we’ve seen on gross display since January 20, 2017.
“Good leaders must first become good servants.” -Robert K. Greenleaf
This piece is part of a periodic Throwback Thursday series where I reflect upon specific moments or themes during my own time with the Obama Administration and carry those lessons forward to the conversation in American civic life and government today. I welcome your thoughts and feedback on how we as citizens approach making government function better for all.