I have some clarity now on what I can and can't say about the project I'm working on. In short, it's not classified (though the data we deal with is personally-identifiable information–PII—and private health information–PHI). My security clearance is "public trust," the lowest level, and in fact the only level that someone with a clearance can disclose. Also, the contracts for this project are publicly available through FOIA.
So, I'm free to discuss this project in a way that I've rarely been permitted before. Now, I'm not allowed to post photos of, or taken on, military bases, and it's a bad idea but not necessarily prohibited for me to discuss individual people. (Which is a shame, because a week ago I got a tour of the Pentagon that included the 9/11 memorial, which really moved me. I will try to obtain permission to post photos, but it doesn't look likely I can.)
Here's the story.
Technically (and I never thought I would be one of these), I'm now a defense contractor. My client is the Defense Digital Service, a franchise of the United States Digital Service. President Obama formed the latter to prevent debacles like the HealthCare.gov rollout, which funneled $50m to Accenture and produced something a well-run start-up could have produced for a tiny fraction of that amount. The former (my client) reports directly to the Secretary of Defense's office, and, as a civil service agency, is not subject to White House interference.
My client's customer is the Military Enrollment Processing Command (MEPCOM), headquartered in North Chicago, Ill. This joint command runs the country's 67 Military Enrollment Processing Stations (MEPS) and enrolls everyone who joins the U.S. armed forces in the enlisted ranks. (They also provide services for some officer candidates, but my project doesn't apply to those folks.)
Our company will be upgrading the software that MEPS use to track applicants from the time recruiters drop them off to the time they enter basic training. The current software launched in 1996 and functions only because a dedicated group of people up at MEPCOM keep it running with spit and duck tape.
We've got five months to produce a pilot program that shows how we can overhaul the entire process. We're working closely with MEPCOM, the Baltimore MEPS, and the Air Force, because if you're going to do a pilot project you really want that service to be involved. (Rimshot!)
In the end, we're going to produce software that helps kids who want to serve the United States do so without losing bonuses, or getting shut out of health care, or getting told they can't serve because of a technicality someone should have caught early. Software that helps the dedicated civil servants who work in MEPS across the country do their jobs better. Software that helps every American taxpayer by solving these real problems at a fraction of what the government would have spent 10 years ago. (In fact, they did. In the early 2000s another firm spent 5 years and tens of millions developing a replacement that completely failed.)
In the coming months, I'll post what I can about this project, and about the people we're helping. By "what I can," understand that I'm going to clear some of the information I post with DDS, MEPCOM, and in some cases, the Air Force. Since my client is the U.S. Government, I literally have a First Amendment right to post anything I learn on my blog; but I recognize that just because something is available through a FOIA request doesn't mean I should publish it. To wit: This project touches real people, many of them smart teenagers in bad situations who have lost their best shot at getting a better life because of bad software. And that pisses me off. But each situation raises a complicated interaction of privacy concerns, which the law as written may allow me to disclose, but basic human decency obligates me to protect.
Also, the kids who we'll be helping by and large don't care about who's running the government. They love their country. They want to give something back. Or maybe they just want a good job. It doesn't matter. In the past week, I've seen four swearing-in ceremonies, in each of which a group of teenagers pledged to serve the United States and our Constitution, knowing that when they come back in a few weeks, they'll be shipped off somewhere and asked to do things both boring and horrific for four to eight years. It's really moving to see that. Even the officers who do 20 or 30 of these ceremonies each week feel it.
This is going to be one of the most impactful projects I've worked on. And it's really, really cool.