Filmed on Wednesday February 1, 02017

Jennifer Pahlka

Fixing Government: Bottom Up and Outside In

Jennifer Pahlka is the founder and Executive Director of Code for America. She served as the US Deputy Chief Technology Officer from June 02013 to 02014 and ran the Game Developers Conference, Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra.com, and the Independent Games Festival for many years. Previously, she ran the Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 events for TechWeb, in conjunction with O’Reilly Media.

Code for America was founded in 02009 by Jennifer Pahlka “to make government work better for the people and by the people in the 21st century.”

The organization started a movement to modernize government for a digital age which has now spread from cities to counties to states, and now, most visibly, to the federal government, where Jennifer served at the White House as US Deputy Chief Technology Officer. There she helped start the United States Digital Service, known as "Obama's stealth startup."

Now that thousands of people from "metaphysical Silicon Valley" are working for and with government, what have we learned? Can government actually be fixed to serve citizens better—especially the neediest? Why does change in government happen so slowly?

Before founding Code for America, Jennifer Pahlka co-created the Web 2.0 and Gov. 2.0 conferences, building on her prior experience organizing computer game developer conferences. She continues to serve as executive director of Code for America, which is based in San Francisco.

Toward agile government

Pahlka quoted: “Efficiency in government is a matter of social justice.” (Mayor John Norquist) It is at the often maddening interface with government that the inefficiency and injustice play out. Two examples (both now fixed)… At the Veterans Affairs website, you needed to fill out the application for health benefits, but the file wouldn’t even open unless you had a particular version of Internet Explorer and a particular version of Adobe Reader. Nothing else worked. In California, the online application for food stamps is 50 screens long and takes 50 minutes to complete.

How did such grotesquely bad software design become the norm? Pahlka points to laws such as the “comically misnamed” Paperwork Reduction Act of 01980, which requires six months to get any public form approved, and the 775-page Federal Acquisition Regulation book, which requires that all software be vastly over-specified in advance. “That’s not how good software is built!” Pahlka said. “Good software is user-centered, iterative, and data driven.” You build small at first, try it on users, observe what doesn’t work, fix it, build afresh, try it again, and so on persistently until you’ve got something that really works—and is easy to keep updating as needed. Pahlka’s organization, Code for America, did that with the 50-minute California food stamp application and pared the whole process down to 8 minutes.

These are not small matters. 19% of the US gross national product is spent on social programs—social security, medicare, food assistance, housing assistance, unemployment, etc. Frustration with those systems makes people want to just blow the whole thing up. Pahlka quotes Tom Steinberg (mySociety founder): “You can no longer run a country properly if the elites don’t understand technology in the same way they grasp economics or ideology or propaganda.”

Government drastically needs more tech talent, Pahlka urged, and the user-centered iterative approach could have a broader effect: “It's not so much that we need new laws to govern technology,” she said. “It's that we need better tech practices that teaches how to make better laws. The status quo isn’t worth fighting for. Fight for something better, something we haven’t seen yet, something you have to invent.”

She concluded: “Decisions are made by those who show up.”

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