“There are many voices. What is missing is the voice of the user.”
Show what’s possible, then hand it off
Few people have had as huge an impact on the civic tech movement as Jennifer Pahlka. The founder of Code for America spurred hundreds of people to take time from tech startups and instead tackle public sector challenges. Today, there are Code For organizations worldwide. But Jen has also served as the Deputy CTO of the US Government, and more recently has been fighting the impact of COVID through the US Digital Response organization.
I first met Jen in 2008, when she was co-chair of Web2Expo. So it was an absolute thrill to catch up with her on everything from digital government to research ethics to resilient democracy to the civic tech movement.
Jen’s work with the interactive Web gave her a taste for civic engagement: “We were trying to bring government folks into the Web 2.0 world, and really realizing that … the best applications of these principles and values of the participatory web was, ‘how we do things together? How we govern.’”
Code for America, which is now headed by Amanda Renteria, began as a civic tech “gap year.” When, after the publication of Lean Analytics, I worked with the organization in 2013, its fellows came largely from the tech world. “We decided to do this fellowship year, where we would get people from primarily the tech industry, but not exclusively, to go work with cities and states,” Jen explained. “That began a ten year course of my time, running that organization that really evolved a lot from just the fellowship into these big projects.” Today, Code for America is mostly staffed by full-time workers, and focuses on services for the most vulnerable including the social safety net and criminal justice systems.
Along with a switch from “tech gap year” to full-time civic innovation came a change in attitude. “I look back on that, ‘we’re here from the private sector and we’re here to help’ [era] with a bit of cringe,” said Jen. “We had all the best intentions, but to our credit, I think a bunch of us learned very quickly and with the help of many wonderful people—including [FWD50 speaker and 2019 RDGS chair] David Eaves—that ‘we’re here to learn and cross-fertilize but we’re not your saviors,’ was a much better approach.”
Jen’s accomplished plenty. But the thing she’s most proud of—not just for herself, or Code for America, but for the entire civic tech sector, is, “learning pretty quickly and pretty well—not that everyone’s perfect—that the public servants who were in there doing the work not only know more than you do about what you’re trying to achieve by an order of magnitude, but have tried a bunch of things, are incredibly dedicated and really, the partnership with them is what this is all about.”
Hand stuff off
In the end, it’s not the goal of civic tech to scale platforms. Its role is to show what’s possible, and then hand it off. “Government itself .. is scale,” Jen pointed out. “We are going, you know, right now we are working with state of California on unemployment. They’ve so far delivered unemployment checks to almost 9 million people. That’s scale. The civic tech world wants government to be different. But what we need to do is make something meaningful enough that the principles and practices that we are deploying really convince folks that it’s worth changing to.” Ultimately, Jen said, “our stance has been: We should not become that scale. We are not trying to become the government. We are trying to hand stuff off.”
There’s plenty more in this fascinating, wide-ranging conversation. We talk about public-private co-operation, recruiting, research ethics, the US digital response to COVID, the need to dramatically simplify legislation and make it implementable, and Good Trouble. It’s definitely worth a listen.
All opinions expressed in in these episodes are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations for which our guests work.
Click to read the full transcript of this episode.
Alistair Croll: [00:00:00] Hi everyone and welcome to another episode of FWDThinking. It’s a regular series put together by the digital government conference FWD50, and the Canada School of Public Service’s Digital Academy.
In this episode, I am absolutely thrilled to welcome an old friend and one of the leading voices in digital government in the world, Jennifer Pahlka. In addition to founding Code for America, which is now run by Amanda Renteria, she has also spent some time as the US Deputy Chief Technology Officer under Todd Park in the White House. She is now a board member and advisor at the organization she founded, Code for America, and has been spending much of this year as the Cofounder for the US Digital Response, dealing with the impact of the pandemic and working with technologists and governments and governors throughout the US.
In this conversation we touched on a lot of really interesting [00:01:00] topics, from the ethics of research while trying to design for the user, from the challenges of digital government as a possible panacea versus actual change, why apps themselves are not enough and they need to link to law, and similarly how law needs to be designed with implementation in mind, where digital government is headed, and ultimately why in COVID times necessity can be the mother of acceptance. So please join me in giving a very warm welcome to the extraordinary Jennifer Pahlka.
Jen Pahlka: [00:01:32] Hi! It’s very nice to be here.
Alistair Croll: [00:01:34] Hi Jen! How are you?
Jen Pahlka: [00:01:35] I’m great. Thanks for having me
Alistair Croll: [00:01:37] I was trying to explain to the team how I knew you and I think the first time we met, you were running Web 2.0 Expo for UBM, along with Brady Forrest who was running it for O’Reilly. So it’s been a long time since then.
Jen Pahlka: [00:01:49] Yes, it has. Think about all that was different back then and it wasn’t that long ago.
Alistair Croll: [00:01:54] That’s right. You’ve done a few things since then. You’re probably better at explaining them than me. So why don’t you talk about your [00:02:00] background and what you’re doing right now with US Digital Response.
Jen Pahlka: [00:02:03] Well, I love having the sort of point in time from Web 2.0, cause it’s really that that got me into government. When, we were trying to bring government folks into the Web 2.0 world and really realizing that in fact kind of the best applications of these principles and values of the participatory web was, you know, how we do things together, how we govern. And it was that work that inspired me to start what became Code for America, wanting to use some of those, you know, ideas and great energy as people were building this new participatory web.
Again, it’s hard to remember in fact how different it was back then. The web before, it was all of us working on stuff, and it was sort of more just publishing. But it was so inspirational and I really wanted to see that come into government, have it be faster, more responsive to people. And so we [00:03:00] decided to do this fellowship year, where we would get people from primarily the tech industry, but not exclusively, to go work with cities and states. And, you know, that began a ten year course of my time, running that organization that really evolved a lot from just the fellowship into these big projects. It’s actually staffed primarily by full time people now, doing significant change work in particularly the safety net and criminal justice systems with not just cities, but counties and lots of states. So that was a big chunk of the 10 years that I got to wrap up, just back in January, and start the next chapter.
But in the middle of that, I also went to DC, served for a year as the Deputy Chief Technology Officer and had a hand in starting the United States Digital Service.
Alistair Croll: [00:03:48] Yeah and it’s amazing. I’ve had a chance to sort of see each of those things because in addition to Web 2.0 Expo, I remember coming to the White House to talk to the presidential innovation fellows, and sort of talk [00:04:00] about lean startup methods.
But I think the thing that stuck with me most, I mean, I’ve been to the Code for America Summit and talked there, but the thing that struck me the most was I remember working on a failure to appear rate challenge in the state of Kentucky, where if you fail to appear for what could be a relatively small crime, and then someone comes to arrest you and that’s a spiral downhill and now all of a sudden there’s a warrant out for your arrest, or there’s some kind of violent arrest on your record. And it was amazing to me how hard it was for the team to navigate the state and the, you know, the legal structure. And I think in the end, they just ended up building tools to shine light on the problem to show which cases got stuck where in the legal system.
How has that changed over time from sort of “Hey, we’re from the private sector, we’re here to help” to, you know, “We’re an organization that has a reputation”. Do people now know here comes Code for America? And have you built up relationships with things at the state and local level that makes [00:05:00] it easier to navigate those kinds of challenges?
Jen Pahlka: [00:05:02] Yeah. I look back on that, you know, we’re here from the private sector and we’re here to help with a bit of cringe. We had all the best intentions, but to our credit, I think a bunch of us learned very quickly and with the help of many wonderful people including another Canadian, David Eaves, that, you know, “We’re here to learn and cross-fertilize but we’re not your saviors” was a much better approach.
And I think the whole civic tech sector still has a hangover from either, you know, true savior complex which really is not helpful, or the perception of savior complex or people’s sort of fear that you as a technologist or someone from, you know, a startup company or one of the major tech platforms is going to come in and think that we know more than you.
And I think the thing I’m probably most proud of, again for the entire civic tech sector [00:06:00] is learning pretty quickly and pretty well- not that everyone’s perfect- that the public servants who were in there doing the work not only know more than you do about what you’re trying to achieve by order of magnitude, but have tried a bunch of things, are incredibly dedicated and, you know, really the partnership with them is what this is all about.
And actually I think the people who have, you know, I think most of my network now considers themselves public servants. There’s really no longer this distinction between public sector and private sector. It’s a group of people who are dedicated to sort of new ways of working within government, but don’t buy into that anymore- that there’s sort of outsiders and insiders.
Alistair Croll: [00:06:44] Well, that definitely came up last week when I was talking with Ayushi, Katherine and Kathy about product management. And they were saying that in many cases they would initially try and hire a product manager from the private sector, and it’d be much harder for that person to learn, whereas somebody [00:07:00] who’s a domain expert in agriculture or justice or whatever, can learn product management skills fairly easily and not bring with them the baggage of for-profit product management.
Has that changed how you recruit and who you recruit?
Jen Pahlka: [00:07:14] Yeah, absolutely. I think the whole field, including Code for America and USDR- United States Digital Response, which I’m advising now- still feels that the field needs to grow. And it’s great to have people from the private sector come in and become part of this effort. But now we have a clearer understanding that when you come in you have a real learning curve, as opposed to you come in with all the skills that you already needed. Product management skills are relevant, but if you can’t adapt them to the public sector, you sometimes risk, you know, hurting more than you help.
I think the other thing that product managers in particular face is just the authority. I mean a product manager ultimately on a team is somebody who’s powered to make a decision. There are trade offs. And when [00:08:00] we don’t make decisions, we get really messy products that don’t work for people and messy services that don’t work for people.
And so, so often we frame it as “Well, someone from the private sector has those skills and there’s no one in the public sector has them”, when the reality is the work to be done is to explain what a product manager does and get that person the buy-in from everybody to actually be able to make those decisions for the team to stick with them.
It’s much more sort of an environmental issue than it is a skill issue often. And that is the work, that we all have to do.
Alistair Croll: [00:08:33] Yeah, Kathy was talking about half the job of a product manager is just trying doors that people tell you are closed to see if they’re actually openable, because there’s so much folklore in the public sector about what can, and can’t be done that it can be hard to get people just to reconsider. Like there’s so much low hanging fruit.
So when you do some kind of engagement, can you walk me through like how you go from, we recognize a problem that needs to be fixed, like recidivism in policing or, you know, gaps in the [00:09:00] social safety net, to here’s a project, here’s how we deliver it, and then what the metrics are for success in that project?
Jen Pahlka: [00:09:07] Yeah. It’s a really interesting question because different projects for very good reasons have different metrics. I think if you think about sort of the top level of change in our industry, in our field, in this community of people who practice this, I hear more and more some version of what we talk about at Code for America, which is your strategy has to show what’s possible by doing sort of an exemplary service, even if you have to do it slightly outside. Then help others do that themselves. And then, you know, build the, what we would call at Code for America a movement, but often you could just call it sort of constituency or, you know, build a community of people who can sustain that and push it forward and advocate for change in that field.
And if you really think about it that way, [00:10:00] then the metrics that matter are that you need to show what’s possible at a level big enough to make a difference for anybody to care, to have the power, right?
But ultimately I think government itself has scale, right? It is scale, right? We are going, you know, right now we are working with state of California on unemployment. They’ve so far delivered unemployment checks to almost 9 million people. That’s scale.
Alistair Croll: [00:10:30] Yeah.
Jen Pahlka: [00:10:31] The civic tech world wants government to be different. But what we need to do is make something that is meaningful enough that the principles and practices that we are deploying in that really convince folks that it’s worth changing to.
But ultimately the, whether it’s Code for America or Cook America brigades or other volunteers, maybe Code for Canada, at least our stance has been: But we should [00:11:00] not become that scale. Like we are not trying to become the government. We are trying to hand stuff off.
And so we are measuring usage, we’re measuring the number of people who are using a service, the benefits that they get out of it, the tangible lives that are helped. At Code for America we look a lot at the number of people who are getting SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, food assistance benefits, or getting their records cleared or in one of the more recent cases, number of low income people who are able to access the earned income tax credit, because that actually affects their individual lives. And we do, we care deeply about that and the team, I think a lot of the team works there because they know they’re going to help an individual.
But that has to connect at the end of the day up into systems change. And we don’t just want to say “Great, now we’re going to do SNAP for all states” because that’s the job of 50 states and the Food Nutrition Service in DC. What we want to do is have an impact on them and what is that handoff look like? How do you amass the platform from which you [00:12:00] can push change further, while always knowing that it is ultimately the government’s job to do this work.
Alistair Croll: [00:12:07] So Bianca Wylie who spoke at our first FWD50, has been a frequent critic of digital government. In fact, I think recently she tweeted on- I’m going to misquote her so you can go look at her Twitter feed- but she said like, we should just stop using the term digital government because it’s government. But the example that she pointed out which I thought was a really interesting one was Canada as a COVID tracing app. They’ve been very transparent in how they do it, you know, you can go look at the code on GitHub. Some cryptographers would say “Well, show me the digital signature to prove that it’s that code and so on”.
But her point was that absent clear information on how the policies will be used and how they’ll be enforced, just shipping the app without shipping the legislation doesn’t work. And like in the private sector, you ship the app and you have your business model and there’s a terms of service and that’s the end of it.
But in the public sector, your app is usually at least partially connected to laws and legislation and how it will be used and [00:13:00] outcomes and what’s the recourse if you feel you’re unjustly treated by the digital side of things. And yet there’s still this idea that digital government is somehow, and civic tech is somehow the other estate somewhere between public and private.
Do you think we will see digital government become just government or do you think there will always be this sort of tug of the geeks on the Overton window to try and make it more and more digital? How do you see those two eventually dovetailing?
Jen Pahlka: [00:13:34] My hope is that Bianca is right and that we’re headed in the direction that she outlines.
I actually don’t think of it as digital government myself. I think of it as the implementation of laws and policies in an effective way that in today’s world usually involves, or basically always involves technology. But when we think of it as an app, or we think of it as the technology for technology’s sake, we completely missed the point.
[00:14:00] I think that where the work is, and sort of now where we land, you know, it’s 2010- oh sorry it’s 2020! We’ve been doing this since basically 2009, you know, there is a lot of room between the law and the app. There’s a lot of room between the regulations and the service delivery. And we have, I think our community has been moving more in that direction. And at least to some degree, the regulators and policy makers have been moving towards us to the place where we can like intentionally cocreate services that work, instead of allow things to slide from policy into implementation without design. Right? And, I’m very aware that, more and more every day, that you cannot make good services from overly complex regulation.
Alistair Croll: [00:14:59] Yeah. [00:15:00] And I think it’s two currents here. One is the apps have to find legislation on launch, but also the laws, now that a legislator is thinking about how this might be applied digitally, that makes them consider things like accessibility and so on.
Something else that came up in the product management discussion is that in the private sector, you go after the largest initial beachhead market to guarantee yourself customers and profits, but in the public sector, you target customers by definition, the most vulnerable or the most marginalized, because if you satisfy them, you’ll satisfy the people who are less so.
Which means you need to do a lot of user centric design and research and talk to people. But then you’re in this weird situation of “I need to go talk to the people who are most vulnerable, who have the least free time, who are the hardest to reach.” How do you manage, how does Code for America manage to work with the people it’s trying to help without exploiting their free labor?
Jen Pahlka: [00:15:56] I’m so glad you asked that because it gives me a chance to pitch a piece of work that [00:16:00] they published recently, that I’m super proud of: their qualitative research guide. And I could try to summarize it, but it’s many pages long and it speaks not only to how you get good research, but how you do it ethically, how you find the right folks to talk to and how you make that experience something that starts just, at least in a little way, build back trust with government instead of further erode it.
Cause we’ve all had those experiences when we’ve been surveyed about something. Our time is taken up. We’re asked questions that make us feel vulnerable in various ways and either nothing comes of it or, you know, it seems to sort of make things worse. And that’s the last thing that we want when we’re trying to improve the services- to damage the people trying to use it. So it’s on the Code for America site, just search on qualitative research guide. And, again, I think they’ve just done a fantastic job with it
Alistair Croll: [00:16:53] And we’ll put a link to that in the file and the YouTube description here.
Let’s talk a little bit about current events. [00:17:00] How has Code for America and civic tech in general coped with remote working and the pandemic right now? Has the risk profile of government agencies changed? Are they more or less willing to do things? Are they running rough shot across existing assumptions?
Jen Pahlka: [00:17:16] Well, I have some insight into how it’s panning out at Code for America and some in terms of my work with USDR and some in terms of my connections in the rest of the field. And it seems to me to be at some points, equal measures of healthy pushing towards more accessible services, towards more inclusive work environments and just towards urgency. Urgency for change and retrenchment and fear.
And you can’t talk about the pandemic without just acknowledging that it’s causing a lot of pain for a lot of people. [00:18:00] And many people have commented on how unequally it affects social class and race, and I think I certainly feel guilty all the time that it has not personally affected me. I actually prefer being grounded for a little while, you know, I have been over traveling for a long time and there’s parts of my life that are in fact better by being forced to shelter in a place. And that’s not the case for many people.
Well, when you build a diverse workforce as we did at Code for America, it’s gonna affect a lot of people a lot of different ways. And that’s true in government too. I mean, government has an incredibly diverse workforce, so you’ve got people just dealing with all of that, whether it’s kids at home or fear of the disease, immunocompromised folks, other issues.
And then particularly I’m just attuned at the moment to all the people in government who are dealing with the [00:19:00] effects of the pandemic, be they the public health effects or the economic devastation where our systems are having trouble scaling. And so we have literally millions of people calling offices, asking for help and every human being when they’re asked for help wants to give it, especially if they believe that’s their job and they have the power. And so when it’s hard to deliver it, it’s hard to get the unemployment checkout, we have a lot of people who have sort of secondary trauma from the frustration of not being able to help the people as much as they like.
So all of that is really not to be missed I think when we’re talking about the effects of the pandemic.
Alistair Croll: [00:19:39] Yeah I remember talking to someone post 9/11 about the thousands of therapists that were brought in to work with the insurance adjusters. Like it wasn’t the families that were obviously horribly suffering from the event, but these insurance adjusters who were having to deal with this needed support as well. You know, this all [00:20:00] trickles downstream as well.
Jen Pahlka: [00:20:01] You’ve got frontline call center staff, you’ve got legislative offices that are taking, you know, imagine being in that position where what you do all day is hear from your constituents about situations that are just heartbreaking and it’s very difficult to help them. It really does take a toll.
On the other hand, we have needed to make services more accessible. And as we discussed earlier, putting them online, you know, can make them, if you design them right, can really improve that. And when we started the United States Digital Response, one of the first calls we got was from friends who were like, you know, in a city government here, and we had like this small number of services that we have made available. And then this incredible long tail of things that like yeah, no, it was never a priority. Say yes, you can like get X permit or whatever from your home computer and now we have to because people cannot come in. And so [00:21:00] there is certainly an urgency that was created in the basics of making stuff accessible.
I also think that there is an urgency that’s created by the push, the impact on these systems, the demand on something like UI or SNAP. Right now, you know, it remains to be seen but my hope is that this crisis will push us to really change and to not just continue down the road of “system modernizations” that were really not modernizations. That were really taking services that had gotten, very overly complex over the years and, you know, spending billions of dollars to encode that complexity instead of rethinking them.
Alistair Croll: [00:21:50] So I was going to ask you about- you tweeted recently, cause I’ve been stalking you in preparation for this, “Technology modernization without policy and process simplification is borderline useless.” [00:22:00] Were you speaking in general terms? That sounds like a specific case, but I think that’s what you’re talking about here?
Jen Pahlka: [00:22:06] Yeah.
Alistair Croll: [00:22:06] In what ways would you like to see that simplification take place?
Jen Pahlka: [00:22:11] Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s many ways in which it does right now. The only way I’ve seen it work is to create cross-disciplinary teams, that touch all of the domains that matter, and align people around a different goal. I mean, what you currently have generally are siloed teams. The policy team is supposed to sort of interpret the law and make it usable. The technology team is sort of a worst case scenario is just taking orders and writing code, you know, just I’m going to do what I’m told to do. You’ve got legal teams covering for procurement teams that are mostly trying to make sure that they don’t look bad and they are not brought together under one leadership to say, “Your job is to deliver this service in a way that works for the [00:23:00] user and a way that works for the state or the entity in a way that is consistent with the intent of the law, but also builds trust and delivers value to people.
Alistair Croll: [00:23:14] But it almost sounds like refactoring. There’s a famous quote from the founder of Dropbox or one of the investors who said, “Everybody knew that cloud storage was a solved problem. Fortunately, the founders of Dropbox didn’t know that.” Because they kind of went into it naive.
And as a result, we’re able to say “Look, the goal of this is to make your file magically get stored everywhere, and then work back from that.” Whereas it seems like so many laws we have today because we live in a common law model, where you have additional exceptions and additional constraints and so on, somewhere under this mole, this mountain of caveats and exceptions is the core, you know, get someone their unemployment check or make sure kids have [00:24:00] lunch or whatever. But it feels like the political process and the nature of a parliamentary democracy with common law piles these things on.
The other joke in product management is whenever you refactor something, it’ll take longer than fixing the existing product. So it almost seems like there’s a digital civil war waiting to happen where we just decide to refactor everything, but that’s a pretty terrifying undertaking. Right? I mean, how do you think that’s going to play out?
Jen Pahlka: [00:24:30] Well, I think there’s a misconception. I mean, refactoring sounds like a thing you do like over the course of X period of time and then it’s done. Right? And I think the other shift that we are in the middle of is from this notion that we’re gonna rip and replace systems to the awareness, that’s very risky.
We talk about risk and sometimes we get sort of cavalier about it because if you’re pushing for change, you get told that something’s too risky a lot. Well, [00:25:00] there are things that are genuinely risky and rip and replace is generally not a great idea. And so refactoring, I guess, you know, it needs to take place in this sort of incremental, thoughtful, learn-as-you-go environment that I think many of your listeners here are already familiar with. But it’s not the standard. It’s still not necessarily the way things are done. And so you’re fighting to get that environment.
Alistair Croll: [00:25:28] Looking back, what were the most frustrating barriers trying to move systems or services into the digital domain in government? Because, you know, the answer for a lot of these risks is we’re going to go cause some good trouble and see what happens.
Looking back on your experience, where did you cause sort of good trouble to get people to be okay with that risk or overcome it?
Jen Pahlka: [00:25:52] Oh, good trouble. Yeah. It’s easy to look back at it as good trouble cause at the time there were, you [00:26:00] know, I think we were often building relationships and sort of risking them at equal measure. And there were times I did the wrong thing and, my staff pulled me back and times when I think, you know, we really walk that line really well.
I’m thinking particularly of the evolution of a product of Code for America called GetCalFresh, which has had a really big impact. And actually now you see in the pandemic how much the foundation that laid actually meant that- I’m not going to take credit, I don’t think CalFresh or GetCalFresh should take credit for this- but when I’m looking at benefits programs in the pandemic, the user research is showing people are getting their SNAP benefits and their emergency food assistance benefits. Pretty much you’re not seeing a lot of complaints. Lots of complaints about UI.
And I do think that that’s something that’s like hard to see in the day to day is [00:27:00] like: Wait, what are we doing here? We’re working with this state. We’ve made this sort of shadow system that shows what a better interface would look like for applicants. Ultimately that bettering interface became sort of the official interface or it’s now one of the official interfaces. The one they push users to. It’s had a whole bunch of impact on the backend and operations and situational awareness on the policies that have created a difficulty. And I think it just laid a foundation for when, you know, the shit hit the fan so to speak- I hope I can say that here. There was actually a lot more awareness of how we might do this from a user centered standpoint. There’s much more awareness of like, how do we not put the burden on users?
So for example- now I’m forgetting the name of the program. One of the things in the CARES Act here in the United States, was a provision that basically allowed for families who would have gotten free and reduced [00:28:00] school lunches, to get food over the summer and during the pandemic in addition to whatever benefits they were getting elsewhere. In fact, they didn’t have to qualify for the regular food assistance benefits to get this. And instead of making everybody apply, which is exactly sort of like, if you just follow the rule book, it’s like, we’ll put up a form, the form, we’ll have a lot of questions, you know, you don’t have to provide a lot of documentation. Instead they just said “Look, we know the kids that have this, like it’s not easy to find them, but we’re going to go to schools. We’re going to get those lists. And we’re just going to send the people the money. We’re not going to make 90% of these people fill out another damn form in the middle of a pandemic”.
Alistair Croll: [00:28:37] That reminds me of The Incredibles. Like remember The Incredibles where his job as an insurance adjuster is to tell all the people why they can’t get their insurance? And then he like calls the person says “Listen, if you ask for form like 12B and do this, you’ll get your insurance” and he gets fired for it.
And someone was telling me in Service Canada, which is these offices you work in Canada, their job is not to [00:29:00] wait until you ask the magic question like some weird text adventure where you type in the right string and you get the reward. Their job is to go “And while you’re here, there’s five other things you can benefit from.” But it seems to me, like, we always talk about how opt in is the way you design privacy and products, but it almost feels like when delivering services to the most vulnerable through the social safety net, we need to have an opt out attitude of like “We’re going to opt in these things, tell us if you don’t want them” is a much nicer way to help people who really need the help and don’t know how to ask for it.
Jen Pahlka: [00:29:33] And one of the things I think is important to understand when you’re frustrated with this work, is this easy to get done? Is that yes. And we have decades of legacy of lawmakers in particular, asking states to design services to get to the no, not the yes. And you do not undo that overnight.
But now Congress really wants those dollars [00:30:00] out the door. It’s important for our economy. And they’re saying turn on a dime and it’s really challenging. But I think that, yeah, my hope is that it provides a kick in the pants that we need.
Alistair Croll: [00:30:16] So we haven’t talked too much about the US Digital Response work that you’ve been doing, obviously very different from CfA. Do you want to explain what that is? And what’s been different about that experience from Code for America?
Jen Pahlka: [00:30:27] It sort of occured as a natural evolution in a particular moment in time where some of my colleagues from the White House and I got to together right as the pandemic was hitting and shelter-in-place was brought in and said, you know, state and local governments are challenged on their tech and data capacities on a good day and it looks like we have some very not good days coming. How can we help them? And again, not from the perspective that they don’t have great people there, but that there’s just not, you know, there’s never enough staff [00:31:00] to do some of the work that needs to be done.
And so, while Cori Zarek and I had gotten together a group of states and counties and cities that were trying to sort of share best practices like “Oh my gosh! Everything in the world is coming at us. How do we like get together and help each other navigate through this?” My other colleague, Ryan Panchadsaram had put up a form for volunteers to help. And so we sort of brought those two together and said “Wait a minute, if these guys are gonna need help, let’s do some matchmaking”. And ultimately that’s still what it is.
We’ve worked with over half the States now, and cities and counties as well, just to get them folks who are really eager to help. I mean you got a bunch of people who have the skills that we need, and we’ve talked about what those skills are, who are going “There’s nothing I should be doing more right now. There’s nothing more [00:32:00] important than helping my government serve the American people in a time of crisis.” And so, as we say like, it’s basically the way people are dealing with their own personal stress. Cause if you’re helping you get to be less stressed.
Alistair Croll: [00:32:10] And feeling a little less guilty for having the privilege of working from home.
I know DJ Patil is going to be speaking at FWD50 and he said “I want to do it on the sixth because I want to have time to think straight until the sixth. And I don’t have time to make slides” and I’m like “That’s fine, you’re saving the world”. But he is going to talk about his work and he’s been doing unpaid work for 120-150 days now. Working with all these States and governments trying to put all these systems together. And it really does feel like if 2019 was a masterclass in US civics, then 2020 is a masterclass in statistics.
Jen Pahlka: [00:32:45] It’s actually DJ who called me on a Sunday and said “I’m going to California to help out, what are you doing?” And I said “Well, you know, I think there’s something I can do from home.” And [00:33:00] so he’s actually kind of the instigator of it. And then of course now I’m up in California doing it too.
Alistair Croll: [00:33:06] I’ll say this so you don’t have to, but it’s long been said that the opposite of progress is Congress. And there’s a couple of other uses of those prefixes that I will leave out here, but it does seem like consensus is critical for getting government projects running. Partly so you’re not marginalizing people and you have many voices in the room, partly because, you know, there’s a lot of political interest attached to it.
But I’ve found in my experience that designing by committee or getting outliers to agree is challenging. I’ve said to people in the past, like, you know, what was the central message of Occupy Wall Street? And they can’t cite the central message because there’s so many voices and it’s very hard to be diverse and inclusive while getting everyone to rally around a single, simple cry. So I found that designing by committee is challenging more so the more politically divided we are.
How does a civic tech organization navigate the [00:34:00] urgency and immediacy of having a hero who can drive things through in the sort of myth of creation, with making sure all voices are heard and you’re helping everybody and not marginalizing anybody? How do you walk that line?
Jen Pahlka: [00:34:13] Yeah. I’m going to assume by civic tech organization, you mean like a digital service team?
Alistair Croll: [00:34:18] Yeah because these days it’s not just- in Canada, we have Code for Canada, we have the Canada Digital Service, we have Interchange, which is like temporary sabbatical into government. There’s a whole spectrum of different ways to engage with government, but they all have to walk this line of consensus versus delivery. Progress versus Congress, if you will.
Jen Pahlka: [00:34:36] Yeah. I would agree that the worst products are those, what’s it called? Carrot soup? Or like minestrone soup or like just everybody brought their thing and it all went in and that’s the thing. Like it’s everybody’s thing and nobody made any choices or tradeoffs. And I think there’s two big things I would say.
One is the power of alignment. Like what is the goal? [00:35:00] And I think there’s just that leadership, you know, are you continually focusing the team back on to the issue of what are we actually trying to do here? That’s not- yes, you may also make sure you’re compliant with X, Y, and Z, but that’s not the goal. That’s something you have to do along the way. And if you can continually bring folks back to the goal and truly get folks to align around the goal, then you can actually bring in everyone’s voices, hear what they had to say and what they have to say is valuable because they may be speaking up for a regulation that you need to know about that you don’t want to run a foul of that you can handle. You’re just not going to make it. That’s not the point of the service.
The second thing I would say is, we saw this so often in SNAP delivery in particular: there are many voices. What is missing is the voice of the user. And that’s why you’re going to continually come back to product management. And I know you’ve talked about it on this podcast before. [00:36:00] We looked at how, for instance, the questions were worded on the SNAP application. There’s a very heavyweight adjudication process to decide how that was done that involves every member of every County in California. And there are 58 of them sort of having a vote. Right? So in a way that’s incredibly inclusive. You’re including every County. You are not including users.
Alistair Croll: [00:36:26] Right. Someone from Santa Barbara has a very different view from someone up in Marine County on so many different things, right? Yeah.
Jen Pahlka: [00:36:32] And I mean no disrespect to those 58 representatives, but in a weird way, if you’re trying to choose how to word a question, or even whether to include a question on a form, there’s sort of a right answer. And it’s the answer that will come through user testing and that most people will answer accurately that will reduce the burden on the user. That’s just the right answer. And you don’t need 58 people to vote on it.
But what you can do is get [00:37:00] 58 people to understand that and buy into the process of privileging the voice of the user. And I mean, obviously there are many users and we have to understand that.
Alistair Croll: [00:37:11] Yeah, I’m always struck with the, it seems to me- I’m going to rant a little bit here and we can edit it out later if it’s not that good.
Jen Pahlka: [00:37:19] An Alistair rant, good!
Alistair Croll: [00:37:22] It seems to me like in a time of abundance, the startup model works well. I’m going to fund a thousand people and one of them is going to be Google and the others are going to fall by the wayside and I’ll make it back and carry it and they can all go work for Google when their companies tank. Or I don’t mean to pick on Google, but like some breakout successful technology company. Right?
That’s the model when things are abundant. But when things are scarce, you don’t have the luxury of like throw a bunch of things at the wall and choose the one that sticks. And as a result, you have a very serious challenge building things, if we [00:38:00] adopt those kinds of models of the one hero leader going to drive it through.
But at the same time, and I think a lot of perception is that digital equates with the tech industry. Whereas digital is a way of getting things to flow automatically, tailoring the user interface to an individual user. And so in some ways, digital government and Code for “blank” has this baggage of for profit venture backed tech industry, which is built in a world of like, I’m going to be an iconoclast. I’m going to build my Snapchat app, like from snap to snap chat there’s a big difference. Snapchat is intentionally difficult and obtuse so old people don’t look at their kids using it.
Jen Pahlka: [00:38:48] I’m aware of this having a
Alistair Croll: [00:38:57] teenager!
[00:39:00] So I [00:40:00] do [00:41:00] think that there’s this, we have to think of different product strategies for times of scarcity rather than abundance, because it’s traditionally been very wasteful. Lots of experimentation, roll the dice, something will come up. Whereas when we’re tackling these much more wicked problems that don’t have a clear solution, [00:42:00] we have to maintain the momentum that comes from having a product owner, a goal, a simple metric, but also incorporate these. I like your idea that you shouldn’t try to get everyone to agree, you should try to get everyone to agree that the user’s in charge. That’s a good sound bite.
Jen Pahlka: [00:42:15] The other thing that is happening just as you brought up sort of like, what happens, you know, kind of changes when you hit a crisis moment like when we’re in right now. And you mentioned Congress, so I feel like, you know, we can talk about this, is that we haven’t built that muscle of law and policy makers understanding to write legislation with implementation in mind.
And so we needed to have practice that like, you know, we used to say like, drive the tandem bike around the block a couple of times and get into that rhythm before a crisis hits. And you do see it in a couple of places, but in big places, like, you know, the Cares Act, it was rushed and they didn’t think about [00:43:00] how the checks were actually going to get out and a lot of people missed out on it. I mean, in a lot of different ways.
But that’s what, again I keep coming back to like, if there’s one thing it’s like, how can we get these work streams, these communities, these ways of thinking, and these actual people to talk about it in a service delivery framework from the beginning, and then the law, policy, regulation, service delivery, all derives from the same goal. We have a ton of work to do upstream.
Alistair Croll: [00:43:31] I think that is really interesting counterpoint to what you were saying earlier that you know, digital government needs to be linked to the legislation. But the legislation needs to be designed with the implementation in mind at the time. And if you do those two things, then you overcome some of the challenges that I think Bianca has about transparency or how is this actually going to be rolled out?
Jen Pahlka: [00:43:50] Well, I mean what Bianca is saying is I think exactly right which is like, I’m just talking about how the check’s going to get cut, right? Like that’s government that happens to [00:44:00] talk about your data sources and your databases and the algorithms that you’re going to use, etcetera.
But at the end of the day, like it’s not about what the online form will look like. It’s like, what did you design? That’s the job. And we all so often forget the design part.
Alistair Croll: [00:44:22] Yeah. So one of the things that came up on the first conversation we had with Pia Andrews, we were talking about infrastructure, and nobody really questions the idea that a government should build a highway, but they seem to question the idea that a government should deploy technology. it seems like, you know, in the US the government devoted billions of dollars to subsidizing broadband, so everyone could have access to the information super highway, and nothing happened.
The government came very close to making Intuit deliver tax preparation services for everyone. And then that was quickly pulled out after the [00:45:00] 2018 midterms. How does government, now that it’s obvious to everyone, especially as a result of the pandemic, that digital is how we deliver services?
There are so many other things from representation to simply having access to tools to do your job, to being able to find help that rely on technology. How does government need to think about redrawing the line of what’s delivered by government and what’s delevered by the private sector?
Jen Pahlka: [00:45:30] I mean the way I kind of think about it sometimes is like governments, you think about like buying a service to deliver, a technology to deliver a service, if you think about it sort of shallowly, like, well, it’s like a building we’re gonna buy a building. Like it’s gonna be expensive or you plan for a long time. We’re going to hire the right contractors and we’re getting the building. Right?
Well, there’s a lot of infrastructure behind that. Like building codes. Like [00:46:00] guess what? Like plumbing comes in standards for plumbing. And there are standards for electricity that you are leveraging that is like the invisible infrastructure. I mean, yes, there’s a foundation for your building. I get it. There’s a huge foundation for that building that we have built over centuries, really.
Alistair Croll: [00:46:21] Material scientists working on concrete, yeah.
Jen Pahlka: [00:46:25] And we have failed to do the same thing for technology, out of a simply misunderstanding of how it works. And I guess to some degree, a desire to have things sort of be fancy.
Alistair Croll: [00:46:38] Well I think some of it has to do with intellectual property again, the sins of the private sector tech world- and I say sins, I mean, as someone who’s worked in that industry for a long time- they’re not sins in that world, in those circumstances. You have intellectual property, you don’t want to share.
One of the things that makes product management very different in the public sector is you can pick up the phone and call someone. I mean, we found, we [00:47:00] had this thing called the Regional Digital Government Summit last year at FWD50, and we invited Hillary and Jaimie Boyd and other people to join us.
Jen Pahlka: [00:47:07] I love that she owns that first name, Hillary.
Alistair Croll: [00:47:11] Yeah, right?
Jen Pahlka: [00:47:11] Good job Hillary. Good job. Good job.
Alistair Croll: [00:47:14] So, we actually had, it was the first time they’d ever met like many of the territories and provinces, and now they’re sharing code together and they have weekly calls or monthly calls. But if this was a meeting among competitors, they would never get together and share code, right? The closest thing you have is the Open Source Movement. But then you have big proprietary service companies who fork the code and then charge for it. And so it does seem to me like we have to unlearn a lot of what digital and tech means in order to apply it in the public sector
Jen Pahlka: [00:47:46] And shout out to CDS for forking Notify from the folks in the UK. Just really, frankly, I think folks in Canada have done a better job with that than we have in the US.
Alistair Croll: [00:47:58] Well, you know, it [00:48:00] takes a lot off your plate when you know that there are, I mean, Sophie Gregoire got COVID really, really early on. That was a pretty clear sign that this was going to take everybody seriously.
And I think that we have seen a lot of good pull, but still healthcare in Canada is provincial. Right? The one thing I think is staggering to me about the reconciliation of public and private healthcare right now is that America has the largest healthcare budget in the world, but it spends 2.5% of that on public health.
And I think that for many people COVID was the first time they realized the person next to me on the subway has an impact on my health. And so one of the reasons the private sector acute treatment is so expensive in the US is because there is not a good business model incentive to do public health and preventative health, because it’s very hard to make a profit off helping everybody.
It does feel like we almost need to rethink the business [00:49:00] models of government, if that makes sense? They’re not really business models, but like this allocation of what’s public, what’s private, in a world where in the last 20 years we’ve gone from disconnected to ultimately being able to ask a question of all human knowledge and get an answer back in two seconds. Like it seems staggering to me that I have a device in my pocket that knows where I am, can get me every fact, can transcribe voice, can take pictures of everything. And yet we haven’t changed government. In the last 20 or 30 years, the human species has evolved into this new sort of homoconnectus creature, and yet we haven’t changed government and maybe these are just the growing pains, you know?
Jen Pahlka: [00:49:39] We’ve taken government for granted. And I think I’ll speak for the American public: Bad on us. Right? And I think COVID is a moment of realizing we’ve taken it for granted. But I think it ties in exactly to what you’re saying.
A great book [00:50:00] by Michael Lewis, The Fifth Risk, couldn’t remember the name for a minute. You know, and DJ is in that right?
Alistair Croll: [00:50:07] I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard it’s an amazing book.
Jen Pahlka: [00:50:10] Yeah. It’s really worth reading. Although, I will say it’s not a happy book.
Alistair Croll: [00:50:15] I now need to convince Michael Lewis to show up for 10 minutes at FWD50. That should be a piece of cake. Right?
Okay so, I’ll give you a last question, sort of forward looking on. What do you think are the biggest changes we’ll see in the next decade of digital government?
Jen Pahlka: [00:50:33] Oh, just, you know, that’s a really easy question. Sure.
Again, I always want to return to the line that’s like on stickers on the laptop and my husband Tim O’Reilly’s book contains the line “It’s up to us.” Right? Well, no one knows what’s coming and what’s the future, you know, why it’s up to us. [00:51:00] Predictions should always be caveated by the fact that they’re, you know, it’s gonna matter what each and every one of us does for those predictions to come true.
I will give you my positive predictions because I think that so many people that I love and respect and care about and I think are brilliant and powerful, are working towards these, which is that we’ll stop taking government for granted. We will educate our lawmakers about what needs to happen. We will realize that we have to build for everyone, right? That like, you know, just because something meets the requirements does not mean it works for users. And that we will build cross disciplinary teams that are powered to make services work for you. That’s my positive view.
But you know, I am just very aware of the ways [00:52:00] in which our current moment, which is going to create change, could also create the exact opposite change as folks sort of become really even more risk averse since we’ve been entrenched into old ways. And I really fear that because I think we’re at the breaking point with so many government services.
Alistair Croll: [00:52:20] Yeah. And it does feel like the letter of the law can be interpreted for nudge or sludge. Right? Like as you said, designing to get to no is a very troubling precedent, but it is an efficient means of controlling budgetary spending. And that’s a terrifying thought. Right? So, yeah, it’s interesting times.
Thank you so much. This is a fascinating topic and I love nerding out about it, having worked in product management of the private sector, and then spent the last few years learning from people in government, the contrasts are becoming much more apparent and really fascinating. Things that you thought were [00:53:00] vulnerabilities and weaknesses and liabilities turn out to be superpowers if you approach them right and that’s kind of cool.
Jen Pahlka: [00:53:04] Yeah.
Alistair Croll: [00:53:05] But I do think that educating the legislators for like, there’s an old line about code being law. But it seems like we need APIs so that the tech can talk the legislation and the legislation can talk to the tech. And it’s the APIs that keep breaking down, right? To really nerd the analogy.
Well keep up the great work. Thank you so much for all the stuff you do. It’s been great just to see you. I haven’t seen you in ages. And I’m glad you’re getting some free time while you’re saving the world. And as always let us know if we can help with any of the stuff you’re doing.
And we’ll have Tim speaking in November. He’s doing it on November 4th, right after me, and I joked that I would have to write three talks based on the outcome of the election. You know, one way, or the other way, or we don’t know yet. And then Tim has to follow that. I think he’s doing 21 Lessons for Digital Government. So that’s going to be an interesting November 4th morning, but I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.
Jen Pahlka: [00:53:58] So hard to even imagine [00:54:00] that far into the future these days.
Alistair Croll: [00:54:01] And yet it’s less than a hundred days! Yeah it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Jen Pahlka: [00:54:06] Thanks for the opportunity to say hi and check in. And yeah, a little bit of a connection with the community I care a lot about.
Alistair Croll: [00:54:13] Always great to see you. Take care.
Jen Pahlka: [00:54:14] Take care.