White House tries proving its tech cred by allowing programmers to keep their wrinkled shirts

Sometimes a wrinkled shirt is more than a wrinkled shirt.

Last week, the White House made news by announcing it had appointed Mikey Dickerson, a former Google engineer, to head up the new U.S. Digital Service, a corps of technologists tasked with helping the federal government redeem its tech projects in much the same way that Dickerson swooped in and helped save HealthCare.gov last fall. The White House today posted a video of Dickerson's employee on-boarding process and in the nearly 5 minute clip the White House makes much of Dickerson's appearance.

Dickerson, it seems, has not abandoned his rumpled, plaid, short-sleeved style simply because he'll be working in the Executive Office of the President of the United States of America.

"I'm not making this up," says the 35-year-old Dickerson, about his sartorial choices. "I'll put together a whole package if I have to of, like, the Facebook posts, the comments on the Internet, the emails that I get, from people who know me and people who don't, who want to know if I'm wearing a suit to work everyday. Because that's just the quickest, short-hand way of asking, 'Is this the same old business as usual, or are they actually going to listen?.' That's just how a lot of engineers think about it."

Indeed, it's often heard in technology circles that Washington's aesthetic sensibility, or lack thereof, discourages some technology experts from signing up for public service. It's not simply about comfort, though the cotton shirts and khakis favored by Dickerson, whose official title is the fancy 'Administrator of the U.S. Digital Service,' no doubt give a little bit more room to maneuver than a suit-and-tie combo. Nor is it particularly about individuality. At tech conferences, male programmers are often an indistinguishable parade of sneakers and low-top hiking boots, jeans and canvas pants, company t-shirts and patterned button-fronts. (Dickerson says that he's made the concession of giving up tees.) Instead, tech experts often speak of a sense that there is a meritocracy. It's not about the hoodie. It's about the code that the person inside it ships.

Attracting coders and designers into federal employees is key not only to what the Obama administration is trying to do with the U.S. Digital Service, but the 18F pod of technologists housed at General Services Administration and its Presidential Innovation Fellows.

And with the video, the White House is attempting to signal that government will change -- not the technologists it hires. Jeffrey Zients, now the director of the National Economic Council, helped lead the overhaul of the health-care Web site from inside the Obama administration. On the video, Zients praises the quality Dickerson's work salvaging the health care roll out and says that is reason enough for him to stick to what works. "My vote: no suits," says Zients. "Based on the HealthCare.gov performance, your performance there, do the same play over and over again."

That said, the question is whether the attempted culture shift can withstand the pressures of governing, much of which takes place in imposing rooms full of imposing people. There is one scene in the video of Dickerson in a suit. It's of him meeting with President Obama in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, discussing the redemption of HealthCare.gov. Obama has faced his own criticisms of being too casually attired in the West Wing, and it's clear that the president hasn't quite gotten the memo that expectations have changed. "They're starting to look official now," says Obama, emphasis added. "They've got suits and everything."

Dickerson, in blue-button down, yellow tie and blazer, shoots back: "This is literally only because you're here, Mr. President."

Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.
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