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Headed West to Twitter, Katie Stanton Reflects on Washington

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, July 9 2010

Stanton on a State Department trip to China in May, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (To Stanton's left is Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats.)

As you might have heard, Katie Jacobs Stanton is hanging up her BlackBerry, moving from the State Department's Office of Innovation to a job with Twitter in the company's San Francisco office. I caught up with Stanton at her desk at the State Department earlier today, her last day on the government payroll, and asked her what lessons she's taking away from her time in public service -- not only her seven months at the State Department, as part of the small innovation team headed by Alec Ross, but her immediately prior 11 months working as part of the White House new media staff, headed by Macon Phillips.

Stanton's experience is, I think, an intriguing one at a moment when people are once again complaining that official Washington is where technological vision goes to die. Stanton offers some insight into why bridging the innovation gap in government can be so difficult.

"Being used to a fast-paced environment that isn't afraid to fail, where risk-takers are rewarded" explained Stanton, who was at Google before joining the White House shortly after the start of the Obama administration, "government is just a very different environment," she said with a laugh, invoking the gloss of bureaucracy as the art of making the possible impossible. Stanton was quick to praise the career State Department staffers and political appointees that make the institution a "passionate bureaucracy," and said she leaves optimistic about what the people who make up the State Department can achieve.

Stanton, who focused her digital diplomacy efforts at the State Department on mobile ("More people have mobile phones than have a toilet"), cites as success the $33 million raised for post-earthquake Haiti raised in just a week through the federal government using bully pulpit to get out word of an SMS short code. Other strong work: working with tech innovators like the team at Ushahidi to set up mobile reporting around elections in Sudan, an investment that paid off when staffers at the U.S. Embassy in Conakry, Guinea, called on the DC-based team for help using mobile in their recent elections. That sort of implicit permission to experiment is, argued Stanton, one of the more significant changes to come as a result of the recent push for a more innovative State Department in particular and U.S. federal government as a whole. Stanton also cites as a high point her May trip to China led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Stanton's role at Twitter will be as Vice President of International, helping to drive business and operational strategy around the globe. One of the big things left on her plate at her departure, she says, is making human rights data more accessible, machine readable. But as she leaves, new innovators flow the other direction. In May, Ben Scott recently left his job as Policy Director at the advocacy group Free Press, for example, to help drive Secretary Clinton's push on "Internet freedoms." Noel Dickover, known in these parts as co-founder of Crisis Commons, joined the State Department's e-diplomacy team just this Wednesday.

But there are still hurdles, among them some of the same challenges, annoyances, and obstacles that make actually doing the day-to-day work of government unappealing, or, in Stanton's case, impractical. The State Department, she says, needs more innovators and experimenters throughout in ranks, in a range of posts, but especially in mid-level jobs. "In Silicon Valley," she said, "you need more adult supervision. Here, you could use a lot more youthful energy." She went on. "We're almost missing a generation. I'm 40 years old, and I don't feel like there are many others like me."

Saying that the ranks of the federal government is devoid of innovators is unfair, inaccurate, and too easy. But it's worth something that there are so few that, in these circles, most can be referred to by their first name alone. (I was thrilled when Stanton mentioned someone inside an agency worth talking to whom I hadn't heard of yet.) Often, it comes down to the prosaic, details that leave serving government to those who, says Stanton, already make their lives in DC, or are wealthy enough to cover the complications. Stanton cites missing San Francisco -- her Twitter location has been switched to "California-here-I-come!," her husband's work with a start-up in California, the need to get her kids moved before the school year starts, a house owned in California impossible to sell in this real estate market. The result: innovating from inside the bureaucracy proved very expensive, even "illogical." Stanton is sure to express gratitude for her time in Washington, and those she worked alongside. But, she says, "We make it really hard for people to serve our country."