Two federal IT alums explain how to how to 'hack bureaucracy'

Nick Sinai and Marina Nitze discuss their new book.

Nick Sinai and Marina Nitze discuss their new book. Photo courtesy Marina Nitze and Nick Sinai

Marina Nitze used to think the government was broken. The former chief technology officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs changed her tune, and now has a book out with Nick Sinai on how to navigate bureaucracies in and out of government.

Marina Nitze thinks people need to learn how to get work done in bureaucracies, as opposed to complaining about them. 

That idea is a central premise in the new book she co-authored with Nick Sinai called Hack Your Bureaucracy: Get Things Done No Matter What Your Role on Any Team, which came out in September.

The pair does have some experience navigating bureaucracies. Nitze is the former chief technology officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs and currently a public interest tech fellow at New America Foundation and partner at Layer Aleph, a crisis response firm.

Sinai is the former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer and currently an adjunct faculty member at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a senior advisor at Insight Partners, a software venture capital and private equity firm. 

They talked with FCW about their new book. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is bureaucracy hacking?

Sinai: We mean bureaucracy hacking in the sense of being able to get stuff done in an organization at an impact, rate, scale beyond the resources under your control.

Often times, bureaucracy hacking means trying to get a particular project, initiative or product out the door, but we also are excited about the systemic changes that really good bureaucracy hackers do. They leave the world and their organization better off while they're advancing their particular initiative.

There's a fair amount of rhetoric about "breaking" the bureaucracy that swirls around in the government space. Is bureaucracy a bad thing?

Nitze: Bureaucracy is a neutral thing… What is much, much, much more effective than blowing it up, or trying to go around it, or trying to go under it, is learning how the bureaucracy actually works and making the systemic change.

Sinai: It's just a fact of life that organizations, and especially government agencies, are going to have rules and processes for efficiency, for fairness, for being able to bring in the right subject matter expertise.

Your book has a lot of tech-related examples. I was hoping you might be able to talk about the relationship between tech and bureaucracy in the federal government space.

Nitze: Technology is a hugely overlooked and missed opportunity for changing the bureaucracy. It can often be your Trojan horse, where instead of taking all the processes and steps that you currently do today, codifying them in an [request for proposal], and then seeing them come out in a technology IT system, it's an opportunity to fundamentally relook at how you're conducting a process, what your handoffs are, what your [key performance indicators] are, etc. 

Sinai: We should strive to balance the continuity – It's a feature, not a bug of an organization. Because you have a lot of people who work in it, you have a lot of people who are beneficiaries, or stakeholders or customers, that continuity, even if it's imperfect, is actually something that is good. – with the fact that the world may have changed and customer needs and employee needs may have changed.

Nitze: When I was at the VA, we helped get cloud computing in place … You have to remember that there are hundreds if not thousands of GS 14s and 15s who have developed expertise and pride in their career in maintaining the current server. To go in and just flippantly say to them, "just get a cloud certification on Saturday" fundamentally misunderstands humans and incentives. 

You have to think through the impact, not just on the bottom line and on the end user, but also on the employees … to find a middle ground that really works for everybody.

What's one thing you want people in the government tech space to know from your book?

Nitze: Our tactic "try the normal way first." There's a lot of so-called "water cooler rules" around what is allowed, what is not allowed.

Try the actual normal process first. Step by step, fill out the form, go to [the Office of Personnel Management], whatever it may be. Either that will work, which might surprise you, or it will help you understand the exact parts of the bureaucracy that you need to change to make the new thing work.

Sinai: My one tip would be to cultivate the karass. It's this term in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle - this idea of the universe putting a bunch of people on Earth that you may not know that you are destined to kind of make an impact together. 

How do you find that informal network of people across different agencies, across different functional areas inside and outside of government who can help you get stuff done and make a big impact?

Did you guys have any particular experiences that made you want to write this book? 

Nitze: I think the story in the opening of the book – President Obama being upset with my progress – was certainly a moment of understanding the tremendous power of the bureaucratic process itself.  Even the President of the United States cannot necessarily overcome an [authority to operate] form.

The VA has been seeing some accolades for their CX efforts lately. Barbara Morton, deputy chief experience officer, recently won a Sammie from the Partnership for Public Service for her work. Why do you think some of these efforts have been successful? Many other agencies try to do similar things, and don't see the same results.

Nitze: I think the VA has had and continues to have some really masterful bureaucracy hackers who understand how the VA works. Look at Barbara Morton... She grew up at the VA. She was an appeals attorney… They really have had a history of leaders that not just envisioned change, but deeply understood how you get there in a very large organization. Hopefully it's a message of hope… The VA was in a bad spot in 2012. We were on the front page of The New York Times every day. 

Sinai: I would also sing the praises of Marina as a really impressive, humble can-do leader who built a digital services team that has persisted… I do have to give a ton of credit to Marina and [VA CTO Charles Worthington] as servant leaders who really have attracted great talent to the VA.

Nitze: And I think strangling the mainframe is a great thing to bring up, especially as we look at some agencies right now that may be getting many billions of dollars to do modernization very quickly. The only thing that will succeed for them is to not do all those billions of dollars of work at once. They have to start with one thing and build on it. 

Barbara Morton is an amazing example here. The VA tried to make it so that a veteran could update their mailing address in one place 18 previous times. It never worked because every time the approach was the same, which was we're going to get our arms around all the requirements of all the different places you can change your address and then we're going to build one big solution. Barbera's approach … was the opposite of that. 

Strangling the mainframe is really that you need to bite off an end-to-end process that affects some users and redesign that fundamentally. Then if that takes, you get to shut off a little period of the mainframe. And then you do the next piece and the next piece until at the end, perhaps you can replace your mainframe because all that's left in it are a couple of smaller functions.  

What are the other magic ingredients to bureaucracy hacking we haven't covered?

Sinai: People flow! I say this as someone who helped start and for a brief amount of time run the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program. Look at the people that it has brought into government – my co-author; PIFs have helped rescue; they've been a part of the founding of 18F and the US Digital Service; they have gone on to now be CTO at VA and other important positions around government. It just continues to pay dividends… I just think those things helped make stronger organizations, whether you're flowing people in or you're flowing people out in terms of externships, sabbaticals, etc.

You guys have mentioned hope a few times. Why should people be hopeful?

Sinai: I see so many mission-oriented people inside of government who want to do the right thing… and you see all this opportunity space … why not go after it with the same level of enthusiasm and sheer passion that we talked about startups in this day and age?

Nitze: I came into government when Nick tricked me into coming into the federal government through the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. I believed that the government was fundamentally broken and you couldn't do anything about it. I was totally wrong. My hope in writing the book was to … give examples that it actually is possible to make change. Bureaucracies actually change all the time. If we learn how they work, rather than lamenting their existence, we can all live in a much better world.