Tag Archives: white house

Reliability is the most important professional trait that you can cultivate.

When I accepted the position developing Ethics.gov for the White House late last summer, I wondered what sort of people I’d be working with. The conclusion that I arrived at was that the kind of folks who get hired by the White House are probably among the nation’s best at what they do, and that this raw talent would be their defining characteristic. I was wrong. I don’t want this to be misinterpreted—I worked with some hugely capable people, but it was not their expertise that was their distinguishing characteristic. The trait shared by all White House and top agency employees—I don’t mean the Senate-confirmed folks, but the workaday staffers—is reliability.

These folks do what they say they’re going to do, when they say they’re going to do it, at a level that meets or exceeds expectations. If something occurs that is going to prevent the task from being completed in that ideal manner, they say so as early as possible, explain how they’re going to remedy it, and then do so.

It was pretty routine for me to ask somebody to do something for me, and for the thing that I asked for to actually be foolish. I’d think I knew how something should be done, or what needed to be done, and ask for that. The result was that the the person would do the thing that I should have asked to be done, and as P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves handles the requests of Bertie Wooster, they would present the completed task as if it was my idea to do it correctly in the first place.

These are almost uniformly people receiving salaries significantly below the market rate, working in the shabby confines of the Old Executive Office Building (adjacent to the White House, where White House employees actually work), putting in staggering hours. Early on, I lamented to a few co-workers that I’d been working 12-hour days for the past week; the response was silence.

If one may consider working for the White House to be a high point of career success, then reliability turns out to be a wildly valuable trait. A temperamental genius might be admired, but not many folks will want to work with her. But somebody who is in perhaps the top ten percent of their field in terms of talent can rise to the top one percent by simply being reliable. So be reliable. Maybe you’ll wind up at the White House.

My new job and its effect on my blogging.

I started a job with the White House about two and a half weeks ago. (For you federal government geeks, it’s via an assignment from the GSA, which in turn is via an IPA from UVA.) The plan is to take the train up to D.C. once a week, and work in Charlottesville for the rest of the week. I have waited this long to write about it here because I’ve been hoping that I could write the work that I’m doing, because I think it’s interesting and exciting. But the specifics of my project are still confidential, and are likely to be for at least another few weeks, and I don’t think it’s fair to wait that long to say anything, since it affects what I’ll be writing about here. Suffice it to say it pertains to open government technology.

The effect of this is that I will not be blogging about partisan politics for the duration, and generally avoiding political matters. Nobody has told me to do this, or even suggested it obliquely. It’s no in way a requirement of the job. But I think it’s the right thing, for one simple reason: I don’t think I can write honestly about politics if I’m going to make my living working for the president. I could try, but I don’t think I could avoid bias, no matter how convinced I might be that I was exhibiting none. I have restricted my writing accordingly for the past two weeks, and I’m more or less happy with the balance that I have struck.

Oddly, this doesn’t conflict with my other new line of work, as a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation News Challenge Fellow, building The State Decoded. That’s because my $160,000 grant hasn’t actually arrived yet and, based on the paperwork that I got in the mail today, it looks like it won’t for another couple of months. So The State Decoded remains an evenings-and-weekends project for me (though less so with this new job—the folks at the White House work all the time, and I’m just trying to keep up) until I complete this project and return to my prior commitment with the Knight Foundation.

I’m having an adventure.

I got an award from the White House.

Yesterday I went to the White House and got a nice award from them. They have an award called “Champions of Change” that they give out to a few people every week. The White House describes it as “a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.” My group might be best summarized as open government technologists, although that’s rather too narrow for some of the interesting things that some of these folks are up to.

Vivek Kundra
Vivek Kundra addresses the audience.

There was a reception at the W Hotel on Thursday night, followed by an all-morning event at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is somehow considered part of “the White House” even though it is not, in fact, the White House, perhaps because it is next door, the two are connected by a tunnel, and many White House employees work there. Anyhow, about 75 people were at the event, and speakers included White House Director of New Media Macon Phillips, Deputy Assistant to the President Michael Strautmanis, US CIO Vivek Kundra, and Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Cass Sunstein. The whole affair was arranged and MCd by US CTO Aneesh Chopra, who was previously Virginia’s Secretary of Technology under Governor Kaine.

We went from there to a smaller room, where it was just the dozen award winners and a few folks from the administration, all crowded around a meeting table. The idea was for each of us to take a few minutes to explain our work and provide some advice as to how the White House could improve transparency or openness to facilitate their work. For every person, Aneesh Chopra created an action item based on their remarks—some new API that an agency would create, some partnership with an agency that will further a national goal, etc. Inevitably, all of us found ways in which we could work with each other, too, whether sharing resources or actually teaming up to do something new—easily done with such an interesting bunch.

It’s a major award.

I was left with the very clear impression that the administration wants to facilitate rapid innovation through public-private partnerships with individuals and businesses who want to capitalize on public data for public good. (Think of NOAA opening up weather data in the 1970s, or the Department of Defense opening up the GPS system in the 1990s. Huge industries have resulted from each of those steps, to enormous public benefit.) Government does a lot of things slowly, and sometimes the best way to overcome that is to facilitate having the private sector accomplish the same goals.

There’s nothing about this on the White House’s Champions of Change sub-site yet, but I’ll post a link when they’ve got it all up. That said, it won’t be very exciting for anybody reading this—a photo of me, video of me talking about my work, and a description of me. No news there. What will be more interesting is the information about all of the other winners—some of them are doing some really exciting work that deserves broader exposure.