How to work for better government…without working for the government

Elizabeth Goodman
December 1, 2020

The heated election season — and the change in administration — is spurring a lot of interest in government tech jobs. I was previously a federal government employee with 18F; I highly recommend it. Take a look at Erie’s excellent article for tips on federal government jobs. However, you may not be able to work directly for federal, state, or local government. If so, this article is for you!

Icons from the Public Services Line 0000050 Collection by Eucalyp

There’s a lot of reasons why you may care deeply about the public good but look for a job outside of government. Perhaps you can’t move to where the jobs are. That was my situation when I termed out of 18F. Though I would have loved to stay with the federal government, I couldn’t find another civil service job that worked for my family commitments in San Francisco. Perhaps you’re ineligible for some other reason, such as immigration status. Non-governmental organizations can also pay more or offer more schedule flexibility in ways that are important to you and your family. Or, most frustratingly, you could do the work but your resume doesn’t have the exact qualifications you need to pass the very literal, by-the-book tests applied in government merit hiring.

Luckily, you’d be surprised at how few government digital services in the United States are actually built by government employees. Federal, state, and local governments outsource much interesting, socially beneficial work to companies and organizations. There’s no shortage of options. And that’s the hard part. Speaking as someone who’s been there, I know it can be difficult to find your way through a very crowded, complex landscape.

I’m very happy where I ended up, but everyone has different goals and needs. It’s worth taking the time to list out what really matters to you, in your life. Here are a few questions you might ask yourself as you start looking.

Caveat: We’re not endorsing any organizations. Any links or resources we provide are for illustration purposes only!

What do you want to do?

Build and transform

The most well-known stories of government service often concern building new digital systems — whether creating the digital infrastructure for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or building (then rebuilding) Healthcare.gov. But it’s actually relatively rare for civil servants or contractors to build new systems for new programs — especially for core social services such as healthcare or housing.

More typically, doing right by the public as a contractor involves the slow transformation of important tools for long-running services. “Disruption” may be a positive term in startup-land, but it’s not acceptable in the context of Social Security checks. If you yearn to move fast in building something new, you might consider joining a business or non-profit that creates its own products.

Advocate and research

Public service technology work doesn’t always require hands-on building. Civil society or advocacy organizations make positive change by lobbying, research, legal work, and policy. These are best for technologists who want to guide governments towards more productive use of digital technologies, but don’t feel as compelled to do the building themselves. It’s always possible to work for one of those organizations in a technical support role, too — which can be more satisfying for those who may feel too constrained by the non-partisan neutrality required by civil service employment. Some examples include: Center for Democracy and Technology, Internet Society, the Partnership on AI.

If you know that what you really want to do is advocacy and research, then stop here. Otherwise, read on for more suggestions on finding a way to build products that works for you.

What business model makes you comfortable?

Yes, the source of revenue matters even in building tools for governments. How an organization is funded affects the kind of projects you take — and the kinds of tradeoffs you might have to make. Just like in the private sector, there are two main money-making methods: making products and providing services.

Government-oriented product businesses

These companies create their own tools that government (or semi-governmental entities like public utilities) then license or buy outright. Some specialize in local governments, which have shared needs and usually cannot afford to develop a whole product end-to-end in-house. Others serve federal agencies for similar reasons: most agencies operate independently of each other (and purchase products separately) but have similar needs.

This situation is great if you want the flexibility and speed of a commercial product team while still serving the needs of the public. However, government-oriented businesses are still businesses. Depending on their funding model, they may face the same pressures from investors as any other startup. And if you want to feel integrated into the day-to-day of public service, you might not enjoy a sales-driven business culture.

Examples include: Token Transit, Remix, NextRequest

Public-oriented corporate divisions

Just about all the big tech companies (the kind that get hauled up in front of Congress) also have divisions that do government-related stuff with well-meaning aims. Depending on your feelings about “big tech,” these groups may feel like a shortcut to having a huge impact — or perhaps uncomfortably close to a mindset you want to escape.

Examples include: Google.org, IBM’s Business of Government Center, Facebook’s Civic Integrity team

Non-profit technologists

Non-profits also create products for state and local governments. They function like any vendor, but with a different tax status. As such, they may rely just as much, or more, on grants and donations to fuel their work as they do on licensing and contracts. That means they’re highly dependent on the priorities of their funders. Unlike joining a product company, joining a non-profit means committing to its mission, wherever it takes you. Any specific product will likely be secondary.

Examples include: VotingWorks, Code for America, The Center for Civic Design

Government contractors

I’m going to spend the most time on contractors because I knew least about them as a newcomer. Traditionally, contractors built/implemented/maintained/updated digital systems, with career civil servants providing management and oversight. That division of labor is changing with the growth of digital service teams within federal, state, and local government agencies, but there’s still far too much product work for government employees to do it all.

For most people in the US, “government contracting” means the Bigs —a few companies that employ thousands of workers. As I got more familiar with the world of government digital services, I grew aware of the complex ecosystem of what we’ll call the Mediums and Smalls. It can be a little overwhelming. If you’re reading this, we assume that you know what the Bigs are, and would rather work for more tightly-knit organizations driven more by public good and less by corporate profits.

Much of government contracting will be familiar to anyone who’s worked in a private sector consultancy. There are proposals, there are bids, there are clients, there are billable hours. One way to start navigating that landscape is to start filtering out companies based on what interests you most, professionally. Medium and small companies know they can’t do everything, so they have to find a niche. Yet figuring out if you’ll actually find a good home for your skills and interests can take some detective work.

That’s especially true for technical skills. It’s relatively easy to find companies committed to sub-specialties such as security, AI, or multi-lingual communications. Webpages tend to advertise those up front on the home page — especially the subspecialities that command higher rates. But what if you care about skills that are…less high-end?

Coming from design and research, for example, I wanted to join a company committed to deep and thoughtful research practice. But in a world where just about every “government digital services” provider advertises UX, it’s hard to measure commitment by scanning a website. One trick is to inventory titles on a company team page or on LinkedIn. How many engineers? How many designers or researchers? How many product managers? Which functions have a named “chief,” “head,” or “director” role? That last one is key. A company with no named director/head/chief of design probably isn’t going to prioritize designers much in business strategy, and might not have a lot of career growth opportunities. You can still join, of course! Just set your expectations accordingly. (This might sound obvious, but it trips up the best of us.)

If you care most about keeping your skills in a specific platform or toolset up, that’s also possible. Some contractors do clearly stick to a platform: ie, they’re a Drupal shop, or have standardized on Ruby. There is more than enough work for those companies, and they do exist. It just takes a little more legwork for them. You may have to dig into case studies and job descriptions, or search the site for the right keywords.

Alternatively, you might be less interested in specific skills and more interested in specific issues or domains, such as healthcare (like my current company, A1M). Any domain focus is usually clear on the home page, and occasionally in a list of clients or work samples. Joining a domain-focused services company may mean losing touch with specific technical skills. If, say, you care about racial justice issues but really only want to do DevOps, consider joining a product business. It’s going to be hard to do both consistently, over multiple engagements, in a small service provider.

Where do I start?

Checking out companies in the Digital Services Coalition is a good starting point but not the be-all and end-all.

You can find others through the boards below.

Or, try search terms like “civic tech,” “gov tech,” “public interest tech,” plus your particular interests.

Good luck!

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Kristine, founder and CEO, aligns the vision and strategy of A1M with our purpose. With 25 years of federal healthcare industry experience, she founded A1M to promote humane and sustainable change.

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