The following is a conversation between Jennifer Pahlka, author of  Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: Just when we most need our government to work, it is faltering. Government at all levels has limped into the digital age, offering online services that can feel even more cumbersome than the paperwork that preceded them, and widening the gap between the policy outcomes we intend and what we get.

Finding a solution to this challenge has been at the heart of Jennifer Pahlka’s work for the past 15 years. She founded Code for America in 2009, became Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the Obama administration in 2013, helped launch the US Digital Service, and was deeply involved in the effort to rescue, among other things.

Now, she has written a fabulous and important book titled Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better. Welcome to The Business of Giving, Jen.

Jennifer Pahlka Author of Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better

Jennifer: Thanks so much for having me.

Denver: You know, you founded Code for America, as I said, back in 2009, and it actually got started at a family reunion. Tell us about the set of circumstances that set you off on this journey.

Jennifer: Funny to remember that time. Yes. My best friend from childhood is married to a guy who, at the time, was the chief of staff for the mayor of Tucson, and they came to our family reunion as they often do, being close friends of the family.

And, this guy, Andrew, was talking about the challenges that the city of Tucson faced, and how hard it was to use technology to solve those problems. He had an IT department that would say, “Okay, it’ll take three to five years, maybe longer, many millions of dollars” to do things that he knew were just not that hard to do.

And it was in brainstorming how he could solve that problem and over a couple of beers on a patio… it’s always good when you’re coming up with good ideas… that we came up with the idea for Code for America, and the rest is history.

So, we need to invest really in people first, then tech – the people who can make that tech work from the inside so that we can do good contracts with vendors who can work on the outside.

Denver: It sure is. Well, in your subtitle, you say government is failing in the digital age, and I think most of us probably know that, but government invests in tech, right? So, what’s the problem? What are the challenges and obstacles that exist and stand in their way?

Jennifer: Well, there are many. I would start with the fact that government has in fact invested in tech. What it hasn’t done is invest in tech expertise. We try to outsource all of it and, of course, we need contractors and, of course, we will use vendors to create and build and maintain technology that runs the functions of government.

But when we do it in such a way that it is entirely the responsibility of the vendor, and nobody inside has a sort of core competence in what I would call… in the tech industry…. is called product management, we’re just saying, “You go figure it out and deliver this to us. Oh, by the way, here’s $600 million to do it.”

That mode simply has not been working, and it’s understandable why it hasn’t been working. So, we need to invest really in people first, then tech – the people who can make that tech work from the inside so that we can do good contracts with vendors who can work on the outside. But, of course, it’s not just that.

Government is challenged because we have this incredibly risk-averse culture, which is created by the way our government is set up, the ways we hold people in government accountable. And essentially, I think, it comes down to a culture that we’ve created that makes it very hard for public servants to succeed.

And when I say we have created that culture, I mean that literally. I think every person in society is part of having created that culture and, therefore, I think it’s our job to help reverse it.

Denver: You know, this lack of internal capacity, that’s sort of in line with all the outsourcing everybody was doing in the 1990s. And I also find tech to be a little scary for a lot of people who say we don’t know how to do it, and they kind of send it out and hope for the best. But there’s nobody watching those vendors… or nobody watching those vendors who know how to watch them.

Jennifer: Yeah. Well, actually, I think, first of all, it’s a great point. We’ve sort of set up a way of talking about technology that’s very alienating. So, if you’re an expert in a particular policy domain or an economist, or you’re running an agency, you know everything there is to know about healthcare; it is still your job to know about technology.

And I think when you’re asked to engage in the process of building technology to run your agency, you’re on really shaky ground. Suddenly, you’re afraid you’ll look stupid. I mean, the funny thing is I think I’m a good spokesperson for this because I’m not a technologist. And I just don’t let tech people make me feel stupid.

You really are bringing something very valuable to the table when you know about the domain and how the agency needs to run. And so, you need, as a leader or mid-level management or whatever, to lean into this stuff and be there to talk to the people who’ve been hired to create the technology.

But, you are absolutely correct. Technology sort of came of age in a certain way right when we decided to outsource so much in government. It wasn’t just tech we were outsourcing, it was sort of everything.

Denver: Yeah.

Jennifer: And, I think, it’s sort of a bit of bad timing that the powers that be in the highest levels of government decided at that time that technology would not be strategic. It would just be the sort of this thing that we can buy.

Let’s make sure folks in the purchasing agencies can go get the best deal on it, not actually engage in understanding what needs to be built in the first place and think about it a little bit more strategically. And on the oversight bit, we do watch those vendors, but we watch them for compliance.

We watch them in a way that’s checkbox, checkbox, checkbox, not, “Does the thing work?”  And, “Does it work for the people who need to use it?” That’s the kind of oversight we need, and it’s going to be a big shift.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. You know, my experience has been on a much smaller level, just having worked with nonprofit organizations. When you’re outsourcing, you’re bringing in a lot of vendors. First of all, one vendor will tell you what the last vendor did was completely wrong and that we have to change it.

So, that always goes on, and they’re coming to save the day. But I guess this gets back to some of the points you were making in the book about the complexity of these government systems, because it’s just been a layer on top of another layer on top of another layer where it’s almost indecipherable.

Jennifer: Yes. And it is in fact almost indecipherable. I learned this in the most sort of powerful way when I was working with the California Employment Development Department. They’re the agency responsible for the delivery of unemployment insurance benefits.

And, in the summer of 2020, turned out there were about 1.3 million people in California who’d applied to get their unemployment sort of in March, April. And, by August, they hadn’t seen a single check, which is a long time to go without a check coming in the door if you don’t have a lot of savings, which is unfortunately true for a lot of Americans.

And so, we were digging through this sort of big mess of complicated layers of technology that had accrued sort of decade over decade since they digitized this process back in the ‘80s and then moved it online to be able to apply online in the early 2000s.

And a colleague of mine was talking with one of the claims processors who kept saying, “You know, I’m not quite sure about the answer to your question. I’m the new guy.” And about the third time he said that, she said, “Well, how long have you been here?” And he said, “Well, I’ve only been here 17 years. The folks who really know how this works have been here 25 years or more.”

Denver: Wow.

Jennifer: What he means is that it takes about 25 years to be even sort of moderately good at navigating all the policy and process and procedure and regulation that governs unemployment insurance in a state. And as much as the technology goes back to sort of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the policy goes back all the way to the 1935 Social Security Act. That’s when unemployment insurance was created.

And then you’ve got executive and legislative and judicial branches at both federal and state government piling on changes since 1935. So, yeah, we don’t ever go back and simplify that policy. We just let it accrue and accrete for 90 years, and then expect it to be able to be a program that scales, and it’s just not going to until we do some of that simplification.

Denver: Yeah. And I guess it got to the point there that there was such a backlog, you had to hire more and more people. And the more and more people you hired, the slower and slower it got.

Jennifer: It’s true. That should have been obvious, but it wasn’t obvious to us right away either. We looked at these reports and sort of did the analysis and, of course, it made sense because if you only have a certain number of claims processors and they’re the only ones who are going to be able to process those high-touch claims, well, if you give them 5,000 staff that they’re supposed to be supervising, they’re not going to be processing claims.

They’re going to be supervising 5,000 new staff. So, it was a bit of a lift to get the agency to be able to admit this was happening because they’d been told by the legislature and the governor’s office and the Federal Department of Labor, “Hire, hire, hire, so you can get through this backlog.” And telling them that the hiring was in fact a big part of the problem, not the solution, was a tough call. They really didn’t want to do it.

Denver: Yeah. Maybe part of the solution 25 years from now, but only then, if that. You know, one of the favorite points you made in the book… or my favorite points you made in the book was the gap between policy and legislation, and we all love policy and legislation.

Jennifer: Yeah.

Denver: It’s new, it’s exciting. You’re cutting a ribbon, you know; the cameras are there and something which is quite boring and dreary– implementation, where the rubber really meets the road. Talk a little bit about that gap.

Jennifer: You know, I’ll tell you a story that I’ve heard since writing the book. A dear friend of mine, who used to be the administrator of GSA, loved the book, and he said, “You know, here’s a great example of how this plays out.” He had taken a job at some other federal agency, and I’d come to his first day on the job, and some other ex-colleague of his sees him in the hallway and says, “Dan, you know, so great you’re here. What’s your new job?”

And he’s running some implementation part. I can’t remember what it was, head of management, and the guy says, “Oh, well, is it too late? Can you change it?” And what that speaks to is that’s sort of the status hierarchy in government. If you’re doing policy, you’re important.

Denver: Yeah.

Jennifer: And if you’re doing implementation, that’s what the lower-level people do. And it really has such a negative impact because we just drive policy and implementation away from each other. The closer they are to each other, the better outcomes we get.

But we’ve created all these ways in which the policy happens over here in a sort of an ivory tower, and they’re never going to listen to the folks down on the ground actually making the thing work. But in fact, if they did, their policies would do what they had hoped they’d done.

Denver: Yeah, yeah. You know, I had the chief economist of Walmart on the other day. He’s from the University of Chicago. And a great metaphor to what you just said… or an analogy would be innovation and scaling. And he says in his work, everyone loves the innovation, but anybody can scale the innovation.

And he says, that’s not the case. It’s the scaling of the innovation, which is really hard. And if it’s going to have an impact, you need to do it, but people turn away and they’re looking for the next innovation. So, it’s kind of just the way we look at these things and the way we think that fails to get the job done.

Jennifer: Yes. Everybody wants to have the TED talk.

And she really does empower herself to interpret the policies and the procedures in a way that gets to the outcome she wants. And sometimes it means taking a slightly loose interpretation of what she’s been told, but she actually has enormous trust and enormous success because the people know that she’s going to get the outcome.

Denver: Yeah. So, you know, another thing along those lines, too, is you talk about the intention of these policies. And the policy and procedures that the public servants need to follow. So, they’re kind of caught in that bind about: Do we try to do what we’re looking to achieve here?  Or do I go to the rule book and follow: How does that work?  How do you bridge that gap? What’s your thinking on that?

Jennifer: Well, you’re exactly right. Their jobs technically are just to do it by the book. That’s literally what they are supposed to do– follow policies and procedures. But, of course, most public servants, when they realize that following those policies and procedures won’t get the outcome that the policy intended, then they’re stuck in what we call the accountability trap.

Many of them kind of find creative solutions around that. But, I think, as a general public and as folks in the nonprofit sector, we need to recognize the difficult position they’re in because their careers depend on following that policy and process. They can’t really get in trouble for not delivering, but they can get in trouble for not having followed a policy or procedure.

However, I tell stories in the book, one particular of Yadira Sanchez, who is a career public servant at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which she’s been there now, I think, 26 years. This is her first job. She’s not someone who’s come in from the outside. She’s someone who has grown up inside this agency.

And she really does empower herself to interpret the policies and the procedures in a way that gets to the outcome she wants. And sometimes it means taking a slightly loose interpretation of what she’s been told, but she actually has enormous trust and enormous success because the people know that she’s going to get the outcome.

And I think that public servants should remember that, in fact, there is more tolerance for empowering themselves to do that interpretation than they realize.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. You know, again, getting back to the nonprofit sector, nonprofits are afraid to take risks because it’s the donor’s money, and they don’t want to waste the money. Every donor I’ve ever spoken to has told me they wish that nonprofit would take more risks. So, part of it is our perception that I better not step out of the lines. But the fact of the matter is… she sounds like a very creative woman.

Jennifer: She is.

Denver: She knows how to say… it’s almost like a great writer to be able to make it fit. Well, you have always let the work teach you. You talked a little bit about the unemployment insurance situation in California. Another one though that I mentioned at the top was rescuing

Jennifer: I was around for that, but I did not work on the rescue team myself. So, credit goes to many others for rescuing

Denver: But you were involved in it, right? What did we learn from that?

Jennifer: Well, there are many lessons from that including what I mentioned before, which is we invested a lot in the building of technology, invested a lot in the vendors that were charged with building it, but we did not invest in the internal capacity to manage it well.

The other lesson that I take is that we didn’t really product-manage it. Government is obsessed with project managers, understandably, and project managers are very, very valuable. But project management is the art of getting things done. Product management is the art of deciding what to do in the first place.

And we have this notion in government that the way we deliver technology is that we objectively go find all the possible requirements and then have a vendor fulfill all the possible requirements instead of prioritizing them and saying… in the case of, for instance, you could have said, “We’re going to serve this core of users who have these set of circumstances”… in other words, full-time, like: Don’t have all of these exceptions.

And folks with exceptions… there’s a small number of them that make the software very, very complex. At the outset, they will have to use the phone lines or go to the in-person service centers. That’s what they’re for. Those non-digital channels are for people who had extraordinary circumstances. But by trying to do everything, you know, imaginable from day one, we made a site that didn’t work.

And everybody, even if they had the simplest possible circumstances, flooded those in-person service centers and call centers, so they weren’t available to the folks who really needed them. The product management would’ve said, “Here’s what we’re going to do at launch, and then we’ll add this set of users, you know, month two, and we’ll add this set of users month three.

But, you know, to people I know who worked on that before the failure who said, “Yeah, I tried to get them to do it, and they said, ‘That’s illegal. You can’t do it that way. We have to serve everybody equally.’” The problem is that in hopes of serving everyone equally, not equitably, just equally, we served no one for a while.

Denver: Which was equal, I guess, that no one got served.

Jennifer: Serve everyone equally poorly. But there’s this concept of equity, which is like, you know, what do people need? And actually, if you have very complicated circumstances, it might feel unfortunate that you can’t use the website. But the reality is that you probably need a live human being to walk you through that in that case, and that would’ve been the right decision to do some product management.

It’s easy to digitize something simple. It’s hard to digitize something complex.” 

Denver: Right. Sounds like they need a director of common sense sometimes because that’s what it really gets down to. You know, I’d be curious, Jen, in looking at some of the struggles that the US has had entering the digital age: Is this around the world? Do other countries have similar struggles?  Do they have different struggles, or are there any nations maybe doing this well?

Jennifer: I would say every government struggles with it to some degree, but there is a very wide range, and countries are very different. I mean, believe it or not, a country that I’m dying to go visit, because I’ve just heard a lot about, is Bangladesh, which has almost none of its people online, but they have, first of all, taken complicated business processes and simplified them, which is the first step at any country.

Like with the unemployment insurance, if it’s really, really complex, it doesn’t matter if it’s digital or not… it’s too complex. And then they’ve created all of these service centers that you can go to so that you, the populace, don’t need to be online.

They go into an office where there is a computer and someone who knows how to use it. And they can sign them up for benefits or pay their taxes or get a business license that way. And it’s really, really different from our challenges here in the US, but they’re doing a great job, and I’d love to learn from them.

Denver: Yeah.

Jennifer: You know, I look at countries like Canada, the UK, they actually have very similar challenges to us. The problem is the complexity. Everybody talks about Estonia, which is wonderful, and they’re doing a great job. They’re also much, much smaller. And, again, look at the legacy complexity of their business processes and their policies. It’s much lower, which is part of the reason it was easy for them to digitize.

Denver: Yeah.

Jennifer: It’s easy to digitize something simple. It’s hard to digitize something complex.

Denver: Right. And it’s been around for a while. And, you know, when you have these legacy systems that you’re talking about, you also have individuals who have vested interest in keeping those systems alive, and their job depends upon that system. And if that system goes away, maybe I go away. The thing that you mentioned before that really struck with me was the culture.

Jennifer: Yeah.

Denver: Because at  the heart of this, this is a culture issue. I mean, how do you change a culture? How do you create a culture of innovation in the government? And how do you take something that is so deep and so embedded and get people to look at it differently and then act differently? What thoughts do you have on that?

Jennifer: Well, I’d start by saying we all have a role in it. I love this line. I think it’s from my friend, Eric Liu, at Citizen University. You’re not stuck in traffic. You are traffic. We’re all the culture, whether it’s the culture of government or the culture that makes government risk-averse through all of the criticism that we make of it.

But I do think there’s a lot of concrete things that our elected leaders could be doing and our bureaucratic leaders could be doing. We need to work on talent, funding, and oversight in government. So, if it takes nine months to hire somebody, of course, they’re not going to get the job done. Stop punishing them for poor performance and enable them to hire the people they need to do the work.

On funding, for instance, you want them to be innovative? Make it easy for them, for an agency, to get, say, $2 million to do a prototype instead of $2 billion to build a system over 20 years that will be outdated by the time it ships. A lot easier in a weird way to get that $2 billion than the $2 million. And then oversight is really important.

When oversight is about checking all those boxes and making sure everyone’s a hundred or a thousand percent compliant, and I say a thousand percent not facetiously, but, you know, we take these laws and policies, and we do a maximalist interpretation of them, so that what you’re supposed to comply with is actually more strict than what the law or policy said in the first place. I’m not just making that up. It really is sometimes.

Denver: Yeah, I hear you. Yeah.

Jennifer: A thousand percent compliance. Then, we create a risk-averse culture, and you cannot expect innovation out of a risk-averse culture, but we can see the things that we are doing to create it, and we need to reverse them.

Denver: Yeah. Sounds like we need a lot more small bets.

Jennifer: Yes.

Denver: Not the big bets, but the small bets. Find out what happens; learn from them; make another bet. Maybe eventually make a bigger bet, but you find out what works and what doesn’t work.

Jennifer: Important part in that, we need to be able to learn.

I think the first thing would be: tell the truth. It’s so easy to tell people or to believe that people want you to tell them what they want to hear. And, oftentimes, that’s true. But you as a nonprofit will generally have insights closer to the ground that your funders or people overseeing your nonprofit need to know, and find the courage to tell them that.” 

Denver: Yeah. We have a lot of nonprofit organizations that listen to this show, and they sort of have similar problems, I guess, on a much, much, much smaller scale, but they’re risk-averse. They can be slow-moving sometimes. They have, you know, 100-, 150-year history, so many of them; they have legacy systems. Are there any lessons that you’ve observed or taken in that you could pass on to some of these nonprofit leaders just to have them keep it in mind as they look at their own organizations?

Jennifer: I think the first thing would be: tell the truth. It’s so easy to tell people or to believe that people want you to tell them what they want to hear. And, oftentimes, that’s true. But you as a nonprofit will generally have insights closer to the ground that your funders or people overseeing your nonprofit need to know, and find the courage to tell them that.

I guess I’ll also tell a quick story since you mentioned, you know, the risk aversion in the nonprofit funding scenario earlier. I once took a large grant from a very wonderful tech billionaire who was giving us some support. And we took it for a tech project that nine months later I realized wasn’t working, and I had to go back to this guy, and it took all the courage I had to just walk in and say, straightforwardly, “It isn’t working. And, we need to change direction.”

 And to my great surprise, because I thought I was in for an hour of tough questions and anger. It took him about five minutes of asking me questions. “Okay, how do you know it’s not working?” Once he believed that I had the right assessment, he didn’t want me to give up on it too quickly.

Five minutes into the meeting he pivoted and said, “Great. You learned properly. What’s your next project, and what am I going to fund?” And he was asking me for a new funding proposal five minutes into the meeting and, you know, I’m sure they’re not all that great, but I’m glad I found the courage to tell them the truth and just tell them upfront. And I hope others can do the same with their funders, even if it’s not always that easy.

Denver: Yeah, yeah. May not have that happy ending, but that is a great story. You know, I’ve always looked at the four-letter word of the nonprofit sector, and it’s “risk.”

Jennifer: Yeah.

Denver: And it’s always amazed me, Jen, that when we go to a funder and we make a proposal, we never talk about the risk. There’s a sort of assumption that this is what we’re going to do, and it’s going to work. Now, if I go to my financial advisor, I get a risk on every investment I make.

Jennifer: Yes.

Denver: But we just sort of assume. So, that is really a good lesson to have. Finally, Jennifer, you know, I’ve always believed that if you’re purpose-driven and want to make a difference in the world, there’s probably no better place to be than government.

You really have an extraordinary amount of leverage and can do some wonderful things. What advice would you give to the next generation of public servants and technologists who aspire to drive meaningful change and improve government services through technology?

Jennifer: Well, it’s in the inscription to the book I write: To public servants everywhere, Don’t give up. And I think that mostly summarizes it. It is a very hard job that will demoralize you many days.

And so, what I would add to it here is not only “Don’t give up,” but “Support each other.”  We get through the hard days because there’s someone by our side who knows what we’re going through and can be supportive and can remind us that these jobs are critically important to millions of people’s lives.

And if you can keep that in mind and have a friend to help you through the hard times, you’ll look back on your career, and you’ll be so happy with what you’ve done. Even if it feels like day to day: nothing’s changing, year to year, decade to decade, it is.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. You almost have to bookmark where you started.

Jennifer: Yes.

Denver: Because you’ll never see it. And then look back three years later and see how much you’ve accomplished because there is this tendency where we’re always looking ahead of things that we haven’t done yet, but look behind your shoulder and say, “Wow, look how far we’ve come.” And we need to take a moment to appreciate that.

Well, this is most definitely a book that impacts every American and one that people should read to understand what it will take to make our government work better. So, pick up a copy of Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better. Thanks, Jen, so much for being here today. It was a great pleasure to have you on the show.

Jennifer: I really enjoyed it. Thank you so much for having me.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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