In 2015 I started the job of a lifetime as a Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF) during the Obama Administration. Three years later, by the end of my detail, I was hailed as the best candidate to lead a new GSA Center of Excellence on Transformation. But by then we were in the midst of a major shift in administrations, and uncertainty had taken hold across the government and the nation. This rocky transition and other factors—unsustainable personal sacrifices, and resistance from other innovators—ultimately led to my burnout.
When I began the fellowship, things looked very different. Huge technological shifts in government had just happened during the Obama Administration in organizations like PIF, 18F and USDS, as well as platforms such as Challenge.gov, and the mindsets started to shift as well. My work would be to define and scale the impact of these changes.
Weeks before the election in Fall 2016, I started working to translate two years of research on innovation and transformation into action at the General Services Administration. As the Administration transitioned, the future of this defining and scaling project appeared to be in jeopardy. Still I knew that, as former US CTO Todd Park, has said, “government is a relay race.” By Spring 2017, I decided to continue the next leg of the race. I convened innovators across government, and more than 150 people showed up in that first meeting to co-create our future. I committed to convening this group every two weeks.
That was the beginning of The Better Government Movement (the Movement). In the end, nearly 5,000 people joined the Movement in under two years, with more than 2,000 people from 112 agencies attending more than 100 workshops to form a shared language and community.
But at the height of this transformative work, I faced a few major personal and institutional hurdles. I made a lot of personal sacrifices to help this work thrive, between learning how to code Innovation.gov, juggling hundreds of volunteers, and getting into the weeds on every project. I knew my late nights weren’t sustainable, but seeing results pushed me to sprint harder.
At the same time, other key government innovators gave us a lot of pushback, and I was told that that they would resort to Machiavellian ways to preserve their legacy. On top of that, my biggest champions were not political appointees, and so they were not allowed to make decisions or have any power. The Administration needed at least a two-week approval window for each convening and talk, and there was no budget to expand the team.
Despite all the challenges, as the four years of my fellowship came to a close, it seemed like we were poised to take our hard work from the Movement and do it on a larger scale. With my new role leading GSA’s Center of Excellence on Transformation, I hoped the momentum would alleviate my burnout and give me a new challenge. Instead, my hopes were quickly dashed. White House leadership said I needed to align to the work they were doing without stating their vision. Two weeks later, the White House ordered the Administrator to reassign me back to the PIF program and dismantled Innovation.gov.
That week dealt a major blow to creating the better government that we’d envisioned—and to my ego. I learned that it was important to focus on self preservation and the ability to strike a delicate balance between being attached to an idea or project and being committed to it. Because after all, I needed to put the oxygen mask on myself before I can do it for everyone else and create the change that we wished to see.
I’ve been on sabbatical ever since my time as a fellow ended last December. Still I remain committed to the cause outside of government, grateful to have sprinted to my finish, ready for what the next generation of leaders will do with the baton.
Note: This blog was featured in New America’s The Commons “Therapy” Issue on May 29, 2019. To view the original post, visit the online blog here. Led by the Public Interest Technology team at New America, The Commons is a place where we’re figuring out the best way to do innovative work right alongside you.