Tech and government; mission-driven organizations?

Tech companies and government are both mission-driven organizations.  

This statement didn’t create a ripple at last week’s Politico GenerationNext discussion on tech and government.  I actually think it’s very controversial.  As more people move between work in DC and work in Silicon Valley, it’s important to look really critically at what each world should learn from the other.

Tech companies are built on the idea of pushing boundaries, taking risks, moving fast and breaking things.  There is an intoxicating combination of the confidence that change is possible, and the organizational and financial backing to make it happen.  By contrast, change through government must be incremental, fiscally responsible, risk averse, and achieved in spite of red tape and short political terms.  Working in the public sector sometimes feels like attempting to change the world one footnote at a time. 

A public servant’s role is to implement the decisions of the democratically elected government.  Sometimes you will agree with the policies you have to implement, and sometimes you will not.  During my orientation to the public service, a senior manager implored us that if we ever found ourselves working on a subject matter about which we were very passionate, we should come and talk to her straight away.  She would reassign us to a different team.  So much for following your passion.  Coming from this background, it can feel incredibly liberating to work for a company where you’re encouraged to be wildly enthusiastic about your work area.

And yet, sometimes it can feel like tech companies are confusing consumer impact for social purpose.  HBO’s Goolybib’s pitch was painfully close to the truth: “… we're making the world a better place. Through constructing elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility”. Silicon Valley is often accused of solving problems that don’t exist.   Creating products that meet customers’ needs (whether those needs are real or imagined), sometimes aligns with social good, and sometimes does not. 

The potential for government to make meaningful change is huge.  But there is a common message from former government workers now working in tech companies; they feel that they can make a greater impact outside of the public sector.  How can government move more nimbly and keep these talented individuals as inspired bureaucrats within the system?  How can we ensure that tech companies’ missions include social good?  The challenge is in working out how to create a flow of information and learning between the startup world and government.  The current trend for DC and Silicon Valley to poach from each other’s personnel presents an incredible opportunity.