Editor's Note: The interview in this article took place prior to the new standard operating procedure to cancel large gatherings due to the current coronavirus pandemic. While the Code for America Summit has been canceled (event registrants will be refunded their money), Code for America is currently exploring its virtual event options according to an announcement on its web site. Even amid the event's status, this article and the accompanying interview offer important insight into the organization's goals and objectives as well as the importance of the Summit in whatever form it eventually takes.
Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka's passion for civic duty is infectious when she talks about ordinary citizens stepping up to transform local, state, and federal governments to modern digital times. "I think government really wants to do well" said Pahlka in my interview of her (available below in video, audio, and full-text transcript forms). "But we built government in a pre-digital age and it's a little bit harder to move this very large risk-averse institution into the kinds of ways that companies that are thriving in the digital age tend to work." It's a bit ironic given how far ahead the Federal Goverment was back in 1975 when it took control of the ARPANET; a 57-node distributed computer network from which the Internet was born. But that's exactly what's on the agenda of the forthcoming Code for America Summit as more than a thousand developers, civic technologists, and government officials will gather virtually for the annual affair to acclerate the pace of digital improvement at all levels of government.
Given my own personal involvement in organizing the Washington DC-Area API meetup, which is often attended by IT people from all across the Federal Government, Pahlka's characterization could not be more spot on. Between the government's age, resistance to change, shifting priorities after every election, and massive technical debt, it isn't difficult to see how businesses are digitally racing ahead of government at all levels, resulting in a thorny if not dangerous technological imbalance between the public and private sectors. Similar to the consumerization of IT, as companies like Facebook and Spotify train citizen expectations for engaging with any organization, there are parts of the government (again, at all levels) that are woefully behind. Put another way, why should working with your local Department of Motor Vehicles be any less modern than engaging with a playlist on Spotify?
As you may have guessed by now, the vent's virtual nature is due to concern over the unfolding Coronavirus crisis which, in many ways, exemplifies the gap. The disease is literally moving faster than the local, state, and federal governments' abilities to not just keep up with it, but to keep citizens informed from a single source of truth. If the governments were behaving more like a modern day digital enterprise, there might already be a mobile app that puts all the necessary information and precautions at the fingertips of citizens. But that sort of agility has been elusive when it comes to government.
But in America, there's a saying (grafted from the Gettysburg Address); it's a "government of the people, by the people, for the people." In taking that principle to heart, Code for America has, over the last ten years, marshalled the forces of civic-minded technologists who'd rather not just wait for the government to figure things out on its own. In other words, as citizens, we're not going to elect our way into better GovOps. To so extent, citizens have to take matters into their own hands.
"We're just trying to give them some of the principles and practices of the digital age and apply it to government, because, in government, that's where we're really serving everyone." Pahlka said. "These services are enormous. They matter hugely to the American people and we've got to give government that competency and that capability of being great at digital. And that just requires some retraining and some different perspectives. It's really about being able to adopt the way that the internet works in government, in the service of the American people.
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Transcript of: CodeForAmerica
David Berlind: Hi, I'm David Berlind. Today is Tuesday, February 18th, 2020 and this is ProgrammableWeb's Developers Rock podcast. With me today is Jennifer Pahlka. She is the founder of CodeforAmerica.org. They've got a big event coming up. Jennifer, thanks for joining us. Tell us all about this event that you've got coming up, what in March, I think it is?
Jennifer Pahlka: Yeah, it's in March. It's in DC. Hi David. Thanks so much for having me on.
David: It's great to have you. Yeah, it's been so long. We used to work together a long time ago, so it's really great to see you again.
Jennifer: Yeah, I'm delighted, and it's a wonderful to be able to talk about the Code of America summit, which is happening middle of March in DC, and it's basically where everybody who wants to make government work better in a digital age, comes together and talks about how hard it is and how much progress we're making and really, what the world could look like if government got really good at digital services.
David: Well, why does the government need something like CodeforAmerica.org floating around in their midst?
Jennifer: Well, I think government really wants to do well, but we built government in a pre-digital age and it's a little bit harder to move this very large risk-averse institution into the kinds of ways that, that companies that are thriving in the digital age tend to work. So there's speed issues. There's issues of really working with users in the way that our best digital services are built is really tapping into what users want, and that can be really hard in government. So, we're just trying to give them some of the principles and practices of the digital age and apply it to government, because, in government, that's where we're really serving everyone. These services are enormous. They matter hugely to the American people and we've got to give government that competency and that capability of being great at digital. And that just requires some retraining and some different perspectives. It's really about being able to adopt the way that the internet works in government, in the service of the American people.
David: And so as CodeforAmerica.org sort of an officially sanctioned body by the government. Or did you just sort of sprout up and start helping because you felt it was sort of your civic duty to do this?
Jennifer: Yeah, that's right. We thought it was our civic duty to do this. So I started Code for America 10 years ago. It's a 501(c)(3)so yes, we're sanctioned by the government as a nonprofit and we work really closely with government. So what we say is, look, we can change this. It's very hard to change government, but we can do it if we do three things; we show what's possible by making government services so good that they inspire change. So if you try, for instance, using the application for food stamps, supplemental nutrition assistance program [SNAP], it's very cumbersome. It's not built well for users. It doesn't work on a mobile phone. And we've shown that it can be dramatically better with a service called GetCalFresh. It serves all with California now for anybody applying for SNAP, that's just sort of ups the bar and gets people thinking about what could be possible.
But then, we help government people do this better themselves. So that's what the summit is all about is we can't do all the services for government. But if we share how this works and how you apply these principles and the practices in government, then people in government can make their own services really great.
And then the third thing we do is we build a movement. There's now this amazing movement of people who understand the digital world and either are coming into government or are already in government who are getting together and saying, "Let's write a new playbook. Let's hold everybody accountable to a much better level of service, a much better experience and better outcomes." And that's really the movement that then drives even more better examples and even more ability to get people on board with the practices.
David: Wonderful. So I was looking at the website for the summit and I saw that you're expecting something like about a thousand people based on what you just said, are the majority of those people in government now and coming to get inspired or is it a blend of people from government and then others like you who felt it's their civic duty to help the government out and sort of a collaboration? What's the attendee mix like?
Jennifer: Yeah, it's a great mix, a lot of the people are in government, in fact, a little somewhere near the majority of people are in government and they're either already in one of the groups like the United States Digital Service or the Colorado Digital Service or San Francisco has its own digital service, which are groups in government who sort of self-define as running by the Code for America playbook. They're doing things in a user-centered era and data-driven way. Sometimes they struggle with that because government has a bunch of constraints that make it hard to do that. But they are figuring out those ways to do it and they're successfully doing it in many services in government that we have a long way to go.
The rest of it is, is a mix of folks, some of our vendors are there. We've got what we call civic technologists who may, who work like we do sort of from the outside but improve government, you know from that sort of an outside perspective. We've got people who are just learning about it. I mean even folks from like staffers from congressional offices who were in charge of the oversight of government digital are also coming to learn and say, "Wait a minute, there's a better way to do this and we're going to have to be part of that solution."
David: And so this is a mixture you sort of talking about cities and States and so, so does Code for America work across all levels of government from municipal on all the way up to federal?
Jennifer: Our biggest projects right now are with state governments. State to do a lot in the areas that we specialize, which is the social safety net and the criminal justice system. We also worked a lot with counties and then we have 82 cities around the country that would have a Code for America brigade, which is essentially a chapter, a volunteer chapter. So we specialize in working at city, county, and state level and our big projects tend to be with them. However, the principles and practices that we articulate and evangelize to the rest of government are applicable across federal as well. And so the attendees a Code for America summit are federal, state and local. In fact, last couple of events it's been about a third, a third, a third split between those three groups. If you're working with States, you're also working with the federal government in the sense that the federal government regulates most of these programs like SNAP and Medicaid and so we do work with them as well, but they aren't a client if that makes sense.
David: I see. Now the name of the organization is Code for America. And this is the Developers Rock podcast. When I hear the word "code", I think developer, because you're coding for somebody. So what's in it for developers and developers come to this event and what do they do when they get there?
Jennifer: Yeah, so a lot of them, if you look out at the speakers that are there speaking, a good chunk of them are developers. They have developed wonderful digital services at the Veterans' Administration. It's with state governments, etc. And what they get out of this more broadly is that they get to work on the things that matter most. We have had so many developers come from, whether it's the private sector or social sector, and come into government and say, now that I'm coding, a better veteran's healthcare application, I can never go back because this is so... I'm so aware now of the people that I'm helping, I'm helping people who need help the most. And my impact is bigger than it has ever been on parts of our country that absolutely need the most help. And so, what developers get out of it really get out of upcoming to summit, is a community and the skills and the tactics that need to be successful making those digital services in government, but what they're getting at it more broadly is these incredible meaning and satisfaction in their jobs.
David: Sure. A very meaningful work and they get to kind of rub shoulders with birds of a feather, other people who feel the same way. So it sort of escalates that feeling of altruism and contribution to the betterment of the nation. One question I have for you though is, that a lot of us, and I don't know if you've given this any thought. A lot of us look at what's going on at the federal level of our government and we see a lot of nothing getting done. It almost seems like the government doesn't have an interest in getting things done. You have people yelling across the aisle at each other, but now they also complain that we're not getting any legislation done and they blame each other if the government is sort of stalled in this way by the people who lead it. Is there any hope of this movement coming from under and getting things going, sort of greasing wheels of government, so to say, as you pointed out?
Jennifer: I think beneath the surface of that dysfunction that we all experience, there is real progress. Six years ago, if you were a veteran, you could literally... almost nobody could get through the healthcare application. It required this very specific combination of an outdated browser and an outdated version of Adobe PDF. And if you didn't have that exact combination, which just happened to be the sort of weird outdated combination that VA Staffer computers had, you couldn't load the application form.
That's just one of a dozen things that wrong with that one specific service. Now you can and people do and they use a service that looks so good that they go, wait, is this... did government build this? Because it's simple and it's easy and it's clear. That's the work of United States Digital Service and things like that are happening all over government and it's not making the headlines but it really is progress.
I mean the same thing with our SNAP application that we're doing in different States now, For example, we had these laws that are passing in States around the country, decriminalizing various convictions, often related to the decriminalization of marijuana, but not always. And we've been working with States to figure out how to clear those convictions. That doesn't involve 10 months of paperwork but just says, wait a minute, this person has a conviction, it's in a database. Let's just change the record in the database. And that's the kind of progress. It's not just that we're making forms better, it's that we're helping people in government understand how the digital world works and be far more efficient. Like leap-frogging the process and just saying, this is just a matter of changing a record in a debate database. Let's help you do it.
Hundreds of thousands of people have already gotten relief because we've been able to implement these laws in a hundred times faster than they would've been and now millions more across the country are going to. That's hope, right? That's like there is functioning government happening, it's getting better, we're getting better at doing government right. And that's happening at the same time as all of that political dysfunction. I felt very lucky that I get to look at that every day and use that as a real counterpoint to some of the less beautiful parts of government.
David: Right, so while some people who are leading the show don't seem to be able to get anything done, you're busy at work, under the hood, getting a lot of stuff done. And I would have to kind of support the fact that there are people who are looking to do that kind of meaningful work. I don't know if you know this, but I'm the co-leader of the Federal API meetup in Washington DC the first Tuesday of every month, I am a Gray Brooks's wingman. I don't know if you remember Gray Brooks from your days and in DC.
Jennifer: He's the best.
David: He is the best. He's an amazing human being. And so, I'm down there every month helping out and helping that meet up run. And of course, not only can everybody who's watching this come to that meetup if you're in the DC area, but also I get to meet a lot of people from the various corners of government, especially the federal government, and they're all very interested in moving the ball forward. So let's go back to the summit real quick. March 11th to March 13th. Can anybody come? Is there a fee? How do you sign up?
Jennifer: Register at codeforamerica.org/summit, it's a cheaper rate if you're in government. Those budgets are a bit limited. Private sector folks pay a bit more, but it's absolutely affordable and the content is amazing.
David: And you might get to meet Jennifer Pahlka who is the founder of CodeforAmerica.org there. Right.
Jennifer: I will absolutely be there. I'm giving a talk and I'll spend the best three days of the year with the people that I admire the most.
David: Wonderful. Well, there you go. That's the Code for America summit. It's going to have workshops, receptions, breakout sessions, lightning talks, and keynotes. Of course, one of those will be by Jennifer here. Jennifer Pahlka. Thank you very much for joining us.
Jennifer: Thank you so much David. This has been fun and it's great to see you.
David: It's been terrific to talk to you. We've been speaking with Jennifer Pahlka. She is the founder of CodeforAmerica.org they're running their big annual event in Washington DC March 11th to March 13th, 2020 hope to see you there. For now, I'm signing off David Berlind, editor in chief of ProgrammableWeb. If you want more videos like this one, just go to our YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/programmableweb or you can go to ProgrammableWeb.com and you'll find an article with this video embedded and all of the full text, the transcription of what Jennifer just said to you, as well as the audio-only version if you prefer it in podcast form.
Until the next video, thanks for joining us.