“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.