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An Interview with Matt Cutts: Can the Government grow a Money Mustache?

One day last week, the icy grip of a winter storm broke and the skies of Colorado returned to their normal state of deep blue with bright sunshine. So I decided to head out for a hike on the warm red rock trails just outside of Boulder.

Taking a break on a big rock at the summit of the mountain, I pulled out a snack and a tiny glass-encased computer from my backpack. I unlocked it with my fingerprint and casually learned a few things, shared a few ideas, and conducted a few thousand dollars of business before the bag of carrots was done, then snapped a twelve-megapixel image or two before pressing the lock button and tossing the phone back into my pocket.

I took a brief moment to marvel at the efficiency of this whole situation, and how much wealth it brings to people like you and me who are privileged and clever enough to get set it up in our lives.

Efficiency reduces waste and multiplies your productivity, and even a small helping of it is enough to tilt you into a lifetime of financial surplus. Yet it is so rare that most people in the richest countries spend most of their lives in debt.

This contrast was illustrated dramatically as I descended from that Millionaire’s Rock and returned to reality. I needed to renew my driver’s license, so I stopped at the Department of Motor Vehicles only to find a two-hour lineup of people, waiting to speak to an understaffed roster of tired employees, manually entering information that was already duplicated on countless other government servers, into their own antique computers. And this was obviously not a new problem: I could see signs that a construction project was underway – the waiting room was being doubled in size to allow more people to sit and wait.

THIS”, I thought, “is why so many people hate the government. Here we are spending taxpayer money on more drywall and willingly wasting my time, instead of figuring out the root of the problem, which is that I should have been able to renew my driver’s license with a smartphone app, at least any time after the year 2010.”

And I have similar stories about paying my city utility bills, applying for building permits, handling payroll taxes, and legally immigrating to this country in the first place. We need these public services, but we’d all be much wealthier if they worked more efficiently.

Why does this happen? Why is almost everything from Silicon Valley shiny and efficient, and almost everything from Washington DC (or the local government office) crusty and outdated?

In a word: Humans. When we work in big groups, we grow less efficient. When our groups have been around too long, we get even worse. When the management structure is too messed up, nobody is willing to take risks.
And most importantly of all, the most effective workers know all of this, so they avoid seeking jobs where they’ll be stuck in a crusty work environment.

In other words, truly talented tech workers rarely apply for government work, reinforcing a circle of inefficient services for citizens, and a low public opinion of government efficiency. Is there a way to fix this?

Enter Matt Cutts and the US Digital Service

Matt Cutts arrives in central DC, after a midwinter morning’s bike commute to work.

Luckily, this self-reinforcing problem was not lost on the world, and some people have been trying to crack it.

Imagine, for example, if we could take one of the core developers of the Google search engine (one of the most efficient pieces of software in the world’s history), and get him to leave the lucrative tech industry to help the ailing public sector?

Matt Cutts is famous enough in the software world that he has his own family of followers known as ‘cutlets’. The Wall Street Journal stated in 2009 that ‘Cutts is to search results as Alan Greenspan is to interest rates’. And some of his efforts leading the Webspam and SafeSearch teams are the reason you can get useful Google search results instead of the monetized junk that is always trying to game the system and collect your clicks.

Then, imagine you could pull in a bunch of other top-tier developers and designers, empower them in Washington, and put them to work solving some of the nastiest efficiency problems?

It would be a tough job, but it would also be some of the biggest bang for the buck you could ever achieve, because all the fruit is juicy and hanging very low from the trees.

In Silicon Valley, you might compete to shave a dollar off the cost of app-powered flower delivery for a few thousand high-income families. In the federal government, you can change the lives of hundreds of millions of people whose lives are affected by government services.

Veterans applying for medical help, people applying for visas, businesses trying to win contracts or comply with regulations. Doctors trying to finish Medicare paperwork so they can spend more time with patients. And the Department of Defense gaining better security, to avoid having their information (or their nuclear launch codes) pickpocketed by hackers from more nimble organizations.

So, this has actually started happening.

In 2014, a critical mass of tech-savvy people in the White House were able to form something called the US Digital Service and begin looking for talent. They began to form a nimble start-up company within the government, with more autonomy and less bureaucracy holding it back.

In 2016, they found a willing recruit in Matt Cutts, which is around the same time I met him*

After kicking around the idea for a few years as I watched some of the progress via his Twitter account, we finally decided to do this interview. So let’s get into it!

Matt Cutts and the US Digital Service

MMM: How did the idea of the US Digital Service get started? Was it directly from Obama’s staff contacting you, or someone from the tech industry looking East?

MC: The US Digital Service got its start from a pretty big disaster: when the healthcare.gov website failed back in 2013. Regardless of whether you’re conservative or liberal, it’s pretty wild to see a signature presidential initiative at risk because the enrollment website didn’t work well. Todd Park, who was the CTO of America — how cool of a job title is that — recruited a small cadre of tech folks to help the website hobble over the finish line. Within a few months after that success, the government stood up the Digital Service to help on other technology projects throughout the government.

MMM: When I hear the word “Digital Service”, it has some echoes of both Secret Service and the military, like you sign up to be one of The Troops. Do you see parallels (and major differences) between enlisting for military?

MC: Absolutely. One parallel is the Digital Service asks people for a limited tour of duty. Most people end up staying for over a year but less than two years. We also try to set the expectation that like all jobs, some days are harder than others and can be really challenging. The idea is that we promise to find high-impact projects that will benefit others when you bring your expertise to government.

That can mean working in stressful situations where things aren’t going well. Your readers know how important it is to stretch ourselves to learn in new situations though, and how meaningful it can be to align our mission in life with our beliefs**. And of course, one huge difference is that no one in the Digital Service is put in harm’s way like the military or Secret Service.

So the work is demanding, but it’s nowhere near as hard as the military. We’re still sitting indoors while talking to people or tapping on keyboards.

MMM: How do the pay, benefits and work environment compare between USDS and private industry? What about living expenses in the area. Any perks or career advantages you perceive to working there?

MC: It’s a misconception that you have to take a huge pay cut. USDS can pay up to the maximum government “General Schedule” salary, depending on previous experience and salary. That can mean around $160,000/year. We ask people to move to Washington, DC, which is an expensive place to live, but it also has great public transit. You really don’t need a car in DC and it’s possible to live close to where you work.

I usually ride my bike to work and get a free workout each day. I will note that when working for government, you don’t always get to use all the latest cloud-based productivity tools that you can access in a startup, but that depends on which agency you’re working with.

MMM: What major things has the Digital Service accomplished so far? Do you have an estimate for how many people are affected and how many dollars (and hours) have been saved, versus the amount spent on the program?

MC: Oh man, I could talk about the work we’ve done for a long time. Sometimes it’s bringing time-tested industry best practices into the government. Take bug bounties, for example. The idea of offering money to researchers who find security holes has been used since 1995 on Netscape. But the Federal government had never done a bug bounty before. Our team at the Pentagon has run 7-8 bug bounties with great results: the government is more protected, and bug bounties can be cheaper than other ways of finding security holes.

Here are a few additional accomplishments:

These are just a few projects we’ve done. If you want more nitty gritty details, check out our multiple reports to Congress. Or if anyone wants to apply to the US Digital Service, we’d be more than happy to talk about projects in more depth.

With a modest budget, we’ve helped tens of millions of people across the US. A pretty conservative estimate is hundreds of millions of dollars saved. Plenty of labor hours have been saved, too. When a computer can check that all the documents for an application are attached and complete, for example, that saves manual checking, not to mention time (and postage) mailing paper back and forth.

MMM: When working on complex software projects in a big company, I found the hardest part was often the beginning – after you have a foundation you can work off the same pattern, your reputation grows and your progress grows exponentially. Do you see this happening in your work so far?

MC: It really varies based on the situation. When there’s a crisis, we can move quickly. Other times, an agency does need to see that you’re committed over time. Lots of people in the government show up promising to help and then don’t deliver. So we start off small, building trust and credibility.

One example was veterans’ disability claims. The people judging those claims had to download dozens of documents one at a time. So we built a “download all” button for them. It wasn’t hard technologically, but it solved an actual problem. It showed that we were listening to their issues and were serious about helping. From there, we were able to build up a relationship with partners and stakeholders. In fact, we just passed 100,000 Veterans whose appeals happened a little better or faster because of tools that we built.

MMM: From the outside, I have imagined that many of the government’s priorities turned over after the 2016 election – Have you noticed a change from the inside, or do you feel your work remains prioritized and valued?

MC: Practically everybody agrees that we need government services to be more modern. Did you know that the government runs some technology systems that are over 50 years old? This still amazes me. Improving technology is one of the few ways where a service can get better and still cost less. Our work is nonpartisan, and we still get to work on important projects that matter to the public.

Earlier this week I got to have breakfast with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, and it’s remarkable how much common ground there is on improving technology so the government works better for people.

MMM: There’s another group called Code for America that has a similar-sounding mission to the layperson. Could you explain the difference between CfA and USDS?

MC: Code for America is a great group of folks! They’re a non-profit that works primarily with state and local governments to improve their technology. The US Digital Service is a part of the Federal government, so we tackle programs at a national level. It turns out that the civic tech space is pretty small in some ways, so it’s still possible to get to know a lot of people who have an outsized impact on technology in government. Code for America is one of the organizations that got me interested in civic technology in the first place.

MMM: Has financial independence played a role in your willingness to do this job?

MC: No one needs to be financial independent to work for the USDS–we pay solid salaries–but my previous career as a software engineer did give me the freedom to work on what I want. But you’ve made the point over and over that financial independence doesn’t automatically mean that you stop working–it means that you work on what you want to work on. At the US Digital Service, I get to work with amazing people who are tackling projects that really matter.

MMM: Should readers of this interview apply to the USDS? If we wanted to filter to exactly the right candidates, how would we do it?

MC: Yes, they should apply! We’re always looking for mid-career software engineers, site reliability engineers, product managers, and designers–people who have accumulated some real-world experience and maybe a few scars. If you can stand up a major web service, for example, that’s a plus. We also look for folks with emotional intelligence and the ability to tell the truth in hard situations. You may need to sit down with a cabinet secretary and break the news that their new product isn’t ready to launch yet.

MMM: How else can they support you?

MC: If your readers are not ready to apply themselves, maybe they know a good software engineer and will encourage them to apply? Also feel free to share this interview with them or elsewhere on social media. :) It’s important to know that there’s a third path open to technologists now besides academia and industry. And it’s possible to find jobs that are meaningful even if they can also be hard. Keep looking until you find one that’s right for you. Lastly, you can follow USDS on Twitter and on Medium.

MMM: Thanks for your time Matt, and thanks for taking the time to help out in the world. This article is part of an ongoing series of “Interviews with Interesting Mustachians”, and there are quite a few in the queue for this year. To a prosperous 2018!

And if you have questions for Matt and the USDS team, feel free to write them up in the comments. I’ll invite them to participate in the discussion.

 

* I first heard about Matt when he sent me a random PayPal donation in 2015. It was a shock:in a long-ago article in the very early days of this blog, I had put a donation box in an article with a comment like “Hey, you can keep reading for free, but if you insist on sending me money, here’s the way to do it.” He shocked me by sending $100.00, so I looked up his biography and sent him a thank-you email. Later, he enticed me into attending an underground conference called “Foo Camp,” which involved spending a weekend camping out with 200 young Silicon Valley tech titans and giving impromptu talks to each other. I gave a talk on Mustachianism, and answered questions from a guy at dinner about index fund investing. Later, someone pointed out that it was sci-fi legend Hugh Howey, and both my son and I have since gone on to read most of his books.

** Matt and I did this interview by collaborating in a Google(of course) Doc, which means he was able to add his own links. So, all the links within are by him. I noticed that some of them, like this one, link to old MMM articles. I was impressed by his deep and historic knowledge of Mustachianism. ;-)

  • Mr. Money Mustache January 22, 2018, 10:42 am

    I’ll put in the first question, since I never got the answer to this one from Matt at the end of our interview:

    Ignoring any constraints like pessimism (or perhaps even realism), what’s the ultimate scenario for the US Digital Service, and the federal and lower governments, ten years from now? Is it possible to get immense improvements that change the country (or perhaps even the world) for the better?

    Reply
    • Matt Cutts January 22, 2018, 11:05 am

      Hey there! I’ll take a stab at that question. I’d love to see a world where government is as efficient as the websites and services that people are used to in their day-to-day life. The USDS acts as a sort “risk buffer” where we employ time-tested techniques from industry and deploy them into the government space. So in an ideal world, as government got better at things like user-centered design or efficient cloud deployments, the USDS would be less necessary.

      For the time being though, we still need engineers and product managers and other to come help us make government better for the American public. :)

      Reply
      • Jeff Cady January 22, 2018, 4:14 pm

        Wow, I’m really impressed with the work of the US Digital Service and your vision of the future of service provision by the federal government.

        But, to use MMM’s point of getting to the root of the problem, isn’t the root of all of this how slowly, redundantly, and inefficiently the federal government creates policies, regulations, etc? Plus the lack of incentives (plus risks) for us bureaucrats to innovate?

        I’m wondering if you have a plausible vision for technology to change core issues… like the speed in which a bill becomes a law or that court cases are reviewed, how to circumvent the current influence of money in campaigns, how to identify and lift redundant steps in processes? Many of the solutions exist, but there are so many forces fighting to keep the status quo in place.

        MMM, while I agree that any reasonable, talented worker would avoid working for the federal government like an unmarked anthrax letter, remember there are many of us “save the world” “I like to help people” types that get duped into doing so by thinking we can make a difference. There are organizations which, depending on your politics, have really bad ass missions like USAID (where I work), NASA, our armed forces, NPS, Forest Service, EPA, etc. While I’m no Matt Cutts, I see a lot of competent, motivated people like me who want to be a source of positive changes to our government for a whole career. One key difference is that we’re rarely empowered like Matt is. We look for the tiny windows of opportunities to create change.

        I think both paragraphs are my long-winded attempt at saying what we (well-intentioned, competent bureaucrats) really need is a framework that empowers and incentives efficiency.

        Reply
      • JC January 22, 2018, 8:53 pm

        “Government Efficiency” is a bit of an oxymoron, isn’t it?

        As Thomas Sowell has said: “It is hard to imagine a worse way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.”

        Reply
      • Gabe January 24, 2018, 10:01 am

        Wow. I was unaware of the USDS but having worked in the gov’ts “tech” sector for a bit, it’s definitely needed. Seems inefficiencies abound and without the proper tech leadership in place with the proper knowledge of what can be accomplished, the inefficiencies persist. Happy to see there is a push at a high level to make these changes. Changes at a lower level are a bit harder to overcome. Sounds like a fun, dynamic place to work where inefficiencies can be fixed. I may have to check out the job postings.

        Reply
      • stephan January 27, 2018, 4:41 pm

        Have you seen this New Yorker piece on Estonia’s e-government? It seems to me that this could be the goal.
        https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/18/estonia-the-digital-republic

        Reply
  • Chris January 22, 2018, 10:59 am

    I hadn’t heard of the Digital Service before, so thank you both for the great introduction. I can definitely agree that there’s a lot of room for improvement in the digitization of our government processes and it’s exciting to see a group actively working in tackling them.

    I’m heading over to check out the job listings now :)

    Reply
  • Olivia January 22, 2018, 11:05 am

    This sounds like exactly the kind of thing I’d love to do when I’m financially independent! Would you guys consider branches in other cities in maybe 5 years (NYC)? Or in smaller, but liable cities for those who retire from large corporate jobs? Or remotely? A friend is a part of the CFTB as a graphic designer and works remotely except for 4 quarterly in person meetings a year. Something like this?

    Also, is there a consulting portion of it as well? I feel like a lot of governmental problems are simple supply chain issues. Operations should just be efficient. I have no clue why the people at the DMV have me fill out a paper forma and then proceed to re-enter all the info?

    Reply
    • Matt Cutts January 22, 2018, 12:20 pm

      For the US Digital Service, we typically require folks to move to DC because that’s where a lot of important meetings happen. But there are organizations like 18F that do allow distributed work though.

      Reply
      • Oliva January 22, 2018, 5:42 pm

        Sweet! I’ll check 18F out for the future. Thank you!

        Reply
        • Cathy January 25, 2018, 3:00 pm

          Hi, there is a lot of work going on in many cities that looks a lot like USDS. It sometimes sits in the IT department, under the Chief Innovation Officer, or the “innovation office” of the city, or under the Chief Digital Officer (if they have one). If you search for a city’s “civic tech” or “open data” work, you’ll also find some pointers. Not that USDS isn’t cool (because it is!), but there are other places in government beyond the federal level if you want to make a difference. I’m pretty sure NYC is innovating in this space.

          Reply
  • Juan January 22, 2018, 11:16 am

    Thanks for posting this really interesting interview! And thanks to Matt for being willing to take on such an important project.

    My questions for Matt is the following:
    Have other governments around the world used what USDS has done as a model to improve their own processes and services through technology?

    (I’m assuming, based on a small sample of personal experiences, that most governments around the world are also very inefficient and could use all the help they can get)

    Reply
    • Matt Cutts January 22, 2018, 12:18 pm

      It is cool to see organizations like the Canadian Digital Service starting up. And to be fair, groups like the UK’s Government Digital Service helped inspire the US Digital Service. So there’s definitely a movement afoot to bring better digital experiences to the public around the world.

      Reply
      • Shannon January 22, 2018, 1:41 pm

        A quick shout out for the Australian government too. I have a single portal and 1 password for government benefits, healthcare, tax, etc. it is too easy. This interview has made me now think of these services as being what I would expect from the private sector. Good luck with the rest of the mission.

        Reply
      • Michelle H. January 23, 2018, 2:21 am

        I think the New Zealand government deserves a shout out here too. You can do a lot of tax work entirely online and getting a passport renewed is now also 100% online. We aren’t fully digital yet but it’s pretty darn rare to ever have to mail a document anywhere.

        Reply
        • Joan Wairimu January 24, 2018, 8:20 am

          The Kenyan Government is also slowly trying to digitize some functions like passport application, foreign motor vehicle permits and business licenses. Hopefully we can out manoeuvre corruption to be more efficient.

          Our passenger train service is also being updated. SGR(STANDARD GAUGE RAIL). We can book tickets online as opposed to physically going to the station.

          MPESA is used a mobile payment option virtually anywhere. So long as you have a mobile phone smart or otherwise. And MPESA is from one service provider where we have 3 moblie operators offering competitive rates.

          Hopefully by year 2050 we will catch up to first world countries.

          Reply
        • Aisling January 25, 2018, 2:19 am

          NZ also has “Realme” so that you can have 1 ID and 1 password across govt agencies.

          Reply
    • Paul Atkin January 22, 2018, 12:19 pm

      Hi Juan,

      It’s actually a case of USDS (2014) building on the model originally set in 2011 by the UK Government Digital Service. That’s not to take from the great work going on at USDS but I think they’d acknowledge the good stuff done in by UK GDS.

      Check the video here: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/nov/15/government-digital-service-best-startup-europe-invest

      Reply
    • kruidigmeisje January 23, 2018, 1:43 am

      our (NL) tax authority gives a prefilled form, with last years number + banking info in it. Lots of people need to do a quick check, and sign it off (digitally of course).
      Pensions: digital check, most pension funds work via a website.
      Social benefits: online.
      Counties: most requests are done via a website
      Healthcare: admin all done via online services or mail.

      So we have a discusion going on privacy: how much are gov agencies allowed to share? If I am on welfare and claim tax benefits on a large car, should there be a bell ringing somewhere?

      Reply
    • Maria January 23, 2018, 4:43 am

      Not saying we don’t have our problems, but it seems that Australia is way ahead of the US. Here in South Australia we can renew our driver’s license online as long as we don’t need a new photo (required every ten years). We can do our annual car registration online too – we don’t need sticker inside the car anymore… I pay our rates (equivalent to your city utility bills?) and Emergency Services Levy by phone – takes one minute. Building permits… don’t know…..

      Reply
    • Kalman January 23, 2018, 5:16 am

      Israel has made great strides in digitizing most of government (there is always room for improvements).

      Just one example, After a child is born it used to be a half day trip to the interior ministry to register the child with name in the system, update ID papers, birth certificate, etc. Today it is all online and they send everything to the last registered address on your ID card.

      @matt In a country like the USA where citizen do not necessarily have an ID number (closes think is a social security ID) how can different government agencies sync members? In Israel each citizen gets one ID at birth so inter-agency sharing is easier and very convenient.

      Reply
  • Andy January 22, 2018, 11:19 am

    “In a word: Humans.” See, my first thought was instead two words: profit incentives. Competition forces silicon valley companies to be efficient and produce those sleek products you love. Incentives just aren’t aligned the same way when it comes to government services and at times there are actually incentives forcing waste (for example contracts that won’t be renewed unless every dollar is spent, even if the work could be completed for cheaper).

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache January 22, 2018, 11:39 am

      Yeah, I would agree that the profit incentive will tend to motivate organizations better than an equally-sized company that is guaranteed to have a job next year, no matter what.

      BUT, even in big profitable companies I have seen efficiency go down the shitter, as the committees become bigger and the entrenched interests (and sometimes incompetent senior managers) start to grow their tentacles. Then I saw the same pattern in city councils and homeowner associations and parent-teacher organizations..

      The underlying foe is human nature, and how some of us like to build our little power empires and resist change. The solution (I think) is smaller teams, frequent change, and putting really clever logical people with big abilities and small egos in charge. Although I’ve never worked directly with him, my research on Matt’s work suggests that he is one of these people.

      Reply
      • LennStar January 22, 2018, 12:03 pm

        If you haven’t by now, I EXTREMELY STRONGLY recommend you read “The Dictator’s Handbook – why bad behaviour is almost always good politics”

        Reply
        • Lewis January 22, 2018, 1:28 pm

          Agree. After reading this book, I bring it up in conversation about once per week. It’s changed the way I view human organizations. Extremely helpful.

          Reply
      • David Albrecht January 22, 2018, 12:07 pm

        The three examples you cited (HOAs, city councils, parent-teacher orgs) have no competition.

        It’s interesting asking why companies get big. This isn’t the default state. Smaller companies are lower-cost, make decisions faster, and, all-around better in many ways. So why do places get big?

        I think it’s often due to factors that force them to get big. One is “needing tons of capital” (auto manufacturers). Another is “monopoly power”, whether due to natural monopolies like utilities, or network effects like facebook (everyone is there, so everyone else wants to be there).

        There’s no law that says “you have to work hard” or even defines it. I think people work as hard as they have to. And that benchmark is set through competition.

        Reply
        • Mr. Frugal Toque January 22, 2018, 1:34 pm

          I think you made a bit of a jump there.
          From “… have no competition.” all the way to “people [only] work as hard as they have to.”
          The thesis here isn’t that gov’t services are slow because people are lazy.
          It’s that gov’t services are slow because of poor modernization, which is caused by some cultural problem.
          Besides, people like MMM clearly work hard even though they are completely free from any need to do so.

          Reply
          • Kevin January 22, 2018, 6:20 pm

            well, cultural problem is kind of a nice way of saying “lazy”, no?

            and re: people working only as hard as they have too – obviously there are many exceptions – but it’s probably generally true if we’re being real.

            Reply
            • Kevin January 22, 2018, 6:22 pm

              i would add that it’s not only a “cultural problem”, but also a system (only game in town, too much job security, etc.) that allows that side of human nature to become entrenched.

              Reply
              • Kevin January 22, 2018, 7:17 pm

                i’ll add too that there aren’t any magic solutions to this problem. we obviously need government and the things it does. i think it’s up to citizens to hold the powers that be accountable.

        • Plina January 24, 2018, 11:07 am

          I can’t talk about the US grovt services but I have worked for the government in Sweden for many years and I would say that the situation has changed lot during the last 10-15 years so what previously could be s pretty easy job if you know your stuff is not that today. Courts and different services have a lot of metrics to meadure your output. We have gone pretty far with digitalization. If you do your taxes digitally you get your taxrefund back 2 months before then if you submarint by paper. If you don’t nake any changes you can approve it throug text message. There is a lot of work with digitalization of services and with efficient handling of services. You have to cut the time to deal with the cases. It is not a perfect system because there is also some lazy people as well as in big companies. I work currently in a big global company with headquarters in Canada and am totally frustrared with the corporate bs. I am looking at going back to the public sector even though I had to work a lot harder there. I like the difference I can make. At least there is a purpose to the government bs.

          Reply
      • Mattheus January 22, 2018, 12:30 pm

        MMM,

        You’re right that there are natural causes to create empires and resist change. That problem, though, tends to get amplified when there is no competition around. Big businesses can only stay alive to the extent they can fight against the sort of self-centered entropy on the part of their managers. Government, however, does not allow competitors. Police departments do not allow private security an even playing field to protect people; government courts do not allow private judges to review legal cases the way they do. It’s inherently a monopoly, and as economic theory would indicate, monopolies don’t have the incentive to deliver a quality product or lower prices, even if the monopoly is called a “government” and purportedly works “for the people.”

        Food for though. Good article as always

        Reply
        • jon January 23, 2018, 9:33 am

          Big companies also exist because government creates laws and regulations which make it difficult to compete; which incentivizes companies to get even bigger.

          Another thing missing from the article are economic laws which cause government to not be efficient. Some are mentioned in the comments like government being a monopoly. Others are “Tragedy of the Commons”, etc. I could list them out if anyone is interested.

          You can see the forces of monopoly power in Canada with the long wait lines to get medical treatment. At first it wasn’t like that but as time goes on the wait times continue to increase. It’s the incentives.

          Reply
          • Mattheus January 26, 2018, 2:19 pm

            You’re totally right. There is a large literature on how occupational licensing, regulatory capture, intellectual property laws, and more government interventions in the market create the “big business” model of capitalism we see today.

            Reply
    • CapitalistRoader January 22, 2018, 11:53 am

      This.

      Incentives matter. Private firms’ employees have great incentive to constantly improve due to the threat their company getting trounced by the competition and going bankrupt, throwing those employees out of a job. Government employees have the opposite incentive: There’s no competition-no threat that another government is going to eat their lunch-so they have the incentive to make their job processes as inefficient as possible, thus guaranteeing continued employment.

      The solution is to move as many things outside of government purview as possible. And there are many, many things that government has taken responsibility for in the past ~100 years that would be better off being done by the private sector. And except for a few duties that should be performed at a national level-national defense, border security, national criminal law enforcement-all other duties of the state should be done at the lowest level possible. Government agency performance is more easily policed at the state and local level vs. the national level. 50 laboratories of democracy. Best practices will be copied; bad practices will be exposed. Not so with a massive and unaccountable national government.

      Reply
      • kruidigmeisje January 23, 2018, 1:46 am

        No, the government has an obligation to do things in a safe way, for fear of political of legal repercussions. That makes them inefficient.

        Reply
    • Lori Rose January 22, 2018, 12:16 pm

      Humans are the barrier for another reason. The government is highly unionized. While I support unions in their efforts to ensure a living wage and benefits and good working conditions, they tend to get bogged down in protecting 1) jobs and 2) employees that should move on to other employment (that’s my kind way of saying they would be fired for cause in any other environment).

      For example, the US Postal Service sells all (package) postage online EXCEPT for first class mail . When I asked a postal employee when they would start selling that online as well, I was told that the unions were blocking it to protect jobs (more subtly but that is the gist). Not sure that is factual, but if so, unsurprising to me.

      Reply
      • Paul January 22, 2018, 4:18 pm

        They are marching and protesting against every avenue to access postal services that doesn’t involve standing in the permanent lines that exist in seemingly every post office in America. The unions successfully killed the alliance with Staples that way.

        I WORK for them and I don’t use their services.

        Reply
  • Tass January 22, 2018, 11:33 am

    I just renewed my vehicle registration online in California. In fact, it looks like Colorado has a similar website…

    https://apps.colorado.gov/apps/dor/dmv/vehicle/registration/renewal/welcome.jsf

    Hope you didn’t stand in line too long!

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache January 22, 2018, 11:42 am

      A very appropriate link, Tass!

      In my area, you renew your the driving license at a totally separate office across town from the license plate and vehicle registration office.

      I have no complaints with the vehicle registration process, which is the one you linked to – I always just renew online. But when I needed an new licence card for myself (as opposed to my car), it was a whole different world.

      Reply
      • murphy January 22, 2018, 1:52 pm

        I believe that bringing you in, in person, every ten years is a good idea. Make sure you are real. Make sure you fit the description. Make sure you can see. Probably not a bad idea.

        Reply
        • Michelle H. January 23, 2018, 2:33 am

          That’s a really good point, it’s inconvenient but pretty reasonable check your s real person once every 10 years or so. Though it is pretty alarming to see people old enough to have difficulty working the credit card machine being given 10 more years of unsupervised driving privileges.

          Reply
          • Mr. Money Mustache January 23, 2018, 9:33 am

            Sure, I have no problem with the necessity of checking people out (in fact, they should be giving us advanced virtual-reality driving tests on ice, heavy traffic and a race track as well). But it needs to be efficient, and if you ever see a lineup over a few minutes in length forming, it should be an emergency to fix it.

            Reply
      • Tass January 24, 2018, 10:06 am

        Oops… I guess I read your post too fast!

        Reply
      • Anne January 25, 2018, 4:23 pm

        Our Secretary of State now allows you to make appointments. So no more waiting in line: just show up at the appointed time. If you don’t make an appointment, they have an app that tells you how long until you will be called. However, I did not find this to be accurate.

        Reply
    • Mr. Frugal Toque January 22, 2018, 12:04 pm

      The province of Ontario has modernized their car and license registration system, too.
      Although I have to go in for photographs once per decade, everything else is online/through the mail.
      Even if I have to do an emissions check, the authorized mechanic who does the job e-forwards the results directly to the MTO. When I go to renew my car registration, they already know the emissions check is done.

      Reply
    • Zack January 22, 2018, 4:19 pm

      In Arizona, my driver’s license doesn’t expire until I’m 65… I got it when my previous license expired at 21. No need to go in to the MVD or renew online! I imagine at some point before age 65, the picture will stop looking like me.

      Reply
      • fahad syed January 23, 2018, 12:32 pm

        you have got to be kidding me!

        Reply
      • stellamarina January 24, 2018, 3:37 pm

        And you can use it for ID to go on a plane?

        Reply
    • Huxley January 23, 2018, 7:55 am

      I was confused by that too, and assumed MMM took some artistic “license” by ragging on the old punch-bag of all anti-government groups: the DMV.

      I renewed my driver’s license in MD recently and it took all of 10 min online and they took credit cards.

      Reply
  • Accidental FIRE January 22, 2018, 11:35 am

    Matt I work for the government and from what I’ve seen over the years our acquisition processes, rules, and regulations are what often holds our modernization efforts back. When we have to give a contract to the lowest bidder, we don’t get good results. We get more inefficient systems. How do you see USDS fitting in with traditional acquisition processes or do you see it as a possible way to start replacing them?

    Reply
    • Civil4life January 23, 2018, 11:33 am

      I work for the government as well. What AccidentalFIRE mentioned is one of the most difficult and time consuming parts of my job. Although the local government I work for does allow for best value procurement. Then, providing transparency to the general public many times creates even more challenges and inefficiency.

      Reply
    • DLcygnet January 23, 2018, 11:37 am

      Meanwhile, I’ve seen small software companies try to bid on government jobs (for something simple, like a blackberry app) only to be told told they’re too cheap and will never make a profit. Even the small companies that quadrupled their bid in order to just be considered. It sounded to me like the people in charge have no sense for what software should cost, or they expect there to be too many add-on requirements, and then the project gets awarded to some enormous company (probably staffed by a relative) that is still entrenched in archaic ways of doing things.

      Reply
      • SpeedReader January 27, 2018, 8:24 pm

        I worked for the Federal Government for 20 years, all in Acquisition. The rules about buying lowest-price for commercial items were reformed in 1996. Since then, contracting can be done on a best-value basis. It takes more work for the end customer to define their scope of work and evaluation factors well, which may be why it isn’t always used. But I did it for years to purchase complex medical equipment for the VA.

        Reply
  • Mighty Investor January 22, 2018, 11:54 am

    Wow. MMM and Matt Cutts together–two people who have both impacted my life a fair amount in different, but positive ways. I hadn’t heard of The Digital Service despite working in recent years for the USG and living near Washington DC. It’s nice to see a light shined on something positive for a change. Wishing Mr. Cutts great success in this venture. And thanks for making a world where search results are high quality rather than bought through shady practices. Now I have to go back to optimizing my content to Mr. Cutts specs.

    Reply
  • Lily January 22, 2018, 11:59 am

    I expected too little. I thought the social security administration website was such a blessing even with a broken link or two. I’m not surprised to hear that some government systems are 50 years old. My local library’s interface and system looks like it came from the 70s with the nostalgic blue and white bar.

    Reply
  • Ms. Frugal Asian Finance January 22, 2018, 11:59 am

    I can totally relate to standing in a long line for hours at the DMV. It’s such a huge waste of time and resources. The same thing can be said about the postal office. I usually budget at least 30 minutes if I have to go to the USPS, which I try to avoid not doing (i.e. through Amazon Prime pickup/dropoff).

    Years ago I was working on a project that needed data on thousands of cases from the court. The interns had to go to the court, print out thousands of pages of paper, and bring them back to the office for coding. I asked them if they could get the docs electronically. They said the court wanted to print everything out and didn’t think digitalizing was a priority. I just didn’t know what to say.

    Reply
    • Heather January 22, 2018, 12:14 pm

      Mrs. FAF, that sounds horrendous! How long ago was this and was it in Federal or State court? I ask only because PACER has been around for years and you would never have to do that in a federal matter. You could do it from your desk. Many states have something similar, but I can’t imagine every state does for every year going back to the advent of that particular court.

      Reply
  • Jim January 22, 2018, 12:01 pm

    As an extension of your title “Can the government grow a money mustache” you should look into the Alaska permanent fund and the dividend program as a means to show what can happen when the government actually becomes somewhat financially responsible. Basically, in 1976 the Alaskan government decided to put aside 25% of all revenue from oil and other natural resources and invest the money. It started with 750k in 1976 and has grown to over 60 billion dollars today. As a result, we Alaskans don’t have to pay sales tax, income tax, and even property tax if your’e over 65 saving us thousands of dollars a year. Plus each resident gets a “dividend check” in October of each year, and last year my wife and I collected 1,100 each and this coming October, my wife, I and my new daughter will collect our dividends. The state even has it set up where you can automatically invest 50% of your dividend in a TRowe Price 529 plan for your child and for each submission you are entered into the drawing for a 25K scholarship each year! Being as that there are only 750k of us residents and only about 10 % of those actually contribute directly to the 529 plans, our daughter has a 1 in 25k people of winning the 25k scholarship! Point is the Alaska state government invested only 25% of its earnings since 1976 and now pays for all operations with the money made from this program. It is also constitutionally protected in the state, so its protected until the politicians get too greedy and spend more than we make…

    Reply
  • David Albrecht January 22, 2018, 12:03 pm

    MMM – from your article – “In a word: Humans. When we work in big groups, we grow less efficient.”

    That’s not the problem. The problem is lack of competition. SV is efficient because it operates in highly competitive markets with companies all over the globe fighting for your dollars/attention/eyeballs.

    I’ve long wondered how we can bring more competition to government services. Imagine if we could have two DMVs, or two permit offices, etc. Not only would it let them try and compare different approaches, but also get a little competitive spirit going. I know this is a completely impractical suggestion, but I wonder if we could do it somehow.

    Reply
  • Matt January 22, 2018, 12:04 pm

    Dear MMM, not all countries are run the same way. I trust for your study purpose, taking a look at the highly efficient city state of Singapore could be very enriching. In Singapore, residents can apply a digital ID called SingPass which allows you to do almost all interactions with the government from the convenience of your smartphone or home. Great post, unnecessary inefficiencies in many sectors consume way too much human lifetime and power!

    Reply
  • Frugal Teacher January 22, 2018, 12:05 pm

    MMM,

    I’m 24, been working for two years and I feel I had already been practicing what you were preaching before I stumbled on this blog. This blog just gave me a tangible goal of early retirement. And I believe the paragraph about efficiency is really what this whole blog is about. It might have started with an ambition to educate people about early retirement, and then it turned into a “Lifestyle blog”. But the core is efficiency. If we live in a small tribe, it’s more intuitive to be more efficient: “don’t waste resources such as food, shelter, and water, since our small community needs it.” As soon as human population exploded, there grew a diffusion of responsibility: “it doesn’t matter if I litter, since I’m only one person”. This diffusion of responsibility is what has led to caricature levels of inefficiency: a prime example being clown car driving.

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache January 22, 2018, 12:56 pm

      Right, but there’s another powerful factor that continues to apply even in large populations: culture. Why are some countries SO much more efficient than others (including some European countries compared to the US)? Because social norms can create and spread with surprising effectiveness.

      We happen to have certain social norms that get wedged creatively into our psychological weaknesses by marketing teams, reinforced by mass behavior, and then never questioned thereafter. Like commuting to work in pickup trucks, for example: Measurably stupid in all quantifiable dimensions, but people are drawn in by chants like “Power! Safety! Rugged Manliness!”, and so they have become the country’s BEST SELLING VEHICLE.

      I believe that it’s possible to play the same heartstrings that make people like trucks, and instead get them to love badass efficiency and riding mountain bikes to the grocery store in a blizzard. As long as we do it right and get it into the culture itself.

      Reply
      • JasonC January 22, 2018, 8:58 pm

        Careful on stereotyping the Europeans. I have friends in Germany who lament the same things we do about their leaders and government…like us, they are extremely efficient with their innovation, but their government lags behind as well, and they pay wayyyyy more for the privilege. That aside, awesome interview and more inspiration! thanks for all you do.

        Reply
      • Huxley January 23, 2018, 8:06 am

        What you don’t mention, and I didn’t see in the interview is the US culture of fear/paranoia of government. As you say the IRS, SS, etc etc know almost everything about your job, location, age, salary etc. But (among other things) fear prevents the US from having a usable, central info and ID system of its citizens. Every time it’s suggested people freak out as if they’ll be dragged of to FEMA camps.

        The IRS knows exactly how much I made, and where my bank accounts are, and how much dividends I received and how much my house is worth. There’s no reason I should have to fill that out myself! Many other countries (canada?) the IRS send you a prefilled tax-return and bill, and you just check the numbers.

        Reply
        • Yard Work January 23, 2018, 8:36 am

          Related Planet Money podcast episode:
          https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2017/03/22/521132960/episode-760-tax-hero

          TL;DL: Some politicians are bought by the the tax prep lobby.

          Reply
        • Plina January 24, 2018, 11:16 am

          Sweden is one of those countries were you get s prefilled tax-return. Your employer and banque suppleant them with information. If you don’t need to make any changes you can approve it through textmessage or a digital id. With a digital id you can also make changes. If you want to you can go the paperroute but that is a two months slower way to receive your tax refund.

          Reply
        • RA Architect January 25, 2018, 2:05 pm

          Huxley, As a former IRS agent (now private sector data architect) you are giving he IRS way too much credit for their tech. Sure, the data is all getting captured (on tape!) but the database which is processing tax returns was built in the 1970s, ~50 years at Matt said some systems are. Here’s a list of terminal commands I needed to learn in order to do an investigation: https://www.irs.gov/irm/part4/irm_04-071-002#idm140126274783648
          (ie BMFOLT 02 XX-XXXXXXX R1) would return the first page of an 1120 :/

          The most egregious case of inefficiency was that there were times when I had to PRINT out the terminal screen from the database, then FAX the records to another group across the country. I then had to put the case on hold while I waited 7-10 days to get a return fax. When it arrived, it was the same printout from the database showing the changes made to the tax return.

          From talking with some of my old colleagues, things are slowly getting better but it is painful to remember those inefficient days. I just laugh because we were the one agency which actually brought in money, and our tech budget kept getting slashed.

          Reply
      • Stephen Dean February 6, 2018, 7:18 am

        MMM – “I believe that it’s possible to play the same heartstrings that make people like trucks, and instead get them to love badass efficiency and riding mountain bikes to the grocery store in a blizzard.”

        You made my day with this sentence. Thanks MMM.

        Reply
  • Jeff Preston January 22, 2018, 12:07 pm

    My SEO and Mustachianism world collide! Matt was very cool to me when he was at Google. Even though he was a big deal, he took the time to speak to me at conferences and reply to emails. @Mr. Money Mustache, great job getting him on the blog. Totally agree that public servants need better tech to their jobs.

    Reply
  • John January 22, 2018, 12:11 pm

    I enjoyed reading this and am hopeful that in a few years, my ultra-talented wife (web design, front and back end) ,who’s been dragged around the planet for 20 years as a military spouse, might be able to land a position that suits her and a public need. We will have nearly financial independence though I don’t want to leave Service because there’s always work to be done in making the public sector more efficient.

    One comment though and sorry to retort but DC public transportation is not efficient nor cheap for those not subsidized USG employees… so that’s a project right there!

    All the best and thanks for all you do in the name of financial and personal freedom.

    Reply
  • Shane Grant January 22, 2018, 12:24 pm

    I wonder if they have collaborated with other governments doing the same thing, like estonia > https://e-estonia.com/

    Reply
    • Leigh January 22, 2018, 8:07 pm

      Yes, I just read about this yesterday (I’m a little, uh, inefficient in my New Yorker reading and am several weeks behind), and wondered if anyone would mention it. Do you think this is possible in the US? It seems like our culturally entrenched individualism would make many Americans resistant to such an all-encompassing system. Generally speaking, we don’t like it when our worlds collide, even if it is more efficient. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/18/estonia-the-digital-republic

      Reply
  • Bob January 22, 2018, 12:24 pm

    A couple facts kind of undermine your thesis….

    > Imagine, for example, if we could take one of the core developers of the Google search engine (one of the most efficient pieces of software in the world’s history)

    Google was founded by people who developed their search algorithm at the National Science Foundation, a government lab. Why does Google appear strictly on the private side of the ledger, not the public one as well?

    > Why is almost everything from Silicon Valley shiny and efficient, and almost everything from Washington DC (or the local government office) crusty and outdated?

    One of the most shiny efficient pieces of technology from Silicon Valley is the iPhone — a device composed almost exclusively of technology developed in the government sector: http://www.businessinsider.com/the-us-military-is-responsible-for-almost-all-the-technology-in-your-iphone-2014-10

    Reply
  • Marcia January 22, 2018, 12:38 pm

    I hadn’t heard of this before, so it was very interesting to read! I worked for the Feds a couple of decades ago (in the Navy, so I’m also a vet). This was back almost before computers. During my time there, I got my first computer which was used for internal emails and word processing only (not connected to outside because of security issues).

    It will be nice to see if everything can be more efficient. We waited 15 years before using our VA status for a VA loan, and boy that was a complete PITA as far as paperwork goes. I’m not sure the lower interest rate was worth it. We had a Vet himself working on the paperwork.

    Have you thought much about efficiency and what it means for jobs? Think of the number of folks who won’t be employed anymore – what do they do?

    I think of this randomly at times. My own home county in a rural area has ranked at the top of the “poorest areas” of the state. The few manufacturing facilities have shut down, leaving people poor, schools underfunded, and jobs scarce. There are some government jobs and service jobs, and that’s about it. And a lot of meth. One of my HS classmates has managed to get PT at-home jobs from Amazon and such (now that >50% of the area has high speed internet) – without a degree. She’s considered how to train others to do the same.

    But this type of thing will just expand the loss of jobs. How do we adjust? Even now, I look back on how my Navy days we wrote letters. The people who trained me wrote them by hand, and our 3 secretaries (for 30 people) would type them and mail them and file them. By the time I was through there, the newer folks (like me) would type our own, because we had computers. I’m sure the typical group now has fewer secretaries or assistants.

    Reply
    • Phil January 22, 2018, 2:01 pm

      No one will lose their jobs until there is budget pressure. Even if there is budget pressure, it usually gets redirected before anyone could lose a job.

      Here’s how that works: the GAO writes a letter to Congress about waste, fraud, and abuse. Maybe a congressman notices, but probably not. The people running the program ignore pressure to provide transparency. The GAO writes a letter about someone else, and the first people are off the hook.

      Reply
  • JV January 22, 2018, 12:40 pm

    Thank you MMM and Matt! Good luck though.

    In my frustrating experience as an elected official, the complexity and bureaucracy are by design…for social control. The more occupied the public can be, the less they can do about government shenanigans.

    As a Mayor, I would ask for a quarterly P&L (or gov equivalent) and, unbelievably, no finance staff member could produce one!

    Reply
    • Phil January 22, 2018, 2:54 pm

      I had this same experience as a contractor in a federal agency! I wonder if it’s common!

      Reply
  • Rob January 22, 2018, 12:48 pm

    This is really inspiring stuff, thanks for sharing.

    For the Canadian readers there is a civic tech movement called Code for Canada: https://codefor.ca/
    I am not sure if there is a USDS equivalent there, but it would be interesting to see one start.

    Reply
  • Scott Howard January 22, 2018, 1:14 pm

    The dreaded trip to the BMV, DMV or whatever you call it in your state was fixed a few years ago in Indiana. Usually I can do everything online but on the occasion I do need to be face to face with a human, it takes less than 30 minutes. 12 minutes a couple months ago to renew my drivers licence!

    Reply
  • Jover January 22, 2018, 1:26 pm

    At the risk of putting this out into a public forum, I’ve spent my entire career in County, then Town, and now State government. Each has their atrocities, using outdated, expensive, and malfunctioning systems to keep the workflow going. The worst I’ve seen, though, is FEMA’s 1980s-era Community Information System. Please do something to modernize CIS and make it useful. Floods are the number one disaster (in dollar terms) in the US, but it’s a headache every time communities want their updated flood claims information to reevaluate their hazard mitigation plans.

    Reply
  • Chris B January 22, 2018, 1:37 pm

    The USDS informationa about “term limits” says that all positions are “term limited” and are pre-prescribed to end. What are these limits?

    Who wants to move to DC with no relocation assistance and a guarantee to be fired in an HCOL city?

    Reply
    • Rum Tum Tugger January 23, 2018, 10:40 am

      I get what you’re saying (I myself turned down a non-tech job in the Federal government in DC many years ago for salary/cost of living reasons), but my guess is that the USDS is going after people who have options elsewhere but are looking for an interesting, temporary challenge and the chance to do some public service.

      Reply
  • Ron January 22, 2018, 1:41 pm

    What makes this discussion so interesting is that there was a huge push to contract out most government IT services beginning about 15 years ago, at least in my state, so at this point most government IT systems in use today are customized off-the-shelf systems that were developed and now maintained by the private sector.

    I think the real challenge is figuring out how to improve government procurement and how to get government staff and private-sector staff to work together better. I’ve been involved in a number of procurements as a state employee. Sometimes vendors come in, do a bang-up job, and deploy systems that exceed expectations. Other times vendors come in and right from the start it’s clear that short term profit is their only motive and the systems they deploy are almost useless yet we as the public are stuck with the system because the funds have been spent.

    In my personal life I use a number of systems (banking, cell phone, etc.) developed by the private sector that are a pleasure to use while other systems are pure crap. When I get hoodwinked by a crappy vendor, I just take my business elsewhere. It’s simple. But when the government gets hoodwinked we all suffer. In the end, it’s the interaction between the public and private sectors that counts. There’s a lot of misrepresentation and fraud in the IT industry….. I’ve seen it as a public employee and as a private contractor…lots of waist on both sides, in my personal experience.

    When I think about the government as it relates to technology, to me it’s really a collection of private-sector vendors. Lots of sharks in those deep waters. Interesting discussion.

    Reply
    • Rum Tum Tugger January 23, 2018, 10:45 am

      Amen to that…I’ve been involved in federal, state, and local procurements for various transportation agencies as both a contractor and an employee and I firmly believe that the reason many such projects fail is poor communication and/or poor project definition (i.e. What constitutes success?) from both sides of the table.

      Reply
      • SpeedReader January 27, 2018, 8:35 pm

        RumTumTugger, I could not agree more. I remember traveling to a VA medical center to meet with them, the prime contractor, and a sub regarding perceived issues with a medical IT contract. The customer’s reps gave me a presentation of “this is our concept of how this would work”. I responded with, “But this is your contract.” Turns out those people had never been asked to participate in reviewing the vendor proposals, so they had no idea what their hospital had agreed to.

        Reply
  • Phil January 22, 2018, 1:45 pm

    I spent about 4 years pitching cost reduction to federal programs as a management consultant in the DC area. The low hanging fruit still exists because it is well-guarded by people who want their jobs and find it easier to protect inefficiency than create more efficient processes. Every seemingly-unspoilt opportunity for cost reduction is guarded by a GS employee making $160k (paid by taxpayers who practice badassity and hard work more than those bureaucrats) to protect that inefficient process.

    I’m sure the tech Mr. Cutt builds is cool, but it isn’t saving money.

    Reply
    • Phil January 22, 2018, 1:48 pm

      If MMM wants to start somewhere helpful, he could tell us about the budget process, which is broken. We won’t save money in government until there is a budget and an executive whose priority is to ensure that the employees don’t break the budget.

      Reply
    • Phil January 22, 2018, 2:23 pm

      I once categorized a substantial portion of government spending from budget requests, the financial statements of government agencies. I started the project with a ‘government is good, let’s make government more efficient’ attitude. By halfway, thru the categorization process, I was convinced that it’s all waste.

      When I worked with a federal program on a budget directly approved by Congress, the finance director said that she and the program manager only knew they could afford expenses “when the treasury dept. wrote a check.”

      Reply
  • Christine January 22, 2018, 1:51 pm

    Awesome! I was just thinking about this very thing since I had to go to the Las Vegas NV DMV today to get a license and plates for me. They have an amazing smart phone based appointment system that worked like a charm. I showed up at the time of my appointment to a special counter and was served within 5 minutes. I could hear non-appointment people being told that it was a 6 hour wait and would they like to make an appointment for later this week! Anyways, a tiny bit of technological advancement saved me today. Keep up the good work!

    Reply
  • stephani January 22, 2018, 1:55 pm

    https://mydmv.colorado.gov/

    This looks pretty smooth and easy to me. Yes, it’s a website and not a smart phone app…but it looks like it’s Responsive Design so probably works fine on your phone browser?

    Reply
    • Huxley January 23, 2018, 8:10 am

      don’t let facts get in the way of a good story..

      Reply
      • ZJ Thorne January 28, 2018, 8:07 pm

        My DMV lets me renew and replace over the internet as long as it has not been too long. When I had to go in, my time in building was under 10 minutes. And the building was immediately adjacent to public transportation.

        Not everything should be a smart-phone app, because not everyone has a smart-phone. Some folks will never want one and some folks can’t afford them. They deserve access to government services as well.

        Reply
  • Barrett January 22, 2018, 2:11 pm

    Great interview! A few years ago, Texas revamped its driver’s license process, and its overall process for all in-person visits to the DMV. Huge improvements, even if not completing everything by smartphone app. These governmental improvements can and sometimes do happen. Best wishes to USDS.

    Reply
  • Kyle McPherson January 22, 2018, 2:45 pm

    What is your bounce-back rate on the security clearance process? Uncle Sam is not nearly as forgiving about micro-dosing LSD or cannabis culture as the Bay or Seattle area institutions. Is there preferential hiring for veterans (who may have clearances already) and/or disabled folks?

    Reply
  • Frugal Bazooka January 22, 2018, 2:53 pm

    I’ve often wondered if government would be willing to invent themselves out of a job. If radical efficiency is accomplished and the federal/state and local work forces can shrink dramatically because of advancements in multiple areas…well, the problem is obvious. Can we reasonably expect any government anywhere to actually draw down their services and send themselves home to search for a job in the competitive work place?

    when was the last time a gov’t program accomplished it’s goal and was shut down and defunded? Most of us know the answer to that one…

    Reply
    • Phil January 22, 2018, 3:04 pm

      Even if this did happen (probably accidentally) an administrator would be on hand to ensure that the money got redirected to the next program instead of the treasury.

      Reply
    • Mr. Frugal Toque January 22, 2018, 3:05 pm

      In my experience, yes, we have lower-spending governments that are willing to lay off (or not re-hire as they retire) thousands of public servants.
      Other governments are willing to cut services – privatize education, cut back on the inspection of water sources or food processing plants.
      This happens all the time in various jurisdictions.

      Reply
      • Phil January 22, 2018, 3:21 pm

        What’s your experience? I spent a few years at a consulting firm where we offered to advise federal agencies on cost reduction by taking approaches exactly like that — voluntary separations, closing positions when employees retired, as well as business strategies like strategic sourcing to lower the costs of procured goods and services, like labor contractors.

        Sounds cool, right? And there are tons of opportunities to do this, right? But in 4 years, I watched 4 bosses lose their jobs because they couldn’t sell any work. Once, we actually sold a contract for cost reduction services, but it turned out that the program didn’t actually want to cut costs. They just wanted their overseers to think they were cutting costs, by hiring consultants.

        In a few moments of weakness they took baby steps. They closed all the open positions that had been open for over a year. Then, when the new fiscal year started, they opened up a bunch of new open positions. They offered a voluntary separation package to select employees who were close to retirement. Then, the managers tried to replace those people. When they weren’t allowed to do that, they hired those people back as contractors at a substantial mark-up.

        As a final step, we implemented a strategic sourcing plan to force the suppliers to lower the prices of the things they were selling the client. We were able to do that, but the department heads saw surpluses in their budget at the end of the fiscal year and spent it on sweetheart stuff for employees: TVs for lobbies, Yeti coolers, wasteful shit.

        TLDR: if there’s any savings to achieve in government cooperatively, I spent 4 years trying to find it. The only way to get savings is facepunches.

        Reply
        • Mr. Frugal Toque January 23, 2018, 5:54 am

          I was looking at results, actually, not methods.
          Ontario actually had a government that cut down on water systems maintenance. Canada had a government that cut down on meat inspections.
          We also briefly flirted with privatizing education.
          So, services definitely can be cut. And, as I mentioned above, the MTO (equivalent to your “DMV”)is now heavily automated where it comes to license/registration renewals.
          The federal government, some 10 years ago, also cut the public service quite a bit by refusing to re-hire as people retired.

          Reply
          • Phil January 23, 2018, 9:40 am

            I found a report that agrees with you. Cool — Canada (federal gov’t only, didn’t look at the territories) has shown that it can actually resist government ballooning. Figure 3 is most telling, because it shows that over the last 20 years, government spending as a fraction of GDP has reduced. In other words, the Canadian economy pays less for government than it did 20 years ago.

            https://www.fraserinstitute.org/sites/default/files/federal-fiscal-history-canada-1867-2017.pdf

            First challenge: is that because the economy grew or the government shrank? Actually the government shrank. The Canadian economy isn’t growing much:

            https://tradingeconomics.com/canada/gdp-growth

            Even cooler, though in mustachian style, you can’t get a big head about it or you’ll shave that stache right off. Second challenge: have territories been blowing their budgets up? I don’t have time for that one, I hope not, or they’re shaving off the stache.

            US government spending is increasing regularly as visible at the cabinet level, particularly the DOD. A couple years ago, the smartest people in the room, McKinsey, published a report saying that 25% of the DOD budget was waste, fraud, and abuse. Waste, fraud, and abuse aren’t technical problems that require technological solutions — they’re human problems that start when humans are wasteful, fraudulent, and abusive. Shortening the line at the DMV (in the US we have 50 different DMVs, and none of them are federal) won’t solve the estimated $125Billion in waste, fraud, and abuse in the Department of Defense alone. Human problem — human solution.

            My commentary is that Mr. Cutts (although he has a great name for a cost saver) is not using a methodology that will save anyone any money (except maybe the money he saves for himself with his hefty, incredible, holy-moly $160k/yr income), since that is the premise of the article.

            Reply
  • The Blue Dove January 22, 2018, 3:02 pm

    Also, put in five years with the federal government at those GS-15 rates, and you’ll qualify for a pension of about $700 a month in today’s dollars, which you can start taking at age 62. The pension has a cost of living increase, based on the Consumer Price Index., set by statute (which means it doesn’t have to be approved by Congress each year). Such a pension could be a nice hedge for a Mustachian, especially one that lives a long time. Other Mustachian benefits, you get to participate in the Thrift Savings Plan (401k) which has really low fees. You do have to contribute to your own health insurance, but the rates are terrific because of massive group buying.

    Reply
  • Jared January 22, 2018, 3:25 pm

    Here in Utah they built this massive DMV in the center of the Salt Lake Valley with probably around 50 help stations that have been fully staffed every time I have gone there. I’ve been there about 5 times in the past 6 or so years and have never had to wait more that 5-10 minutes! Although it’s been awesome to not have to wait very long, building massive DMV’s in every city is a terribly wasteful solution. I am glad Matt and him team are working on efficient ways to improve archaic government systems and processes.

    Reply
  • Jessica January 22, 2018, 3:27 pm

    Matthew: What is the timeline for updating the various immigration agencies? Particularly USCIS and EOIR (the immigration court). Unlike most other agencies and courts, they are still running on 99% paper filings.

    Reply
  • Paul Kurucz January 22, 2018, 5:06 pm

    One area you didn’t touch on is “resistance to change”. I was flying into SFO one Sunday morning and was the first person to enter the immigration area from our flight. There were at least 25 CBP agents waiting, and no-one there yet. When I went up to one with my passport, I was surprised when he took several minutes to question me. I had a completely simple tourist visit situation, and was super clean in terms of my historical context with the U.S. But the questions went on and on, growing increasingly irrelevant and the agent seemed to be working harder and harder to find new ones, but determined to keep me there.

    I puzzled for some time afterwards why this happened. And after more interactions at airports and border crossings I realized the answer: He needed to keep talking to me for as long as possible. Why? To justify his job.

    Many people working in government in America simply want to have a job and the security of knowing they are going to be able to pay their bills and be considered a useful and relevant part of their economy and society. They are not thinking of improved customer service, efficiency, smart phone apps, mustachianism, or personal freedom. They are trying to feed their families and live with as much dignity as they can.

    When governments make it safe for staff to innovate and focus on improved customer service by promising job security, respect, and continued relevance, staff will happily join into the tech revolution in improving services. But fearing for their jobs and livelihoods, many totally normal, hard-working, and well-meaning civil servants will not joyfully embrace change. A big part of government “inefficiencies” in the U.S. and around the world is a lack of emotional intelligence for government employees. Make them feel safe and most will be willing and happy to help co-create amazingly efficient, convenient, and tech-enabled government service systems.

    Surprise, surprise.

    Reply
    • Rob March 16, 2018, 3:27 pm

      They have an app for that. Its called “MobilePass” and its a mobile passport app officially authorized by the US Customs and Border protection. I have it, but haven’t used it yet. You can add your family, their passports and photos and answer the 5 questions about fruit and money and stuff in the app and then skip that at the line. Looks to be something a lot of people are not yet using, so you might be the only person in a special line. maybe it won’t work for a non-American, but for me it looks like it will save time and avoid that paper that they give you on the airplane to fill out.

      Reply
  • linus silvers January 22, 2018, 5:43 pm

    For Matt,
    What do you feel is the biggest wheel that is/was being constantly reinvented, in terms of already developed software/websites in government agencies?

    Reply
  • MH January 22, 2018, 6:00 pm

    Great article, thank you!

    Matt, my question for you – Are you really required to leave USDS after 2 years, or are you just required to renew your role? Coming from industry, it seems bizarre to me to enforce removing possibly the best talent or those that really know the systems.

    Reply
  • Jessica January 22, 2018, 6:07 pm

    Interviewing with the USDS was a terrible experience. They have a rolling interview process so you won’t know what role you are being considered for (if one is open at all) or get to meet anybody you would potentially be working with. An ex silicon valley guy with 3 cell phones will distractedly ask you random questions that seem plucked from unrelated lists. I think USDS and 18f have great missions but it’s still a silicon valley club of people who will stay for a year and think they did their charity.

    Reply
  • Mitch January 22, 2018, 7:04 pm

    Matt, I just want to say thank you for changing my life.

    Way back in 2015, you mentioned Mr. Money Mustache’s website during an appearance on the This Week in Google podcast (episode 295). When the episode came out, I had just accepted my first “real” job out of school and was in the middle of moving across the country for it (it was my first day in my new state and I was hunting for my first car and my new apartment). I had never heard of MMM or financial independence, but I ventured to MMM’s site and read all the back posts as quickly as I could. The knowledge I gained helped me choose the right vehicle and the right living location (as close to work as I can get) that would start me out on my journey to financial independence. Today, nearly 3 years later, I have progressed greatly in my FI journey, and have even brought many of my coworkers into the fold. I am on track to reach FI sometime in the next 6 or 7 years, provided that there is not a major market crash toward the end of my career or an apocalyptic event in the interim.

    It’s wonderful to see you come full circle with an interview on MMM’s site. Thanks again for what you have done for me, and surely many others as well.

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache January 23, 2018, 9:35 am

      Wow, I didn’t know this had happened either bit I’ll add my thanks to Matt for that too!

      Reply
  • Carol January 22, 2018, 7:09 pm

    Thanks for this article! It’s inspiring yet so sad when I think about how far we have to go. I’m working towards FI doing public service in a local gov’t (unlike many folks who follow this and other FI blogs). I must say, the level of inefficiency is astounding! I have a ton of empathy for local governments obviously as I know from the inside how things get to be the way are, but still…it’s maddening what employees and clients deal with. I can’t believe how much easier work life can be when I hear how smooth the electronic (non paper!) processes is for my friends at Google and other large tech companies.

    Mr. Cutts…can you convince any friends to help us in smaller, local systems? I’m in the bay area, surrounded by the best in the business and we need their efforts to help social programs. I wish there was a work holiday program where high tech staff can volunteer to help develop apps for both employees and client services, UX planning for our outdated websites that are barely navigable, and electronic HR systems but get paid by their wealthy employer.

    Reply
  • Kevin January 22, 2018, 7:14 pm

    As a transitioning military member I thank Matt for the working ease of vets.gov, I registered with them a few weeks ago and I have already started getting emails from them updating me on what’s going on as my clock ticks. There is a lot of good things that have come up digitally for the military in the last several years, it’s good to see technology being embraced.

    Reply
  • Mary Ryan January 22, 2018, 7:32 pm

    Retired from state government and making any changes means getting public approval, governor approval, legislature approval. In most cases, we are forced to accept the lowest bid for services. At least half the population thinks any expenditure, no matter how sane, efficient or money saving is highly suspicious. Generally voters want more services for less taxes so our budget is very limited. The problem may appear to come from within government but it really is a matter of having public support to update our systems.

    Reply
  • Tom January 22, 2018, 7:33 pm

    Alberta is an interesting example of government and private industry both managing “DMV / Vital Statistics / Corporate Registry” government systems.

    The government gives the equivalent of a franchise to a private business to offer these services to the public. One positive of this system is these “Registries” are abundantly located and the lines are not usually too bad.

    Unfortunately the downside is there is little incentive for them to modernize from the way things were done 40 years ago. Many of these franchises do not have websites and the ones that do appear to be optimized for Netscape Navigator. The monopoly created by these registries is that the government likely won’t introduce productive online systems which would make these registries/franchises redundant. The only exception to this is vehicle renewals which can be done online.

    A recent example of mine in interfacing with a registry was trying to do a corporate director search. It involved finding a registry with a website that offered these services remotely, filling out a web based form with the search, sending the registry a PayPal transfer, and then emailing the registry the PayPal transaction number and web based form transaction number. The process took over 3 days to complete something that should be instantly available.

    This may be one example of how privatizing these government services created a system which will keep us behind.

    Reply
  • Andrew January 22, 2018, 9:47 pm

    As an outsider to the US I always imagined that all of America was on the cutting each of things and ahead of everyone in the world. I was very surprised when I arrived to find some huge inefficiencies and backwards way of doing things. For example I couldnt believe that the check book wasn’t just still in use but pretty much required for a lot of things. Something that UK, Australia and South American countries haven’t seen since the 90’s! There’s definitely a lot to improve and it’s good to hear that somethings being done.

    Reply
  • Nathan January 22, 2018, 9:59 pm

    Great article! I really enjoyed this one. Government inefficiencies drive me crazy. I know all of them can never be removed but it’s good to know there are some people working on it!

    Reply
  • Deb New Zealand January 23, 2018, 4:00 am

    Proud to say that NZ is way ahead of the US in digital services. https://youtu.be/UlrSqLBSclI

    Maybe it helps not to have the capitalist baggage that working for the government is second rate.
    I’ve just started work on NZ’s first primarily online Census. The whole operation is astounding and aiming for 80% online completion.

    Reply
  • Erith January 23, 2018, 7:06 am

    Great Post
    There’s lots of opportunity across the world to ease bureaucracy.
    However, what I have learnt is that the bigger the IT project, the more likely it is to fail, so I think that the idea of resolving ‘bits at a time, that can be inter-linked in future is by far the best.
    By the way, in the UK, I was able to renew my Drivers licence online, the picture was taken from my passport. It took just a few minutes…I even renewed my passport online, uploading my own digital photograph! Such a lot easier. And my car tax is renewed automatically by direct debit.
    Now if they could just sort out all the other things!

    Reply
  • Rob January 23, 2018, 7:19 am

    My uncle was over for a visit just this past weekend. He owns a paving company (shameful, I know). He told me stories about the incredible lack of communication and waste between the Region and City. In many cases, he has ripped out and replaced roads that are only a year or two old, simply because of poor planning/communicating, or – worse yet – because of gov’t dollars that need to be spent by a certain time, or else given back. I was shocked that this level of inefficiency/stupidity still exists in North America.

    Reply
  • Franklin January 23, 2018, 7:30 am

    The Waterfall development methodology has long been a popular choice for running government software projects. Is that also the case for USDS projects?

    Reply
  • Freedom35 January 23, 2018, 8:17 am

    Matt,

    If your plan is to hire the best and most willing, why limit yourself to only US citizens, and not hire anyone with legal authorization (or pick the best, and get them work authorization). The latter approach is the one most tech companies follow, they want the best people, who ever they are. Is this a limit imposed from above?

    Reply

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