Jeff Singer

Putting People First

Hillary Hartley of the young upstart agency 18F wants your online interaction with government to revolve around your needs.

As deputy executive director at 18F, the federal government’s digital services team, Hillary Hartley’s job is to put customers at the forefront of any technology project.

The bit of irony for this small-town Kansas gal turned big-city tech innovator is that if 18F—part of the General Services Administration—is truly successful in instilling best digital practices across government, Hartley and the rest of 18F’s growing bicoastal team might just work themselves out of a job.

Of course, that’s unlikely given the government plans to spend $86 billion on information technology this year alone. What’s more likely, however, is 18F gradually imbuing agencies with user-centric, data-driven principles. The result: Digital services designed to meet both government missions and user expectations.   

“What we settled on as the true transformative concept for how to create change in government and redesign government is that concept of user-centered design,” says Hartley, speaking from her San Francisco home near 18F’s West Coast offices. “We put the needs of citizens, residents and the people of America first . . . The federal government is a prime market mover. If some stuff we make works well and people want to steal it, that’s awesome.”

Raised in rural Baxter Springs, Kansas, Hartley was “always a math and science geek,” and her father’s penchant for modern gadgets fanned the flame. A self-taught technologist, she studied sociology at Smith College, but worked in tech support on the side. Hartley later worked in New York as creative director for a small startup and parlayed her experience into a Presidential Innovation Fellowship, where her star began to really shine.

“I got lucky,” she says. “I don’t think I’m exceptionally talented as an artist or designer, but I have a good enough eye to make things look nice and work well for people.”

That may be an epic understatement given Hartley’s recent success, yet her approach to digital services mirrors that of 18F’s—for the people. 

“If we have done our jobs so well being an advocate for good practices and being educators and empowering people we work with to learn how to do the things we do,” Hartley says, “and if we’ve done that part of the job so well that we don’t need to exist . . . then that’s a win.”

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