As Code for America prepares for its annual summit, scheduled to take place from May 30 to June 1 in Oakland, Calif., the group’s executive director, Jennifer Pahlka, said the event would give the entire civic tech community a chance to reflect on recent successes, as well as to set the bar for the coming year.
Code for America (CfA), for the uninitiated, is a nonprofit and nonpolitical group that aims to help government find new ways to use technology and thereby make its services function better for constituents. The group was founded in 2009, and in the intervening years, Pahlka said, much progress has been made in its mission and thus the nature of the summit has shifted. During CfA’s earliest years, conversation at the annual conference often centered around how to best make sweeping and basic improvements to the way government used tech — how to basically change the culture. Pahlka said this year, however, is yet another in which talk will continue moving toward how to best sustain this gov tech work now that it more heavily involves matters of policy and operations.
The summit seeks to address four big problems: strengthening digital capability in government; designing policy with tech at the table; shaping the government technology market to make it work better for everyone; and using the community as capacity by building government as a platform and engaging the public. Lead speakers include Pahlka herself, as well as David Plouffe of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; Jess Kahn of McKinsey and Co.; Cecilia Muñoz, who is presently with New America and formerly of the Obama White House; Rafael López of Accenture; Matt Cutts of the United States Digital Service; and Amy Tong, California’s chief information officer.
Also under the discussion at the event will be the vast shifts in the federal government — in everything from policy to decorum to approach — that have taken place under President Trump, who had only been in office a few months by the time of last year’s summit. Part of this discourse, Pahlka said, may involve the long-term sustainability of CfA’s work.
“The work is at the point where it’s speaking for itself,” Pahlka said. “It’s powerful. It works better than other approaches, and you have new officials coming in and saying, ‘Yeah, let’s keep doing this.’ It takes a long time. It’s generational.”
In the early goings of the Trump presidency, that notion was not quite so certain. Trump, however, has subsequently appointed Joanne Collins Smee as the executive director of the General Services Administration’s IT Modernization Program. Pahlka said she’d met with Collins Smee, a former IBM executive who was impressed with the ongoing work to modernize and improve government efficiency through tech.
Another change for the summit is that much of the discourse used to revolve around the need to train and entice tech talent to work with government. This is no longer the case, with Pahlka saying “it’s been a complete 180-degree turn now” and that “there’s a resurgent patriotism and it’s coming in the form of wanting to do this type of work in government.”
Government contracting of new tech employees will be under discussion, but Pahlka said the issue is more nuanced than that.
“This movement can’t be about bringing shiny tech people in from the outside exclusively,” she said. “Certainly, they’re welcome and we find a way to make them work, but you’ve got talented public servants there and it’s about unlocking their potential.”