It’s actually the 3 1/2 year anniversary!

Congratulations on the launch and all you’ve accomplished since. However, it’s worth remembering that a startup isn’t born on the day that it is launched! In this particular case, there was a lot of work behind the scenes in the year and a half before the launch!

I remember when my wife, Jennifer Pahlka, first got the call from US CTO Todd Park asking her to join the administration as Deputy CTO. He wanted her to run the Presidential Innovation Fellows, an initiative loosely modeled on Code for America, the non-profit that Jen founded and runs. It was October 2012, and Jen and I were in London, visiting the UK Government Digital Service, the startup within government whose head was essentially a “CEO for Digital” within government, with remarkable powers to cancel failed big IT projects, and had become the hottest startup in London, drawing in the UK’s top tech talent. (Alas, the GDS is now under attack, with the new UK government rolling back its powers — a warning note that it’s essential for a new administration here to take proactive steps to support the USDS and 18F.)

Jen told Todd that she couldn’t leave Code for America, but that he really ought to stand up an organization modeled on the GDS. Todd didn’t give up, though, and over the next six months, he kept calling, until Jen finally agreed to take a one-year leave of absence from Code for America to join the White House, but only on condition that her primary responsibility would be to stand up what became USDS (and 18F.) She began the job in July of 2013.

I traveled with Jen to DC, and watched as she worked through the obstacles to setting up the new service, figured out where it would be housed (it turned out that the unitary model of the UK Government Digital Service, with both policy and delivery in the same unit, would be difficult to run out of the White House, so functions were split between what became USDS and 18F), wrote the Digital Services Playbook with Charles Worthington, Nick Sinai, Ryan Panchadsaram, and Casey Burns, and developed the TechFAR with the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, came up with the name United States Digital Service, and lobbied tirelessly for its creation.

The failure of healthcare.gov was both a curse and a blessing. It was obviously a disaster for the administration, saved only by a heroic rescue team of dedicated technologists. But it also made clear the need for change, and provided the kernel of the team that was to stand up the actual service as announced in August 2014.

The vision that Jen had championed was still not a sure thing, but the healthcare.gov rescue tipped the scales.

One factor that played an important role was a visit to Washington by GDS head Mike Bracken. The long-planned visit, part of Jen’s efforts to convince policy makers of the need for the USDS, was upended by the GOP-led government shutdown. Many of the planned meetings became impossible. But there was a silver lining. We arranged a meeting between Mike Bracken and Ezra Klein (then still at the Washington Post.) That interview led to a cover story in Bloomberg/Business Week in October 2013 contrasting the work of the UK Government Digital Service with the failure of healthcare.gov and making the case for emulating its work. This story helped crystallize the political will to set up the new unit. President Obama himself sent a thank you note to Mike Bracken after Mike stepped down as the head of the GDS.

Jen returned to Code for America when her one-year term was up. USDS was announced two months later. So as we celebrate the two year anniversary of the launch, let’s not forget all the work — and all the people — who were “in the room where it happened” — a tiny cramped office at the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Thank you, Todd Park, Jen Pahlka, Haley van Dyke, Charles Worthington, Casey Burns, Ryan Panchadsaram, Erie Meyer, Vivian Graubard, and over at GSA, Dan Tangherlini, Lena Trudeau, and others too many to mention. (I was just on the fringes — but these are people I most remember being part of the struggle to bring USDS and 18F into being.)

Written by

Founder and CEO, O'Reilly Media. Watching the alpha geeks, sharing their stories, helping the future unfold.

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