The United States government does not have a reputation for being innovative.
Haley Van Dyck, cofounder of the U.S. Digital Service, a 2-year-old federal startup with the mission to shake up government, aims to change that perception. At Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo., she delivered a pitch: come work with us.
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“We are very literally a startup,” Van Dyck said on stage in the main tent, mentioning that she has hired product managers, engineers, and designers from Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB), Amazon (AMZN), and Twitter (TWTR) to help transform the infrastructure of one of America’s oldest institutions. She urged people to join the project to “hack the bureaucracy and red tape that holds back innovation and progress.”
When the scrappy organization first debuted, Van Dyck said she wasn’t sure whether it would be able to attract the talent she hoped to recruit. “We thought if we’re lucky we’ll get 12 to 20 people to join,” she said. Now the digital service boasts a headcount of 167, Van Dyck said.
“The recruiting pitch is pretty simple—we don’t try to scare people away, we don’t try to hide how hard it is working in the constraints of government,” said Van Dyck. Instead, they lure their applicants by being honest, telling people they’ll be joining a passionate crew that is driven to reshape and improve the nation’s democracy.
Van Dyck cited projects improving electronic access to disability and education benefits at the Office of Veteran Affairs and work at the Department of Homeland Security as success stories.
“We work out of a basement where you’re lucky to find chair,” she said. Instead of a pingpong table, a fixture of the contemporary Silicon Valley startup, she joked that the digital service has other perks, “like the White House bowling alley.”
“It’s a service model that offers tours of duty as short as three months,” she said. And she added with a wink, “It fits in the sabbatical program of most companies.”