This week, Meghan Hellstern, Trainer and Facilitator with Think Digital, co-hosts with Ryan and reflects on her time at the 2023 Code for America Summit in Washington, D.C! In this episode, we hear about how digital transformation is as much about people, as it is technology.
Big thanks to Hillary Hartley, Dorothy Eng, Ariel Kennan, Amanda Renteria, Karina Rider, Natalie Talis, and Luke Simcoe for taking time out of their busy conference to sit and reflect with Meghan.
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Hi. I'm Ryan Androsoff. Welcome to Let's Think Digital. Today we're joined by Meghan Hellstern. Meghan is a facilitator and trainer with us at Think Digital and an expert in all things human centered design. And Meghan, you just got back from the Code for America Summit in Washington, DC. You know, first of all want to hear about the trip, want to hear about some what you took away from it. But for those who might not be familiar with the Code for America Summit, maybe tell us a little bit about what the Summit's all about?
Meghan Hellstern 0:37
Yeah, absolutely, Ryan, and it's great to be back and see you. So Code for America, for those who are not familiar are one of the leading organizations in the world for digital government and civic technology. They are based in the United States. They were founded by Jennifer Pahlka quite a few years ago now. And they've done a lot of really pioneering work, not only in America, but worldwide to really forward to the movement of civic technology and digital government. And so Code for America Summit, as you can imagine, is their big convening where they bring together their extended family and friends. You know, public servants, technologists, organizers, vendors, civic tech enthusiasts, like a very, very broad swath of the sort of, let's call it digital government and innovation kind of ecosystem together. They come together to learn, to reignite their passion for this space, to share the challenges, to share the wins. There were some awards, there was some, you know, laughs and cries, a whole bunch of just really beautiful folks coming together under this banner of civic technology and digital government. So was two days in Washington DC, my first time actually in the capital of the United States, which was really exciting. And it was just, yeah, a wonderful, wonderful experience that I'm excited to share more about.
And this was your first time at the Code for America Summit as well, right?
Meghan Hellstern 2:06
Yeah, that's correct. I have been lucky enough, so here in Canada, we have Code for Canada. And actually, there's many of these Code For organizations all over the world. So I've attended the Code for Canada Summit, but this is my first time kind of going to the mothership over in the United States.
So you know, curious why you were drawn to go attend. I mean, and obviously, you know, the focus there is was inevitably a little bit on the American experience with civic technology, clearly some global applicability to it. But what really kind of drew you in to say, hey, you know, this year, I really want to be able to go attend in person.
Meghan Hellstern 2:45
Yeah, it's a great question for sure. I mean, first off, this was their first year back at full scale since the pandemic. So there's a real feeling of it being kind of like this giant family reunion. Last year, they had a bit of a scaled back thing that was mostly online. But really having everybody there in person was a huge, huge draw for me. I've also been really curious about expanding my networks in this space outside of Canada, I've been so lucky to do a lot of this work across the country here. But there's so many other great folks working, you know, both just south of the border as well as globally. And so this felt like a great chance to expand those networks and get inspired as well. I'll talk a little bit more about it later, but one of the big themes that I definitely saw at the conference was this sort of acknowledgement that this work is generational, it is very challenging. Sometimes, you know, it can lead to burnout. And, you know, sort of there's a personal toll to you know, toiling away at what can sometimes feel like very insurmountable odds when it comes to transforming these large systems. And so there was that desire, I think, to reconnect with that sense of energy and excitement and passion and motivation for doing this change work. And I'm happy to say that it really delivered on all of those desires and intentions. So I feel really lucky that I got to go and happy to share some of my experiences and reflections with you all.
So I'm looking forward to hearing about your experiences at Code for America. So let's have a listen and we'll bring you back at the end of the episode.
Meghan Hellstern 4:21
Good morning. It's Meghan Hellstern, reporting to you live from the Code for America Summit. The first time that the summit is back in person here in 2023 in Washington, DC. It's a gray sort of drizzly morning here in Washington. There's lots of buzz happening here at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Hundreds of attendees from all over the country all over North America are here to nerd out on all things digital government and civic tech. The opening remarks are about to start so I'm gonna hop in but I'll be reporting to you all throughout the conference and trying to grab some cool folks to reflect on this novel and wonderful experience together. Stay tuned! It is now the first break of the Code for America Summit. And you can hear a lot of buzz behind me. There are folks scattered all over the hotel in small groups, chatting with each other, lots of reunions, lots of new connections being made. For myself, I'm feeling really, re-ignited and recharged, being back together in person with my community. The themes so far that I can intuit from the conference include a real focus on data not only to inform the work that we're doing, but also to evaluate our impact and ensure that we're having the right results that we're aiming for. Also, lots of focus on talent, tech and hiring. I'm not too surprised by that. I've been spending the last year or so actually focused on those topics, really trying to understand some of the labor issues related to this digital government and civic tech movement. So there's a few more panels on those throughout the next few days that I'm looking forward to catching up on. Also a real focus on infrastructure, not only the software side, you know, creating amazing experiences that are digital, but also ensuring that folks have the access that is required to engage with those. So some initial thoughts there. Something I really appreciated that one of the speakers shared earlier, is really that we need to focus a lot of this work underneath, as the foundation is really this idea of a culture of caring, of caring for the people that we serve, for the people that serve within our organizations, and ultimately caring about the results and impacts that we have on the planet, on people and on each other. So I thought that was a really good reminder, especially for those of us working in and around public service of the importance of care at the heart of that. So I'm here we are waiting for lunch on day one of the Code for America 2023 Summit. It's a beautiful sunny day here in Washington, DC. After a bit of rain in the morning, the clouds have cleared. And I'm here with Hillary Hartley, someone I have admired in the digital government and civic tech space for like a decade plus, I think now. I am most familiar with Hillary's work as the leader of the Ontario Digital Service back in Canada. But there's some really cool new exciting stuff, I think cooking in your life. So maybe you could tell us a little bit about yourself and your sort of path and what you're up to.
Hillary H 7:29
Yeah, so I'm at Code for America Summit for the first time in at least a few years, for me, I can't actually remember the last time I was able to go to because I was in the civic tech world. Was an early mentor and one of the Code for America cohorts and one of their first years. So I've been around as a Presidential Innovation Fellow helped start 18F. And then got the opportunity to move to Toronto and lead the Ontario Digital Service. So I was the Chief Digital Officer. And then we wrote an awesome law, and I became the Chief Digital and Data Officer getting to set standards and rules, which was fantastic. So I've been in Ontario for the last six years. And then about six weeks ago, I joined a nonprofit. And I am, I get to lead an organization called the US Digital Response, which started up really as a ad hoc grassroots effort in March of 2020. When a lot of my former colleagues in the US federal government, and we're getting panicked phone calls, you know, just Holy crap, what are we going to do? How are we going to manage this data? How are we going to get this information out to people? What are we going to do? Everything's breaking. And so they basically put out the call on social media and said, wouldn't, you know, you're sheltering in place, you might have time on your hands, if you'd like to help us help government put your name in this into this form. And so now three years later, there's 8000 people in the volunteer database. We've put 1000 of them to work over the last three years, many of them multiple times, like a good percentage, have done multiple projects. Some of them are working directly with US Digital Response, helping us interview, helping us scope projects, helping us do some of that early discovery work. And essentially, we just match really great talent to partners in need and help them get kind of rapid fire things done that help them get pointed in a better direction. And hopefully that becomes a flywheel. For better work, hiring a team, getting you know us involved more long term, getting other great teams involved long term, hiring a team. And so there's just it's, it's, it's an organization that has an incredible history, was created in this very unique moment with a awesome call to action. So now it's got, it's got great work under its belt. But there's a lot more to do. And I'm excited about that.Meghan Hellstern:
And I have no doubt a lot more is gonna happen under your leadership. So congrats on an amazing opportunity for you. I also love that the work that you're doing is touching on one of the themes I'm already seeing in this conference, which is all about talent.Hillary H:
And people, I was part of a panel at Fwd50, which is a big Canadian digital government conference in November, and the panel was titled, no progress without people. You know, the importance of labor, and just having the talent in the hands we need. I'm curious, what are some of the other kinds of themes or trends that you are excited to hear about here at the summit?Hillary H:
Yeah, well, for us, we've got, you know, brains really thinking about talent. And for me, especially. Like, my, my personal mission is capacity building. So what I'm trying to get people to understand is that it's not enough to just say, We're gonna hire 500 people and put them in government, those 500 people are gonna burn out and flame out and leave, because they can't get things done, the, the ecosystem around them doesn't know how to use them, etc. So I'm very interested in what the upstream interventions at a team like mine can do and can the effect that we can have just by working a little bit further upstream, to then help those teams be successful. So talent is huge. We've also got a lot of people really fired up about procurement. You know, I mean, anytime you spend six months in a digital team, you end up talking about procurement. But right now, there does seem to just be a lot of good momentum and energy around similar to talent, how do we fix it? And my team is laughing at me. Just doing a little ad hoc podcast, folks. Hello, hello. So, but again, how do we like what is the upstream stuff that's gonna help that work be successful? So that's really exciting. And so those that foundational stuff is so important. But again, it's just showing folks that a very simple change, a very simple intervention can have an outsized effect and can set a team on a better path, which is what our rapid response stuff does so well.Meghan Hellstern:
Absolutely, for sure. And I think you're touching on another theme that I've already hearing, even just on day one, this idea of systems change, right? And sort of how do we not only do the kind of one off cool project here and there, but how do we actually ladder that up into sort of the overarching changes we want to see? And so maybe my last question to you is sort of, you know, let's fast forward 10-20 years, you know, if everything goes according to plan, and you know, your wildest dreams come true, what are you hoping will look different in this ecosystem, thanks to the work of your team and the folks here at the Summit?Hillary H:
Well, you know, I think teams like mine, and all the public benefit companies that are trying to really do great work with government are still going to be needed, because what I actually hope happens is that government figures out how to tap into all of that work and all of that talent in a better way, which means they don't have to think so hard. And they don't have to work so hard, internally, but they've got these easy methods, and all of these great advisors and colleagues and champions that have helped them figure out the right questions to ask. And so that's certainly happening. And then that's going to happen, that's going to continue to change over the next 5 to 10 years. But I think what we've got an opportunity to do is to just kind of reset a bunch of stuff. So that government actually just does function differently, because of all the work that we're doing, helping them ask, Why is it like this? And does it have to be this way? It doesn't. And in 10 years, it won't.Meghan Hellstern:
It will be better, thanks to the efforts of folks like us and all the people here. Thank you so much, Hillary really appreciate that. I'm here with Dorothy Eng. Who is the executive director of Code for Canada, someone I've known for a long time, way back to her civic tech, Toronto days over a decade ago or almost a decade ago. Dorothy is also part of our associates network with Think Digital. Looks like she's had quite a day as well. And so I'm glad to catch her at the end of this sudden networking hour to see she has any sort of reflections or first day thoughts to share with folks listening here at home.Dorothy E:
Yeah, day one was... it was exhausting. Lots of good content. Speakers in the morning were were great, very inspirational. Some of my favorite lines were coming out of the Code for America's kind of like walkthrough of their "clear my record" solution and all the impact that they've done with you know, not just governments but like, in like the heavy lifting of like deploying clear my record but like the human impact Like actual, you know, end users and their families was super inspirational and tear jerking. There was a great panel, talking about income tax, it's like a IRS tax volunteer program that trains up high school students to be basically certified by the IRS to then file taxes for, like, families in their communities. And this is like, it's like a community in Philadelphia, that traditionally has, like, you know, low income families, it's like low income neighborhoods. And the, this program has provided not only opportunities, one for families to access, you know, income tax support, and like filing their taxes, which at the end of the day just means more money in their pockets, like from like, a hard earned money. So that's like on that receiving end, but then also, you know, building the capacity of high school students to like, be financially literate to like, understand what economic success looks like, when they see like, oh, yeah, this is how this is kind of the what, what wealth could look like when they're filing someone's taxes, which raises them out of like, poverty, and then yeah, and then finally, yeah, just the effect that it's had on, like, the whole community with like, the teachers, the educators, the nonprofit, that runs the whole program. Yeah, super inspirational. So lots of like, inspiration. Like, we at Code for Canada, we're all about, you know, really trying to like find those problems, finding the people who are kind of like falling through the cracks, and then moving into the space of like, well, what role could civic technology play in supporting those people who aren't supported by like, you know, private, public, even nonprofit sector? So? Yeah, like, we're, it's an area that we're going to be moving into, it's gonna be a bit experimental. But yeah, like a lot of inspiration be found at at the Summit, so.Meghan Hellstern:
That's awesome. Another trend I'm seeing here at the conference. And I'm curious to hear your thoughts on it as I feel Code for Canada was a bit of a pioneer in this, is talent and sort of labor, it feels like it's sort of this thread woven throughout, where we have these dreams of grand technologies and redefining government, and yet we are struggling to find and attract and retain the people to do that work. And I think the Code for Canada, you know, sort of fellowship model was really a leading edge in that. And I'm just curious, have you noticed this trend around tech talent coming up? Any thoughts about that in general?Dorothy E:
Yeah. Yeah, so definitely, like, you know, we were born and bred out of that fellowship program. And even before that, like we built that model off of what we learned from Code for America, right. Like, they ran their fellowship program for a number of years and other Code Fors, like Code for Australia. And, you know, I think we saw a lot of when we talk about impact, like, we saw a lot of significant impact coming out of that, where, you know, not only were like projects started, and maybe some prototypes were launched, but like relationships were built, and there was like a fit between the government teams, and these fellows that were coming in. And so a lot of fellows, like over 70% of them when we look back and did like a case study. So 70% of them ended up moving into government after their fellowship. I think what we saw actually after that, like fast forwarding, like two or three years after those results were synthesized is that there's like a cycle now, where probably majority of that talent has now trickled back out of government. You know, maybe that could be because of like, the natural tenure for like, you know, a younger workforce is like three to five years, right, in any employer. But I also think there's like something to be said about, we have noticed, not through formal data collection, but just like, it's, it's, it's exhausting, right to be like, constantly pushing against the bureaucracy, that big governments and small governments like pose on modern, you know, tech talent and or digital talent. And, you know, it is, I think, I think some folks, maybe they, they've left just like go recharge, and I'm hoping they'll come, they'll go back. But I do think, you know, there's, it just kind of makes way for another way. We're seeing another wave of, you know, kind of modern technologists that are interested to try government and so yeah, we're still like testing this hypothesis of like, embedding, you know, technologists into government in different ways. We've now kind of like sunsetted the formal name of the fellowship, but we're still doing these, like partnership projects with governments, we're just kind of like calling them something different. We're just we'd actually just call them like projects now, you know, seeing if it kind of attracts different kinds of folks, tech talent and like, and when we've noticed, yeah, like, it seems to attract maybe like a bit a bit more experience, like maybe later career individuals who are like, worked out on their own right from like, maybe worked in the private sector and wanting to work on other impactful opportunities. So we'll kind of see how these like modifications will roll out in the next like, you know, three to five years.Meghan Hellstern:
Well, thank you so much, Dorothy. And looking forward to seeing you around for day two. And perhaps we'll meet up when we're back in Toronto, not make it a couple years before that happens. So I'm here at the end of day one of the Code for America summit in beautiful Washington, DC. And I've been really, really grateful to catch up with some wonderful folks who have been sort of in each other's orbits, usually connected via Twitter or some type of online thing and one of those is Ariel, who we were actually joking about this. We first connected like over a decade ago, basically a decade ago, we took a amazing class with Beth Noveck, one of the kind of pioneers of you know, sort of collaborative government and Co-design, things like that, especially when it comes to policy. And so we had taken a seminar together and connected and have I've been a longtime fan and admirer from a distance. And it's really nice to share some 3D space together with you. So I'll give Ariel a chance to, Ariel a chance to sort of talk a little bit about what you're up to.Ariel K:
Meghan, it's so great to see you. It's been a long time. And I am now at the Beck Center, which is part of Georgetown University based here in Washington DC. Although I work and live in New York City, normally. I lead the digital benefits network, which is a new professional network, based out of the Beck Center that is focused on improving the delivery of our public benefits, helping making them more human centered. We're also really focused on issues of equity and ethics with uses of new technologies and helping delivery of those benefits. We host a lot of free open public events. We produce a lot of research and new tools and workbooks, things like that. And we also have a tool to help collect best practices in place from the ecosystem called the Digital Benefits Hub, which launched about six months ago, is focused on the US safety net. But there's lots of I think things that are very replicable into the Canadian system. And we would also really love to see things that are working well in Canada that we could be replicating here and elsewhere in the world.Meghan Hellstern:
Yeah, that's so awesome. And I'm really happy that you have this crisp mission to bring together people across different jurisdictions and programs to collaborate. That's something I've always admired about you is that curation, kind of of projects of people, of teams, whether it's the Civic design, case study library that you worked on, or these Rosenfeld's Civic Design Conference that you curated and I spoke at a couple of years ago, I really love your sort of eye for, you know, who's doing great work. And so I'm curious here at Code for America, have any sort of of the examples or teams stood out to you, any reflections from day one with that kind of curatorial eye of what's happening in the civic tech and digital government space?Ariel K:
I mean, I think having everyone in person is really special, again, that it's felt like a big reunion. And you know, as much as we all can connect through Zoom, and other means, the personal connection, the side conversations, the sitting outside on a patio chit-chatting, not only furthers those relationships, but I think helps you think about ideas of how to expand and where else you could go and just think about new new things that you might not have time to think about every day. I think we've seen some really interesting ideas shared here of like people who have been working through constraints and adversity through the pandemic, that that's still like an ongoing theme. As much as you know, here in the US, officially, the public health emergency has ended. But I think especially in some of the benefits, delivery, and a lot of government, things aren't, quote, normal, whatever that looks like, yet. I really loved the story on the mainstage today, from Syracuse, talking about how they have incubated new roles for technology and people who have non technical but have career experience. And actually, not only are they launching into careers in technology, they're launching into careers inside the city government. And I actually wasn't familiar with that work. And I was just really inspired not only by those voices that were up in a very prominent space for the first time, but also that that just seems like such a model that could help our talent issue. That is like no government has enough people who know how to do this work and we need more hands working on these challenges. And that seems like one of the possible ways to help us get there.Meghan Hellstern:
So tech talent labor has certainly been a trend. I've been sort of hearing about here at the conference also feels like data results showing impact seems to be another one. But just curious, are there any sort of themes that have stood out to you whether here at the conference or kind of in the general ecosystem of digital government and civic tech right now?Ariel K:
I mean, here in the US, I think we're at a really special time, the administration, Biden administration has invested in some very specific ways, both Linna, the American Rescue Plan Act, but also in a lot of how they're staffing some of their internal teams and capacity to really help not only the country recover, but like really resolve on the other side, and think about the hardships that people are living in day to day. It is a special moment with that. I think everyone feels a lot of time pressure and crunch around it. And so I feel that urgency as the vibrancy. And I think we're at a really, you know, important moment to figure out like, what are the things that we can do in the time we know confirmed that this administration has left, but also I think will set up for like long term generational change.Meghan Hellstern:
Well, thank you so much Ariel this is really nice.Ariel K:
So good to see you!Meghan Hellstern:
Yeah, likewise. So I'm here at the end of day one at this wonderful networking events at the Code for America 2023 Summit, we're having some drinks. The buzz is very lively, as you can imagine, and probably hear behind me. And I'm really lucky that I got to run into Amanda Renteria the leader of Code for America, the hosts of this amazing convening, and I thought I would just get some impressions from a really, really thoughtful digital government and civic tech leader and someone who's helping shape this movement worldwide, and not only in the US. So Amanda, just curious, how's your day been? How are you feeling? Any reflections from day one to share?Amanda R:
Yes, I am continued to be inspired by all the different stories that are here. Our Summit, Code for America Summit has always been about convening people who are in this work, who love doing public service who use technology and human centered technology specifically. And what we heard today is not just people piloting, but it's actually happening all across the country. And so as I look around this room, and people are choosing, I'm not just choosing because we have so many amazing people in this room. But the collective work we're all doing is absolutely changing the relationship between government and people. And that really makes a difference in the world. So couldn't be more excited to be here.Meghan Hellstern:
Awesome. Thanks so much Amanda, you and your team are doing some really inspiring work and it's so great to be here.Amanda R:
Thanks for being here catching me at the bar!Meghan Hellstern:
So it is day two of the Code for America Summit in Washington, DC. I am exhausted but there is a whole other day ahead of me. So I am getting caffeinated, getting fueled up with some delightful pastries and catching some of the energy here in the morning before hopping into the plenary. It's another jam-packed day today with some keynotes and fireside chat and the like in the morning, which I'm very looking forward to. And then in the afternoon, more breakouts, more practitioners, more folks from all over talking about important digital government and civic tech projects that are happening. I can't wait for those, yesterday was a real mix of you know, sort of more practical case studies and inspiring examples of the changes that can happen, as well as some demonstrations of methods. And it's been a ton of learning a ton of nerding out, I feel like my brain is already kind of full. But here we go for another day of the Code for America Summit. It's been also really wonderful to catch up with different folks getting some reactions and reflections from day one, catching some of the excitement for day two. I'm also looking forward to attending the FailFest this evening hosted by the Beck Center at Georgetown University. I got to go to one of those back in November in Ottawa for Fwd50, which is a large digital government conference in Canada. It was a wonderful experience trying to celebrate some of those, you know, sort of epic fails that can often be the stepping stone towards something great. So, really looking forward to it got to pace myself for the day ahead. And we'll share more reflections as they come together. So stay tuned. I've been really lucky at this break to catch up with two really amazing folks working in the digital government and civic tech space. So I'm gonna give them each an opportunity to introduce themselves. And then we'll hear a little bit about what stood out at the summit so far, so maybe Karina we'll go over to you first.Karina:
Thank you so much, Meghan. Hi, everybody. My name is Karina Rider. I'm a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research New England. I have my PhD in sociology from Queen's University in sociology, and I am currently writing a book on civic technology. Most of it is focused on volunteers in civic tech, but now that I'm here at Summit, one of the really interesting things is to see the number of government workers who are here sort of on their own initiative here to sort of make connections, to learn things and really, you know, driven by an internal desire to make government better. And it's really... I don't know, what's the right word for it, it's very encouraging. It makes me very optimistic to see that its individual people who are not necessarily, do not necessarily have the institutional support to do this work, but really want to go out of their way to do it, to learn how to do it themselves, and to learn from each other. And that's really, really cool. So that's, that's what stood out to me so far.Meghan Hellstern:
Awesome. Thanks so much, Karina. And speaking of folks who are here learning and, you know, doing this work on the ground, I was also really lucky to run into Natalie. So maybe Natalie, do you want to tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up here at the summit?Natalie T:
Yeah, thank you so much. I'm Natalie Talis, and I'm the population health manager at a local health department in Alexandria, Virginia. And a lot of my work is working directly with residents doing human centered design with community partners to address health justice issues. And so coming here is so inspiring to hear from other local state government folks who have the exact same regulatory barriers I have, the same stuff that is often the barrier from people who have the best of intentions, but run into so many roadblocks for trying to be innovative and do things easier. And so it's just so inspiring to get to not only hear their stories, but also connect with them to ask those very nitty gritty questions, because so often, there's a lot of hypotheticals out there, there's a lot of theory about how to do this design thinking work. But until you're actually on the ground trying to make something happen, there's so many logistical things that you would never even consider. And so it's really just amazing to hear how they've actually done it, gotten over those challenges and how I can apply that when I go home after the Summit.Meghan Hellstern:
Absolutely couldn't have said it better myself as someone who has been doing that in the ground, sort of in the trenches work for almost 15 years. So we are approaching kind of the just over halfway mark of the conference. And I'm curious, what are some, you know, trends or themes that you've been seeing things that you're sort of mulling over that you'll take back? Maybe we'll go Natalie to you first stuff or any reflections?Natalie T:
I really love that I've continued to hear the theme of simplification, right? So much, and I even heard it on the panel again today that oftentimes innovation sounds like it's adding stuff, it's adding new things. But so much of our work really is about how do we make things easier and simpler, which sometimes means taking away, right? I listened to an awesome workshop yesterday about folks from the UK talking about digital forms for an hour. And it was amazing, right really about how do we make this as simple as possible for our residents to be able to actually access our services from our side, but also from our employee side who are processing these hundreds and hundreds of 1000s of forms on a daily basis. So I love that mentality of what can we take away versus just adding.Karina:
One thing that has really stood out to me is the number of times, the sheer frequency of the times that people use the phrase lived experience. I don't know if I've heard it so often, in 48 hours in my life, but I'm a sociologist, we talk about lived experience for a living. So that's been really interesting to hear the phrase repeated so often, I think it's, it is also very encouraging because that's, it's nice to see that it's recognized that people who are suffering, who need help, have a form of expertise that they can bring to the table that is necessary in order to actually do something about the situation. It's one thing to put together, you know, your persona is that's a word I've learned this weekend, personas. And sort of imagined what their problems would be. But it's very different thing to sort of talk to somebody who's been through the process, knows what the problems are, knows their struggle better than a designer thinking and imagining what their situation might be. And you know, as someone who has been on that side receiving services, it's really encouraging to feel like, okay, that's being recognized, and it's only gonna to help, you know, it's only going to go in a positive direction. So that's been surprising and honestly very encouraging.Meghan Hellstern:
What are you looking forward to as we head into the last stretch of the summit here?Karina:
So I'm really interested and excited to talk to more people for my book. I'm an ethnographer. So I'm really happy to just kind of spend time in the space get a sense of what the vibe is, what the energy is like, talk to as many people as possible before I have to head out.Natalie T:
So for me, I'm really excited about these lightning talks that are happening this afternoon. Because sometimes even if it's not a project that you're exactly working on, it sparks something, right? It sparks something in your brain about, Oh, I can apply this to this totally other different things that I'm working on. So just having that inspiration, and being able to hear a lot of different stories very quickly, is a really unique opportunity. So I'm so glad that they're hosting that, that sort of forum here.Meghan Hellstern:
That's wonderful. Well, thank you both so much for catching up and spending a bit of time with me, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference.Natalie T:
Thanks so much!Meghan Hellstern:
I'm here with another one of our Think Digital associates and a longtime digital government civic tech changemaker, Luke Simcoe, who is actually speaking later today on a panel about storytelling that I'm excited to catch. I'm curious, Luke, impression so far of the conference, how has your experience been?Luke S:
Well, this is actually my first Code for America Summit, despite sort of being involved in the movement for I guess, going on a decade. And I think, like I gather that the energy is very different in the last few years, because it's a different administration, you know, in the US, and the takeaway that I have so far is that there's been a lot of talk actually, about political leaders, right? People say the name Biden people say the name Newsom quite a lot. And it does feel like there's a sort of different energy, a different set of possibilities when there's buy-in at the sort of like, highest echelons of the political class. You know, and that's not always the case. Like in Canada, we have varying degrees of that, you know, across the country. And so, you know, it's a bit of a sort of a melange, but there is more energy here, people are excited, there seems like there's a real vision, people seem to have funding and resources and social licence to, you know, pursue a lot of the initiatives that I think I've been sort of in the back pocket of digital government people for a long time, you hear about Tax Automation, and, you know, a lot of diversity and inclusion initiatives around hiring in the in all levels of government and things like that. So, yeah, it's been great, I'm really looking forward to speaking with people, it's been great to see some folks I haven't seen since definitely before the pandemic in person. So there's also that energy, I think, kicking around in the room, right about, you know, people just who haven't been in the same room together, I've been hanging out with some folks at Code for America who have worked together for three years. And this is their first time meeting. And so, you know, there's a lot going on. So really excited, I think, for the rest of the day and keen to see what's next.Meghan Hellstern:
That's awesome, Luke, and something I've always admired about you is sort of like me, you've been in many different parts adjacent to government and working in this large system. And it's really only recently that you actually kind of joined the machine proper and have gone sort of into government. And I'm just curious, if you want to talk a little bit about what you're up to, you know, in that context, or how, you know, events like this are feeling maybe a bit different now that you're sort of on the inside?Luke S:
Yeah, well, I guess, like two things. On one hand, you know, I think there's, there's all this energy, there's all this talk of progress, and I get it, right, it's a conference, you only do it once a year, you know, you need to have a certain kind of narrative, everyone's here to celebrate wins and whatnot. And I'm here for that. Don't get me wrong. But being inside government, I'm always cognizant of how much slower the pace of change is, you know. And so that's been on my mind a little bit like the difference between sort of the stories that you hear in a, in a context like this, versus perhaps a slightly different conference where the theme was more like, it's a generational progress, or we moved a mountain an inch, you know, and I'm looking, I'm hungry for more of that, like, the deep stories of making incremental change in a very large system are sort of what I'm most interested in, I think, these days as a public servant, and I'm not getting a ton of that, you know, I think those are the conversations you have over the bar table, you know, maybe after the conference, but so there's some of that. And then just in terms of what I've been on the lookout for, it's just kind of, I've been paying attention to the service design track and whatnot, because I'm on a team for the Government of Ontario, that's rolling out a new service strategy for the whole of government trying to bring more best practices around service design into, you know, our standards, our metrics, our performance indicators, changing some of the culture, you know, around that. And so just looking at what other governments have done to kind of move the needle on making, you know, kind of service design end to end journeys, you know, all of those things, kind of the norm in their organizations. And I guess on one hand, you know, it's heartening. It's not like anyone is absolutely crushing this, you know, in the government space. And even the folks in the UK, who I think we often point to as being a little far ahead, are, you know, again, when you get to that bar table are like, oh, yeah, there's been some challenges, and it's this and that. And so, it's been good to, you know, learn a little bit more about what other people are doing kind of, you know, steal, rob and duplicate language and tactics. And so that's kind of what I've been paying attention to here as well.Meghan Hellstern:
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Thanks so much. So it's a wrap on day two of the last day of the Code for America Summit here in beautiful Washington, DC, where I have been, for the very first time, a city full of history and governance and politics and lots of amazing people from the civic technology and digital government worlds. If there's one theme that really has stood up for me, all throughout the last few days, it's the power of people, whether we're talking about tech, talent and labor, or we're talking about the people who came from all over the country and beyond to be here together today, or we're talking about the people who spend hours and hours, you know, working in their communities using technology, data and design to make things better. You know, it's all about the people. None of this, despite it being about technology can really happen without those people. I for one feel immensely lucky and grateful that I have been able to be here with these people. As I'm heading into my wind down for the evening, exhausted, inspired, fulfilled. All the good words after a conference, I have a lot of hope for the future of this movement. I've been working in and around the digital government and civic technology community for almost 15 years, I've gone through my own sort of, you know, peak of inflated expectations, troughs of disillusionment, you name it, you know, I've gone through that full cycle. And I must admit, things like the Summit help restore a lot of the excitement and energy and enthusiasm that really brought me into this work in the first place. And ultimately, of course, keeps me going even in the tough times. So that's one big theme, as I close it out.Ryan:
Meghan, welcome back to the virtual studio. So we just had a chance to listen to some of your reflections while you were at the Code for America Summit. Some really interesting conversations with fellow participants who were there. Big question, this was your first time going, would you go back to the Code for America summit next year?Meghan Hellstern:
Absolutely. Without a doubt, I would love to go back. And not just because it's in California, this time.Ryan:
I was gonna say next year, it's in sunny California. So I need to try come as well, if I can.Meghan Hellstern:
Exactly. It'd be nice to get some west coast time. And actually, that's the home town sort of home base of Code for America. So I think there will be a really different sort of tenor and feel right being in the heart slash, you know, sort of political capital of America versus being on the west coast, where Code for America is from, but I would absolutely love to attend again, and highly, highly recommended to anybody who's interested in that sort of intersection, again, of civic technology, digital government, you know, innovation, and especially wants to expand, you know, your network, I will say it was a lot of Americans from all over the country. So it's a really great sort of single spot to get exposure to folks working everywhere from Boston to Colorado to Seattle, Texas, you know, everywhere in between.Ryan:
Right. No, absolutely. So, folks, if for anybody who is interested, keep keep your eye on the calendar for for next year's event coming up. And Meghan throughout, you know, the episode today, you shared some of your own reflections while you were at the conference. I'm wondering, well, you've been back now for a little while I find with these things, they always take a little bit of a little time to stew. As some of these insights pop out, you know, as you kind of look back now on your couple of days in DC at the Code for America Summit, any big takeaways that really have kind of stuck with you, that that were impactful kind of walking away from your time down there?Meghan Hellstern:
I was really reminded of the importance of people. And it's not just in the sense of connecting with community and being you know, in conferences or being in relation with people. But you know, a big theme throughout was recruitment, talent, burnout, you know, taking care of the human side of this. And it is easy sometimes to forget, you know, we get caught up in the technology and the shininess, and all of that, that none of this happens without people. And we really need to both take care of ourselves as well as our colleagues and friends and others in this community. And also welcome and make space for new folks and things like that. So I was really reminded of that, that importance of people, you know, humans, the species, the software, the true software side, you know, of all of it. I was also really, so I will admit, when I went down, I had this sort of impression in my mind of, you know, the United States in general, whether you look at kind of federally or even at some of the States and city that the movement, especially having been around for a little bit longer than in Canada was way far ahead of us. And I know it's a little easy sometimes Canada, we have our kind of like, you know, humble, like, sort of, we look, you know, adoringly at other countries like the United Kingdom or Australia or the United States. And I think I really left with a much more nuanced understanding that there are many ways that absolutely the United States is far ahead of us. And, you know, the just even looking at things like some of their digital talent programs, right president- and Presidential Innovation Fellows, US Digital Core, you know, USDS, 18F, right. Like, it seems like they have this sort of plethora of, you know, really novel innovative initiatives there. But the other kind of piece, I guess, the nuance that came out for me, is that there's some areas where I feel like, we might actually be pretty far ahead of them. And there might be some more opportunities for mutual learning there. You know, it was interesting, for example, to hear the sort of reflections around the importance of getting the basics right, procurement, hiring, you know, access to tools, that type of thing. And, you know, while we're not perfect here in Canada, by any means, I feel like we've made some very meaningful progress on all of those and you know, more even things like training through the Digital Academy, and, you know, some of the Agile procurement pilots and things like that, the indigenous apprenticeship program, that Employment and Social Development Canada has, right when I mentioned that, to put folks down there, they were, like, we've never heard of anything like that here, you know, so it was actually a really nice reminder that, for all of our sort of humility up here in Canada, we should also be taking some credit and sharing some of the, you know, the learnings and the good work that we've done up here, as well. So that was definitely like a pleasant surprise for me, actually, to be honest. And then I think the last thing for me is definitely around the value of these types of spaces. I think having been through the pandemic, and kind of, in some ways, maybe rationalized to myself, Oh, you know, I don't need to meet with people in person, we can have virtual meetups, like, I love virtual, it adds so much, you know, accessibility and inclusion and allows more people to come together. But there is something about that unique energy, and I hope some of the clips you could hear and feel it, right, because the energy in the rooms was palpable. And I know I'm feeling very refreshed and recharged from that, you know, learning about, you know, everything from frontline, you know, worker, user research in Boston to, you know, really, really important multi jurisdiction work on, you know, nutritional benefits for pregnant people, was really inspiring. But it was it was that people element again, I guess it all goes back to people, that energy that was in the room, that reminder that we're not alone, you know, that there are 1000s, if not hundreds of 1000s of folks in and outside of public services around the world trying to make things better. And for me that, that was really like the the biggest takeaway, and something that I think will stick with me for a very long time. Hopefully, it'll get me through to the next summit, you know, sometime in 2024.Ryan:
Absolutely, no, but I think this has been a consistent theme that has come up actually, in a lot of our podcast episodes is just the notion that people are the core of this, right? We think about digital government and digital transformation, being about technology. But at the end of the day, it really is about people because these are organizations that are made up of human beings and, and having that human element core to that is so important, as you said, can be a very energizing and recharging moment around it. Meghan, thank you so much for being our correspondent down in Washington DC and for for taking the reigns on being a special guest host of today's episode of Let's Think Digital.Meghan Hellstern:
It was so my pleasure, thank you for the opportunity. And hopefully I'll see some of you at next year's Code for America Summit.Ryan:
So that's today's episode of Let's Think Digital. This is actually the second episode that we've done on location, you can check out episode three, which was live from Dubai, where I was sharing some reflections from the World Government Summit. So what do you think about these live on location episodes? Should we do more of them in future seasons of the podcast? Let us know, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the #letsthinkdigital on social media. Of course, if you're watching this on YouTube, please make sure to like and subscribe. And if you're listening to us on your favorite podcast app, be sure to give us a five star review afterwards. And no matter where you're listening, please tell others about the podcast and let them know about some of the content that we're putting out through this series. Today's episode of Let's Think Digital was produced by myself, Wayne Chu, Mel Han, and Aislinn Bornais, and of course our special guest host for today's episode was Meghan Hellstern. Thanks so much for listening, and let's keep thinking digitally.