So now we’re gonna hear from Sarah Sullivan who is the Deputy Executive Director of the New Data Project and the team behind Vote With Me. Prior to starting NDP Sarah served in the Obama White House as a Senior Writer to President Obama and then as the first Chief of Staff of the United States Digital Service. And she’ll be our last presentation and then we’ll have closing remarks from Emma Coleman, former editor at the Commons. So, welcome, Sarah. OK, thank you. So I’m gonna tell you a story about telling the truth in government. Or, rather, tell you a story about telling stories about telling the truth in government. So it was 2009 and I was a student in Boston and I was working for the Senate President of Massachusetts at the State House. At the same time down in D.C. President Obama was vigorously working to pass the Affordable Care Act when a champion of the law and his sixtieth vote in the United States Senate, Senator Kennedy, died. My state legislature then faced a very big political decision which was to change a Massachusetts state law to get a replacement senator to vote on the law as soon as possible. The political incentives were very high. The Governor and the House Speaker came out immediately in support of this political change. But my boss, the Senate President, was taking her time. I was an intern at the time and I was reading her mail and she was getting a lot of incoming mail about this issue. So I got to read it and I had a chance to really think about it. And even though I could appreciate the political tension and realities, it became very clear to me that in this case the political choice wasn’t the right one. Sometime during this time my dad called me on the phone to catch up. I was at a Starbucks in line one morning and he said, “What’s new?” And I said, “Oh you know my boss is gonna make a political decision that everyone else is making but she really shouldn’t do it because it’s not right. And I think it could backfire.” I definitely wasn’t asking for advice and I didn’t even really know I was telling him this when he said, “Are you gonna tell her?” I was like, “Oh yeah. No. Definitely not.” And he was like, “Well why not?” “Uh, like, well, I’m an intern. And like I don’t know maybe I get fired or something?” And he said, “Okay. How much money do you make?” And I said, “Really not very much.” Sometimes parents will sit you on their lap and stroke your back and tell you it’s okay. And sometimes parents stand you up. To see what you’re made of. My dad stood me up and he said, “If you won’t have courage when you have nothing to lose, when will you ever?” That conversation in that Starbucks line that morning became one of those formative moments in my life. And it wasn’t because I told the Senate president my truth or my recommendation on what she should do. It was because I didn’t. I didn’t do that. I didn’t tell her. I didn’t even really try and I got to watch the politics unfold in a really wild way that actually wasn’t good. And I’ll never get to know if I could have influenced it because. I didn’t try and I got that taste of cowardice that taste of failing at courage that has stuck with me. So now it’s 2015 and I’m working at the United States Digital Service which is President Obama’s technology team that came after healthcare.gov, sent to work on his most important technology problems. And it’s the heat— It’s late 2015. It’s the heat of the migrant crisis the heat of the 2016 primary cycle. Refugee admissions is a huge national issue. It’s the last year the president is overseeing admissions on this program and the administration really doesn’t want to get anything wrong. So they send in USDS just to like, check it out, and they want to see if the government is on track to hit the president’s target of admitting 85,000 refugees into the country by the end of the year. So we put a USDS team together that I was on to go and find out and we started conducting interviews up and down and sideways throughout the whole program. You may know that admitting refugees into the US is among the most labor-intensive services of federal government. It takes many years to review one application and a single application can touch as many as 10 federal agencies in the process. So it’s this huge, huge thing. Make no mistake. After just six weeks of looking at this program we did not know more about this program than the hundreds of federal employees that work on it. Some employees spend their lives mastering a single step in this process. We obviously didn’t know more than that. But what we were given was a vantage point that others weren’t given. We were specifically asked to look at the program from end to end and we were asked to go up and down and sideways to find out if the government was going to reach the goal reach the goal so that up and down part we could meet with the sub sub sub sub sub sub subcontractor in a basement somewhere (because they are always in a basement) and we can go way up to this cabinet secretaries and the White House chief of staff and sometimes even the president. And sideways we could go between agencies to the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security and the different intelligence community groups. After a few weeks we start to put together a picture that is not particularly savory and that we are very much behind track toward the overall number. And we started to put together the bad news that we probably weren’t going to hit it without some important changes. Luckily we had the opportunity to tell the truth in a very relaxed very casual setting known as the White House Situation Room. Super chill. And USDS is there. So are people much much more senior than us and like we all do. We waited for someone else to tell the truth. We waited for someone to maybe just imply or even ask the question of where we on track. And then we could chime in. But of course it doesn’t work like that. Somehow telling the truth never works like that. And when you are the only one in the room who seems to have the only perspective that you have on the truth we can give ourselves a million reasons to not jump off the cliff. We are not the smartest. We are not the most experienced. There are more senior people in this room. People who have worked longer on this program than us. Maybe we’re wrong. Maybe those six weeks we got an answer that was wrong. There’s a million ways to not tell the truth but that’s not what we did. And we told the truth in that room which that was a truth bomb that escalated and then obviously we got to tell it to another very just super low key stakeholder known as the White House Chief of Staff and who was very surprised to learn this news, which is fun. Ultimately telling the truth those days created the space to actually address the problem. And it allowed decision makers to see what was really happening, decide to reallocate resources, decide to make some changes, and it allowed us, the technology team, to make a few technology changes. I tell you these two stories back to back because we often talk about these heroic epic tales of bravery and government where we stood up in the scariest room possible and spoke the truth when lives are on the line and it mattered and how we’ll do that when it’s our turn. But I really think that we won’t do that. Not if we haven’t been practicing it. Not if we haven’t had the opportunity to fail at courage to taste the bitter taste of cowardice. To know what it feels like to not want to do that again. And I actually don’t think that telling the truth gets easier. I think you just get more practice. And USDS is a technology organization and there are major technology problems in government.. But I personally actually think of the U.S. Digital Service as more of a truth-telling organization than a technology one. And if what we really had to scale was a team’s ability to tell the truth in government then what we had to do is give them a chance to practice telling the truth. We had to value telling the truth and reinforced telling the truth. I’m sure there’s lots of ways to build that in a culture but a way that we did that was by telling stories. We told stories about telling the truth. It was crazy as the staff grew to 200. We had a staff meeting room that still only fit 40 people and each week everybody would pilot and sit shoulder to shoulder and on the floor and it got really really hot and people get really sweaty and it didn’t make any sense. I was like, “Why don’t people just stop coming to the meeting?” And I have no room. But they didn’t. They kept coming (and partly they were supposed to) but I think partly it was that people liked the stories. People wanted to hear the stories of truth telling and government. And we used that space to do it. I remember when Dave Kauffman, who joined the communications team, came on at USDS and his first assignment was to codify the USDS values. And yes, he was interviewing all these people to get their two cents throughout the organization. And I was like, “Look, Dave, you can skip my interview like I’ll save your time. I have a lot of them. So long as one of the values is literally: tell the truth. And he was like, “Cool,cool yeah, like I’m gonna workshop that like that’s great.” I was like, “No it has to literally be tell the truth.” And he’s like, “Right, right. I got you, I got you. I’m playing with it.” And I was like, “Sit down we’re doing an interview.”. And I began telling him stories about telling the truth. Stories like the refugee program. Stories about how we needed to train people to tell the truth in scary rooms. And he stopped me being one of them and was like, “Oh my God. I think one of the values has to be ‘tell the truth.” I was like, ok, there we go. We created this like, slightly cultish, definitely special ceremony, coin ceremony for new members and this membership ceremony was rooted in these values and rooted in telling stories about the values. And because there is no quicker way to tell stories. There’s no shortcut to telling stories, I’ve found. Eventually when I was Chhief of Staff, every two weeks with new members, I sat down and for four hours straight we just told stories. We told stories about telling truth and how to do the hard thing in government. So in that refugee story sometime after, the dust settled. We got a call from White House Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, telling us that the President was having a bad day and that he thought we could cheer him up. Which if you’re getting the picture of this team, the idea that we would be the ones to cheer anybody up is hilarious. But anyway, I also don’t know what it takes for a President to have a bad day and we definitely were not going to ask. But Mikey Dickerson, who’s here, our Aadministrator at the time, showed up to the Oval Office later that day along with Eric Hysen and Raph Majma who were USDS leaders who were leading the teams most responsible for the refugee work. So they show up to the Oval Office and do their best to pick up the President by telling him their tales about how they had helped the refugee program and how another USDSer, Stephanie Grosser, had worked tirelessly to make it so that DHS officers could digitally sign a form rather than hand signing it. Which may sound simple enough but there were DHS officers flying around the world just to be in the same location as their paperwork to sign it. And amending that saved them from having to travel and shaved weeks off of the whole process. They’re telling the story to the President and he apparently is, you know, very grateful that we helped meet the goal and very grateful that, you know, that we had helped get there and whatnot but he was like so appreciative. “You’re telling me that my government didn’t know that you can digitally sign a form before you guys showed up?” And they’re kind of like I don’t know what to tell you but this was our innovation. But I think in that moment he was seeing some of what we saw which is that the technology was not always the hardest part. The hardest part that we found was being able to find the truth, was being able to tell the truth, and then having the courage to actually do it when the moment came. We taught our staff to tell have courage by telling stories. So, what stories are you going to tell?