Balancing priorities and values

A U.S. Digital Corps Fellow’s perspective on speed of government
Feb 8, 2024

When I received an offer to join the federal government as a U.S. Digital Corps Fellow, I wrote a pros and cons list. Listed in the cons list was the word “slow.” Before joining the civil service, I thought the federal government was slow for no reason. Now that I have been here for over a year, I see how my focus on speed was missing the bigger picture.

Balancing other priorities and values simply takes time. Here are a few of the good reasons why.

Reducing the paperwork burden on the public

The Paperwork Reduction Act, a 1995 federal law, seeks to reduce the paperwork burden on the public. To do so, a change in how any federal agency gathers information from the public must be reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget. Agencies must explain the purpose of the change, how the information will be used, and how the burden on the public can be minimized while still satisfying the agency’s goals. This clearance process can take a few months and includes a 60-day request for public comments. The timing is due to good intentions: agencies should be careful and thoughtful in how they gather information from the public so as to not haphazardly burden them with redundant questions and forms.

In these cases, the government thoughtfully considers the public’s time.

(See’s Guide to the Paperwork Reduction Act for information and resources about the Paperwork Reduction Act and approval process.)

Protecting personal information

In the spirit of reducing burden to the public, I previously wondered why certain federal forms requested information that would be found elsewhere in the government. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs VA Form 21P-534 (PDF, 1.9 MB, 13 pages), used by a veteran’s spouse or child to apply for benefits, asks about income information. The form states that “VA matches income information reported with federal tax information,” meaning it requires people to list information that is already known by other federal agencies. While there are other factors that lead to this situation, one source of this duplication is the Privacy Act. If you give your personal information to the IRS to file your taxes, the IRS is responsible for protecting your information. There is no monolithic “government” that has everything in one place, and for good reason! The IRS cannot share your personal information if you did not consent to it.

In this case, the government places a premium on protecting individual privacy.

Serving the public means serving everyone

In the private sector, identifying your customer segment is a core part of a successful business model, as addressing and serving a narrower audience is an easier feat. Finding “product-market fit” is a critical step for any new business, which involves deciding who will be your target audience and who will not. Federal agencies do not, and should not, operate the same way. Federal programs, services, and agencies are tasked with serving everyone, including populations that the private sector may intentionally omit. When designing a digitized federal service, how do you ensure people with disabilities are able to access your service? Or people without internet access? Or people with unstable housing? Working to ensure a program meets the needs of the public takes more time than leaving folks out of the picture.

In this case, accessibility and equity for all are of utmost importance.

Serving the public means an enormous scope

The work and operating budgets in the federal government are mind-boggling. For example, the General Services Administration owns or leases over 363 million square feet of property. In 2022, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services processed over one billion Medicare claims (PDF, 5 MB, 132 pages). Just a single office within a single division within a single department manages $6.29 billion across seven grant programs (the Office of Community Services, within the Administration for Children and Families, within the Department of Health and Human Services). Coordinating this scope of resources and responsibility, simply put, takes time. An ocean liner will never be able to turn and pivot as quickly as a jet-ski.

In this case, the government’s scope and breadth means that time is a necessary element to good service.


I’ve found it helpful to take a step back and remind myself of the unique priorities and values facing the federal government that require moving more thoughtfully and purposefully. Overall, my time as a civil servant has been more rewarding and fulfilling than I could have imagined, leaving my initial pros and cons list in the dust.