J.J. Walcutt says she had to step out of the shadows of government in order to elevate those still obscured by them.
When J.J. Walcutt, then a human innovation fellow at the Office of Personnel Management, was sitting in a meeting while on detail at the Defense Department, all of the 25 high-ranking officials in attendance agreed the government had the technology to securely deploy Wi-Fi at Pentagon-run schools.
Walcutt was surprised, then, when everyone also agreed the Wi-Fi proposal would not get implemented. As it turned out, a similar group had met annually and reached a similar conclusion for more than a decade.
Why, then, was the technology not being set up? Why were the various schools continuing to remain far behind what has become a standard and necessary tool in any modern classroom? That question inspired Walcutt to run for president.
“Nobody wants to take the chance that something will go wrong on their watch,” says Walcutt, a longshot candidate seeking the Democratic nomination in the 2020 race. “So, our warfighters are at a disadvantage over fear.”
In her few years in government, Walcutt saw that the expertise that already exists within agencies is not being harnessed. Solutions are easy to come by, she says, but political operators without inside knowledge of the machinations of the federal bureaucracy inhibit innovation. The pieces are already in place, but nobody knows how to connect the dots.
Walcutt says she is in a unique position to change that.
“We are told to keep our heads down and not speak,” she says of the federal workforce. “It’s one of the things that is most concerning. You are hired as an expert, and then you are told what your answer is. So your ability to do your job is incredibly hindered.”
This leads to people who entered government service excited to effect change leaving out of frustration, Walcutt explains. They are stifled while in their jobs, then the government loses their expertise altogether.
“And then you lose who it is they speak to who says ‘I’m not going to be willing to go into government because I’m going to have my hands tied,’” she adds. “So the ripple effect is pretty substantial.”
Walcutt started at OPM in 2016, just days after the presidential election. While she was quickly detailed elsewhere, she spent enough time at the human resources agency to be told the smartest approach she could take there was to “never, ever, ever, ever do anything” in case someone twisted the action to find a “hint of impropriety.” She was sent to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where she served as director of innovation for the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative. She wrote two government-published books, one about reforming the education system and another about redesigning the executive branch. For the executive branch project she traveled to and spoke with senior officials at agencies throughout the federal government to learn what was working and how to spread those practices. She also served as a U.S. representative at NATO’s Partnership for Peace.
Walcutt equates her expedited tour around government to “presidential bootcamp.” She says she does not need a crash course in how to do the job because she “basically already got it.” Her position, she says, has made her qualified for the nation’s top post in a way most of her higher-profile Democratic colleagues are not.
“So I quit my job, I got an RV, and started driving,” she recalls.
Walcutt has so far traveled to 42 states to solicit ideas from a variety of experts to fix the country’s biggest problems. Her unique skillset, she says, is connecting and empowering the people with solutions.
“We have a problem in politics,” she says. “We bring people from the legislative branch. They know money and they know laws. They don’t know anything about the executive branch.” The government has 4.5 million employees, plus contractors, “and nobody even knows what all the departments and groups do.”
The same push that led her into federal service has inspired her to launch her quixotic presidential bid.
“What can I do to help? That’s what took me into government,” Walcutt says. “And then when I got in government and had this unusual opportunity to get to know all the different departments and agencies and then got to serve overseas as well, and then started seeing how we put these full-scale strategies together that can actually be impactful without spending extra taxpayer dollars, at that point I started to realize I have a very unusual set of information and experiences. You can’t just buy it.”
Within 24 hours of taking the presidential oath, she says, she would have a team ready to deploy. Her first 100 days would consist of saying "yes" to everyone in government who “knows what we need to be doing.”
‘We could implement all the strategies that I’ve come up with because I actually know not just how government works, I literally know the names of the people who would enact these pieces,” she says. “These are actionable strategies that you could only make if you knew these programs.”
Walcutt’s administration would focus on elevating and empowering experts in federal agencies currently serving in GS-13 to GS-15 positions. The current structure for political appointees puts people in power who are not qualified and do not know the ins and outs of government operations, she says. During her brief time in the Obama administration, Walcutt recalls serving under a 27-year-old Harvard law graduate political appointee who, while intelligent, knew nothing about government or the military and served for a total of seven months.
“How does that help the country?” she asks. “How does that serve the warfighter?”
Walcutt has grown accustomed to telling people she is not crazy. She understands her campaign is not likely to land her in the Oval Office come January 2021. She is confident, however, her efforts will raise her profile enough to effect systematic change at the federal level.
“There are 4,000 appointee positions,” Walcutt says. “The only one you can apply for is president. That doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t take any other position. I’m happy to be part of the team.” Ultimately, her goal is to “get a seat at the table.”
As a former government scientist—she holds a doctorate in psychology—Walcutt feels she is holding the torch for a public servants. She compares herself to a union representative, as there are many people inside agencies who have the same complaints as her.
“How do we, as a group of informed, intelligent, capable people, help the country best?” she asks. “All of us in government, we serve in the shadows. All those politicians are in the spotlight, but sometimes you have to step out of the shadows and onto the stage because it’s the right thing to do.”
Walcutt admires those who remain in government, looking to influence policies or change cultures. She acknowledges she drew the short straw in following the path she has chosen, but hopes to help bring the work of her former colleagues out of the shadows as well.
“We have amazing, brilliant, hard-working federal employees,” she says. “You don’t see them because they’re not allowed to speak. But it’s not because they’re a bunch of uncaring sloths. They’re trying to serve our country in the best way they can. I hope Americans can lift them up and have some faith.”