What’s New In Civic Tech: Code for America's Jennifer Pahlka Attends Trump’s Tech Meeting

Plus, Boston adds broadband access to its development review process, What Works Cities releases report about tangible ways local governments are changing lives, and the Illinois Department of Agriculture uses tech to improve service.

Code for America Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka — who worked as U.S. deputy chief technology officer under President Barack Obama — attended a tech meeting at the White House on June 19 with President Donald Trump. And she wrote a piece in The Washington Post to explain why she was doing so.

The meeting was held by the American Technology Council, established by executive order in May, and it sought to address a range of issues, including procurement reform, cloud computing, and user-centered design —  all topics that matter deeply, enough to put Pahlka in a room with a president whose “agenda and behavior are deeply disturbing,” Pahlka wrote.

To elaborate further on her decision, Pahlka described recent ways in which tech progress by government has made differences in real people’s lives, including California going from an online food stamp application that took an hour and required use of a laptop or desktop, to a version one can access with a smartphone and finish in seven minutes.

“I am attending on behalf of the thousands of civil servants around this country who continue to improve government digital services to make sure they better serve every single American,” Pahlka wrote. “I would not be attending this meeting if it were not dedicated to the issues that define Code for America and our mission. To the tech CEOs who are joining me in Washington, I ask that you speak up for the people for whom government works least now. Join me in making the digital services agenda about serving all Americans equally with dignity.”

After the meeting, Pahlka tweeted that she would soon write about what transpired. She then went on to retweet information about a lack of transparency in regard to the ongoing health-care bill Trump has endorsed.

Boston Adds Broadband Access to Development Review Process

In a move that seems to put broadband in the same realm of importance as electricity, water and gas, Boston is adding a new questionnaire to its development review process aimed at collecting info on Internet connectivity plans for new construction, according to the nonprofit site Next City.

While the questionnaire will have no regulatory power, it does make planning for broadband access an early part of the city’s building review process, thereby encouraging all developers to consider Internet provider competition and infrastructure resiliency before designs for construction are approved.

Anne Schwieger, Boston’s broadband and digital equity advocate, told Next City that this could impact the scale of both the building and the city, because reliable Internet is a valuable enticement for companies looking to launch or expand within the city, especially the tech startups that most economic development officials crave.

Schwieger said until recently, most Bostonians had only one option for Internet providers, a situation that often means high prices and lacking service. The questionnaire could encourage developers to proactively reach out to multiple Internet service providers themselves, thus increasing competition and benefiting residents in the form of price drops. Price competition is widely considered a key part of fostering digital equity, an increasingly prominent issue among cities looking to improve the lives of residents with tech, which in 2017 is basically all cities.

What Works Cities Releases Report About Tangible Ways Local Governments Are Changing Lives

What Works Cities, a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative that pairs government agencies and mayors’ offices with university and nonprofit partners in the service of innovation, has compiled a 16-page report about the ways that local governments are changing lives.

The report, dubbed What Works Cities, How Local Governments Are Changing Lives, showcases the progress that stakeholders have made working toward the initiative's stated goal of ultimately helping residents thrive and reach their full potentials.

“We are proud to showcase here the progress of our cities in driving better outcomes for their residents,” What Works Cities Executive Director Simone Brody wrote in the report. “They are doing this by using data and analytical thinking to set goals, inform how they make decisions and gather evidence to enable creativity and innovation. What works, and what doesn’t? What could work better? These are the questions that our cities are always asking.”

The report comes shortly after Michael Bloomberg announced the launch of What Works Cities Certification that provides clarity by identifying and endorsing clear, expert-tested indicators of cities’ data-driven programs and policies. In total, 200 cities have applied to the program.

The recent report includes a range of info, including how many people live in cities that participate in the initiative — 26 million — and how much money the annual budgets of these cities contain — about $92 billion. There is, of course, a good deal more info than that, including resident testimonials, stories about the efforts of individual jurisdictions, and photos of mayors out in the field.

Illinois Department of Agriculture Uses Tech to Improve Services

The Illinois Department of Agriculture, which processes more than 70,000 licenses each year for the state’s farmers, producers, agribusinesses and others, has begun a pilot program to offer online renewals for licenses granted by its Bureau of Animal Health and Welfare.

In a blog touting this functionality, the department wrote that the bureau, which is the first under its supervision to offer paperless renewals, issues more than 5,200 licenses each year in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act. In an effort to facilitate ease of use among users, developers have included instructions and a tutorial with license reminder notices.

"Businesses these days are looking for ways to be more efficient and effective with their time and resources," said Ag Director Raymond Poe in the blog. "Our goal should be to make doing business in the state of Illinois easier, not more difficult. Utilizing digital technology, we will be able to increase efficiencies for all parties, reduce costs and provide a positive experience for our customers."

The department also wrote that in the coming months, there are plans to extend this online license renewal pilot to other bureaus under its supervision. 

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine