John Stewart, You’re Getting Your Wish

In one of the many (justified) rants that John Stewart has treated us to on the Daily Show, he asked the question:

If we could take the same urgency, enthusiasm, and clarity of vision you need to get elected to government and apply those to governing, could we fix some things? Yes, we [expletive deleted] can!

In a news item John Stewart and most others around the country probably missed this week, Jascha Franklin-Hodge was appointed the Chief Information Officer of the City of Boston. Jascha is one of the first people I talked to about my idea for Code for America, back at FooCamp in 2009. More importantly, Jascha is one of the co-founders of Blue State Digital, the platform often given credit for getting Barack Obama elected in 2008; one of his former colleagues, Macon Phillips, started the Office of Digital Strategy in the Obama White House and brought a breath of fresh air to how the President communicated with the public. Score one more for the Stewart agenda.

I’m thrilled for Bostonians, and for the community of CIOs around the country with whom I hope Jascha will collaborate and share ideas. But the reason I’m writing about this actually this: I would like everyone reading this post who knows an entrepreneur like Jascha (wicked smart, kind, level-headed, and deeply committed to making the world a better place) to send a link to this post to that entrepreneur with the subject line, “You should do this.”

Brett Goldstein became a cop, and then the Chief Data Officer and CIO of Chicago, after a career at OpenTable, because he wanted to serve his country after 9/11. Rachel Haot founded GroundTruth, and is now Deputy Secretary of Technology for the State of New York after pioneering the role of Chief Digital Officer of New York City. Mark Schwartz now serves as CIO of US Citizenship and Immigration in the Department of Homeland Security; he was previously CEO of Auctiva. And of course, Todd Park leads digital strategy for the US government after founding Athena Health and Castlight. Many public servants have backgrounds in the public sector.

I am not one of those people who believes the private sector (or its people) can or will save the public sector (or its people). I’ve met hundreds of brilliant, dedicated public servants (CIO and others) in whose hands I would gladly put my city’s technology and citizen services, and I’ve met several (not hundreds, thank goodness) of entrepreneurs whom I would not want anywhere near a city’s infrastructure. And I’m as excited about many of my colleagues from the White House moving into startups (they will kick ass!) as I am about Jascha’s move. But the kind of move Jascha made is not common enough, and needs to be the norm.

There’s a shortage of talent in technology. I got email yesterday offering me an all expenses-paid trip to the Four Seasons in Hawaii if any engineer I referred was hired at a particular start up. (That’s a gift no public servant could probably accept, by the way.) That seemed like a great offer, until I realized that other startups are offering $10,000 cash for the same. I know a lot of engineers, and while I’m slightly tempted, there’s something even more valuable to me that I have in mind for the talented engineers I know: fixing our country.

Mikey Dickerson, of rescue fame, has been saying lately that there are at least 12 startups right now working on disrupting laundry. Not how laundry is done, just how to make it easier for those of us who still have a few annoying chores in our lives now that problems like food and transportation have been solved. With all due respect for the intellects that will be brought to bear on the laundry challenge, I’d pay $50K to have those people work on making government work for the people, by the people. Oh wait, we already do that.

But getting back to Jascha, it’s not that there aren’t amazing people in the public sector doing great things. Boston has had no shortage of amazing public servants working on technology and innovation; at the start of the CfA fellowship in 2010, we had the pleasure and privilege of working with Bill Oates, who left the CIO post some time ago to take his talents to the state of Massachusetts, and his colleagues in the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood. After that fellowship year was over, Michael Evans, who had served as a fellow with the City of Philadelphia, took his remarkable skills to Boston to join Nigel and Chris, and the results speak for themselves. And now Jascha will take the baton from this remarkable group. This is a great welcome back present to me and the civic tech community.

The problem is that the same talent shortage that makes startups go to to such lengths to recruit affects the public sector even more seriously. And while we target mostly mid-career developers and designers through the Code for America Fellowship, entrepreneurs who’ve had recent exits are in the perfect position to take leadership roles in city, state and federal government, and to take seriously the business of making government work the way we need it to. Entrepreneurs, you have your pick of what to do next. Choose wisely.

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