How the Private Sector Can Serve

On Monday, President Obama released his proposal for the 2016 budget. One of the things that stuck out most to me was his designation of $105 million to expand the U.S. Digital Service (USDS). This allocation would “give 25 agencies their own digital shops” as well as help build out the central USDS team.1

This is great news because it helps address a problem we’ve heard from countless public officials: recruiting tech talent to Washington. It’s not necessarily that engineers and other tech experts are uninterested in working in government, it’s that the incentives are so lopsided. High salaries, free meals, and stock options are hard to give up in exchange for the often slow-moving bureaucracy of government. The good news is that, according to FedScoop,“[t]he funding would be enough to hire about 500 new digital service employees total…which would give each of the teams an average size of 20.”2

All of this got me thinking: What if we could make it even more appealing for tech talent to come work for the Digital Service and other government agencies? And, perhaps even more interesting, what if the private sector also had incentives in place to encourage this? Generally speaking, the private sector tends to have greater resources at their disposal than the public sector. What if, rather than the government putting up big money to bring in tech talent, companies agreed to continue or give some benefits to employees who want to serve? It could range from allowing an employee to take a leave of absence rather than having to leave the company to letting stock options continue vesting while they serve.

So you might be wondering, “why would the private sector agree to this?” Well, as we have learned in our experience with T4A.org, many in tech, and the private sector more generally, want to serve. They want to give back and they want to do so in a way that utilizes what they’re best at, whether that’s writing code, coming up with big ideas, or designing products. To quote a few of our members:

 [quote author=”Rusty Rueff, Co-founder of T4A.org”]I believe that we each have the responsibility to bring our talents to bear to make our communities better. We each should be giving of our time, talents and treasures to help those who are working to improve our society.[/quote]”

[quote author=”Richie Goldman, Co-founder of Men’s Wearhouse”]I think that my role is to show up—to get involved in the areas that I feel passionate about.[/quote]

[quote author=”Jim Greer, Founder of CounterPAC”]I believe that the tech industry has tremendous potential to help, something we’ve barely started to do. How many names can we put up next to Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie? Gates? We need more of those.[/quote]

Tech companies are also becoming more civically minded and expressing a desire to give back to communities. In fact, we had an entire online roundtable on this idea last week: How to Reinvent the Tech Industry’s Social Impact. The general message was that, despite a reputation that may say otherwise, most tech companies want to give back. Salesforce.com CEO and T4A.org Executive Board Member Marc Benioff is one of the industry’s most well-known proponents of this. In fact, just this week, in an op-ed for the The Huffington Post, he asks companies to buy into something called “stakeholder theory.” Introduced by Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, this theory “asserts that corporate management isn’t just accountable to shareholders, and that businesses must focus on serving the interests [of] all stakeholders — customers, employees, partners, suppliers, citizens, governments, the environment and any other entity impacted by its operations.”3 In other words, as Benioff explains, “The business of business isn’t just about creating profits for shareholders — it’s also about improving the state of the world and driving stakeholder value.”4 Companies should engage in practices and activities that create positive impacts for a greater good. It’s not about making a profit, it’s about making a difference.

This was also the consensus from our roundtable. In fact, as Tabreez Verjee, Co-Founder & Partner at Uprising, a socially focused venture capital firm, pointed out, companies that incorporate a social or philanthropic focus to their activities tend to do better. He further described that there has been fifteen-fold growth of companies getting funded that are “working on things that actually matter,” or, as he describes it, companies that pass a “goosebumps test.” He also pointed out that purpose-oriented companies are far more successful in recruiting and retaining talent and that companies that care about communities, even if their product doesn’t have a social focus, tend to outperform. Bottom line: Giving back is good for business.

While our discussion focused primarily on giving back in a philanthropic sense, why can’t giving back come in the form of government service? If giving back and service are good for country and good for business, what do private sector companies have to lose in encouraging their employees to get involved?

It is relatively new for there to even be an opportunity like this, for the tech sector to be able to give back in their own way. This is an exciting way for the two sectors, private and public, to engage and together, solve some of the challenges we’ve been struggling with as a nation. In the short time they’ve been around, the U.S. Digital Service has been instrumental in the second launch of HealthCare.gov and are currently working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to digitize their services.5 They are making a huge impact and with more resources from the federal government and a mission to branch out into other agencies, this impact will only grow. So now that the public sector has expanded their resources to bring tech talent to Washington, what can the private sector do to encourage and incentivize those willing to serve? And even more interesting, how can we make this type of service more widespread?

Resources
1 Mitchell, B. (2015, February 2). President’s budget calls for 25 more digital services teams. FedScoop. Retrieved from http://fedscoop.com/presidents-budget-calls-for-25-more-digital-services-teams
2 Mitchell.
3 Benioff, M. (2015, Feb. 2). A Call for Stakeholder Activists. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-benioff/a-call-for-stakeholder-activists_b_6599000.html
4 Benioff.
5 Hochmuth, C. (2014, December 2.) What the USDS team is up to. The Business of Federal Technology. Retrieved from http://fcw.com/articles/2014/12/02/getting-started-at-usds.aspx