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How Will Jennifer Pahlka's Year with the Feds Impact Code for America Operations?

After serving as U.S. deputy chief technology officer, CfA's founder and executive director says in this Q&A that she's focused on creating a government that works for the people and by the people in the 21st century.

After spending a year in Washington, D.C., as the deputy chief technology officer for the United States, Code for America Founder Jennifer Pahlka is back, and in a recent blog post, she wrote a little about the experience.

She noted that it was a difficult year for various reasons, one of which was the "feeling of being a newbie at everything." She had to learn how policy is made, study up on procurement regulation, and familiarizie herself with laws, both enacted and proposed.

But most importantly, she learned "how things get done in D.C."

"I’m used to heated debates in meetings; in D.C., I learned that the meeting never happens in the meeting," Pahlka wrote. "I’m used to looking at user research and prototypes; in D.C., there are a lot of slide decks and memos."

But she also saw how all of that is changing, albeit "more slowly than we’d like." And, she added, "if I was even a tiny part of the momentum in that direction, then I’m proud of my time there."

In an interview with Government Technology, Pahlka shared a little more about what she learned in D.C., and what’s next for her organization based on her time with the federal government.

Government Technology: How was it working as deputy chief technology officer in Washington D.C.?

Jennifer Pahlka: The experience was wonderful. It certainly wasn't easy at times, but things that are important aren’t easy. I think It was very important for me to gain the experience of what it was like to work in government. To come back here, what it’s really done is redoubled my commitment to making real change and to a lot of the things that still need fixing in government, whether it’s at the local, county, state or federal level.

GT: What kind of things do you think need fixing in government?

JP: ... Procurement is the biggest piece. [And] it’s really a mixture of looking at the actual policy of running these things and marrying that with an understanding of the cultures and practices that can change when policy and law do not necessarily change, but where we can really get to a place where federal government -- or county or state or city -- can say, "We won’t have another thing like, because we know how to do this right next time."

I think it’s ultimately about putting people together and ideas together in a way that changes the game. That’s what Code for America has always been about, but we’re taking a more explicit approach to it now, and now we know a little bit more [about] where we can have a big impact. 

GT: There are a lot of new things happening in procurement these days. Do you see anything out there that you like?

JP: Philadelphia has been doing this program called Philly Fast Forward that brings social enterprise startups into government, helps them understand how to work with government, helps them understand how to expand the way they put work out into the marketplace, and has both sides work together. That’s been great – they did their first program around public safety.

In Boston; Nashville; and Palo Alto, Calif.; they are leveraging collective purchasing power and prototyping sustainable tech products. and that’s very cool.

If you get to the point in a procurement where you’ve got an RFP that isn’t informed by user needs, you’re probably already in a bad place -- before the project is ever bid on, before it ever starts. You’re not going to attract the vendors that work in a way that’s focused on user needs if the write-up of the project doesn’t reflect that. Companies that do their best work will shy away from that. […]

This myth that we know what would work two years before the product ships is not doing anybody any good, and creating processes that work with the law, that work with policy, but allow a team to discover what works through the creation of a project is a thoughtful collaboration that has to happen between technologists and government. We’re doing [that] with Oakland -- we’re hoping that project will become a template that any city can use to say, "Our initial use case was the building of a website. If you want to build a website for a city that really serves the needs of the citizens, here is a process that you can go through that is absolutely going to be OK with your procurement people, but it’s going to get you an outcome that is much more likely to succeed."

GT: How will your time spent as the U.S. Deputy CTO influence CfA operations going forward?

JP: I am even more committed to CfA's mission and ready to invest more in the theory of change that we have developed over the last four years, working closely with local governments. During my time in the White House, I got to see remarkable results of the Presidential Innovation Fellows and the impact they have when they partner with federal agencies. I also got to see a few of those fellows (and several dozen more "outsiders") take from a textbook failure of our procurement system to the interface that registered over 8 million people in health care in a matter of months. I also saw the Marketplace Light team of a dozen developers recreate in a few months 85 percent of the functionality that our procurement system took several years and hundreds of millions of dollars to produce. It reminded me that not only can we do better, but that it matters hugely to the American public when we do better, because people need -- sometimes desperately need -- the services government provides, whether it's health care or nutrition assistance or a more equitable criminal justice system. 

CfA has been working on spurring, cataloging and spreading procurement innovation at the local level for the past six months, and my time at the White House validated how incredibly important this work is at every level of government. As I mentioned in my return blog post, much of the work I engaged in during my time in government is not yet public, but I did have a chance to dig into how the Federal Acquisition Regulation can be used to contract with companies in decidedly 21st century ways: using agile methodologies to create digital services that work for their users, not just for government. If government is to regain the trust and faith of the public, we have to make services that work for users the norm, not the exception. I believe we can make significant progress with this under existing law and policy, but this work requires challenging the status quo and it requires courage. At CfA, we are particularly interested in the areas of government that inspire that courage: particularly those digital services that can truly help those who need it most. 

GT: Will you tweak or reform anything now that you have more knowledge and understanding of how government operates, and if so, what do you think you’ll change?

JP: As I mentioned in my return blog post, I return to CfA with a much greater understanding of what it means to "default to open," as CfA has long advocated. I see even more value in open data, but I also see how difficult it can be for agencies to open that data in the context of a culture in which the upside of a "win" is not always offset by the downside of something going wrong or of simply the extra work that opening the data might entail. These incentives have changed over the past few years, and they continue to change for the better, but they don't change trivially. And further progress depends on understanding these dynamics from the inside out.  

"Open" doesn't stop with data, however, and while I have had immense respect for public servants since I started working with them through Code for America, my understanding of the scrutiny public servants are subjected to, and the impact that can have on their work, has grown immensely since being in service myself.  There is much the private sector has to offer government, but those who seek to help must also seek to understand some of the legal and political limitations that their government counterparts must struggle with. This is one of the reasons we will be redoubling our efforts at CfA to promote tours of duty in public service by talented professionals in the tech industry, as well as helping expose public-sector professionals to start-up approaches.  

I didn't just learn from the U.S. federal government, I also spent a lot of time talking with the UK government's Government Digital Service and its leader, Mike Bracken. In the U.S., we have a lot to learn from their successful experiment. Their single domain for government information is truly simple, beautiful and easy to use for the public, and it saves taxpayers the cost of building and maintaining thousands of individual websites. Now that they have begun working on transforming their key transactions, the British public is treated to digital services that have been simplified and streamlined to be as easy as possible for them to use.  Through a combination of budget controls, modular contracting, and insourcing top technical and design talent, the UK has created a model that not only the U.S. federal government should follow, but state and municipal governments as well. Look for Code for America's efforts in the coming year to reflect the positive lessons learned in the UK, including an experiment we are conducting in partnership with the city of Oakland, Calif.

GT: Is there anything you plan to add to your program and/or processes since your experience with the federal government?

JP; The CfA board of directors met in late June to discuss the next phase of the organization's growth, taking into account the lessons learned through my experience in federal government. It's too soon to give specifics, but its fair to say that CfA's strategy moving forward will reflect the need to work with more cities, counties and states, and not just through the fellowship program for which we have become known. We are also pursuing a strategy of building on current work, ours and others', to achieve cumulative impact in particular areas over time.

GT: What would you say is the single most important thing you learned as far as the role CfA plays in helping the public sector?

JP: I got a poignant reminder of how important the public sector is, and how willing others are to help when it really matters.  After watching the fellows at CfA help people stay on nutrition assistance last year, I got to watch the rescue team make sure that Americans could enroll in health insurance. My boss Todd Park was one of the people who got to read the thousands of letters that came in from Americans whose lives had been changed by the Affordable Care Act, and he shared them with the rescue team, many of whom were working 18 to 20 hours a day for 100 days straight to fix the site. These folks dropped everything to come help, and they did it because it mattered.  

What I learned most, though, and I hope others learned as well, is that as difficult as it can be to set policy, it is useless without effective implementation. And in this day and age, it's incredibly difficult to get policy right the first time. We need to build feedback loops between policy makers and the people responsible for the digital interfaces that implement those policies so that government services can get better over time.  We need the users of these services at the center of the implementation, not at the margins. That's how we get government that works for the people, by the people, in the 21st century.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.