Mikey Dickerson, the man most often credited with rescuing HealthCare.gov, is now Administrator of the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), which has the even more ambitious goal of using technology to transform the way government works, not to mention the way Americans feel about their government.

See also: Inside Obama’s Stealth Startup on Fast Company

But at last month’s Velocity conference in Silicon Valley, Mikey used his experience dealing with what he called “the largest bureaucracy that’s ever existed” to help technologists spark change in the bureaucracies they have to deal with.


You can watch a video of the entire 20-minute presentation— Reflections on Mountain Moving, From the First Year of USDS—in the video at the bottom of this post. It covers the revolutionary work he’s doing with the Feds, and his plans for the future. But these 10 key quotes and best practices offer instant insight for anyone who’s struggling to work with large bureaucracies in healthcare, government, business, education, or anywhere else:

  1. “‘Bureaucracy’ and ‘politics’ are just words that mean how people make decisions in large groups. Much as engineers and technical people hate those words, bureaucracy is literally… nothing more than what happens when you have big groups of people and they’re trying to get something done or make a decision. It doesn’t matter whether you like it or hate it, it just is what it is.”
  1. “Anything that’s worth doing in this world involves organizing a large group of people.”
  1. “If you say you work in an office with no office politics, that’s like telling me you live in a place with no weather. The strongest possible true statement you could be making is that you live in a place where the weather is very predictable and doesn’t affect your life very much.”
  1. Don’t “bungee in to build a fancy new website or a fancy mobile app” and then bungee out again, leaving the agency owning the thing to operate it forever with no support.
  1. “The more simple you can keep your message and your goals and your founding statement and your principles… the better off you are.”
  1. Don’t get religious about tactics. “We like open source projects, but we like them because they tend to avoid vendor lock-in and some other stuff like that. We like open data… because a lot of times if we just make the data available, people will do a better job than we would have done with making it easily accessible and useful in building those shiny mobile apps… We like the agile development methodology in the cases where it leads to less waste.”
  1. “You are better off the bigger you can pitch your tent. The more people you can get into it, the better off you are. In large bureaucracies there are tremendous numbers of people that would call themselves stakeholders. And ‘stakeholder’ is a word that means someone who is either going to be part of the problem or part of the solution.” Obviously, it’s better to have them be part of the solution.
  1. “The playing field is always tipped in favor of people who want the status quo and don’t want anything to change. But you need to keep that population as small as you possibly can. [So] you have to make it as easy as you can—at least make it possible—for people who had been part of the problem in the past to change. You have to give them permission to come along and get on the bandwagon. [Otherwise] if they get convinced there won’t be any place for them in the new world, then [they will] dig in and resist what you’re doing.”
  1. “You have to be willing to make friends with people you might not have otherwise thought” you could ever be friends with.
  1. “These things are difficult, but they are not impossible…”

Note: You can find many of these points in the USDS’ Digital Services Playbook. And see also: Mikey Dickerson to SXSW: Why We Need You in Government


Capitol image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.


Fredric Paul (aka The Freditor) is Editor in Chief for New Relic. He's an award-winning writer, editor, and content strategist who has held senior editorial positions at ReadWrite, AllBusiness.com, InformationWeek, CNET, Electronic Entertainment, PC World, and PC|Computing. His writing has appeared in MIT Technology Review, Omni, Conde Nast Traveler, and Newsweek, among other places. View posts by .

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