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Time to Stop Treating Federal IT Specialists Like the ‘Nerds in the Basement’

Mikey Dickerson, administrator of the US Digital Service.

Mikey Dickerson, administrator of the US Digital Service. // Flickr user O'Reilly Conferences

The head of the White House U.S. Digital Service thinks it may be time to rethink the way technology careers are categorized in the federal government.

While the White House team has focused on recruiting top-flight Silicon Valley talent into government, upping Uncle Sam’s digital prowess isn’t only about increasing the sheer number of federal techies, according to Mikey Dickerson, the former Google engineer who leads the office.

Already the federal government employs some 80,000 IT specialists, according to Office of Personnel Management statistics.

But the job code denoting these employees, “mashes together a whole lot of things and the government doesn't distinguish between the job of installing the Wi-Fi routers and the job of designing HealthCare.gov,” Dickerson said Thursday during a “digital democracy” event on technology and politics sponsored by Yahoo! “They're both important jobs but they're very different jobs."

The way the feds classify tech jobs is also tied to limited salary ranges, making it hard for agencies to compete with tech companies for talent.

Still, restructuring the civil service is largely outside Dickerson’s purview, he acknowledged. “Civil service reform is a whole other can of worms,” he said, and “way beyond my reach.”

Instead, Dickerson, who leads an elite team of coders, engineers and other digital wizards who aim to turn around failing agency technology projects, said he’s focused on making sure federal IT specialists are empowered on the job.

Techies in government are too often cut out of the decision-making process, he said.

“The government has not moved past this mindset, where the IT people are, like, down in the basement,” Dickerson said. “And you have your meetings where you make all the important decisions and then you  write them down and send them down to the nerds in the basement and they'll figure it out...And we, being the leadership, just move on to the next problem and just assume that they'll figure out this computer thing someday."

That mindset flourished in the run up to the unwieldy and massively mismanaged launch of HealthCare.gov in the fall of 2013. Dickerson was part of the group of private sector experts called in to patch up the site and later tasked by President Barack Obama with leading the White House digital fix-it squad in August 2014.

Along with the sister effort launched by the General Services Administration called 18F, and the Presidential Innovation Fellowship program, there are now about 200 staffers working as part of the “digital service coalition,” Dickerson said -- including about 80 to 90 under his purview.

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