Can government do the things that it says it is going to do? One of the hardest things that public servants have to do is implement and it gets to the heart of a state’s capacity to deliver. In the digital era, that means being able to deliver digitally. And when we think about state capacity in this context, it often seems that we find our institutions coming up short.
State capacity is something that this week’s guest has thought a lot about. Jennifer Pahlka is a leading figure in the digital government movement in the United States, and recently authored a new book, “Recoding America: Why Government is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better.”
(See below on how to enter a draw for a free copy!)
Jennifer served as Deputy Chief Technology Officer for the US Government under President Obama’s Administration where she helped to create the United States Digital Service. She is also the founder and former executive director of Code for America which she led for 10 years. More recently she co-founded and is Chair of the Board of Directors for the United States Digital Response, which was a new organization that was set up to help governments respond to the COVID-19 crisis through mobilizing volunteer tech talent.
She spoke to Ryan at the FWD50 Conference in November about why governments seem to find themselves in a crisis of implementation and delivery regardless of partisan stripe. They also talk about ways to get unstuck, and stay motivated, including a really heartwarming end to the interview where Jennifer talks about what to do when we are feeling demoralized and that change is never going to come.
Enter a draw to win a free copy of Recoding America!
If you’d like to get a copy of Recoding America, sign up to the Think Digital newsletter by December 22, 2023 at 11:59pm ET and you’ll be entered into a draw to receive a free copy! Anyone who is signed up to the newsletter by the deadline is eligible.
Go to letsthinkdigital.ca to sign up!
Watch the Episode on YouTube
00:04 Introduction and Welcome
03:15 Interview with Jennifer Pahlka
05:20 The Importance of State Capacity in Government
06:24 Policy vs. Implementation
09:38 Key Takeaways from Recoding America
15:36 The Role of Political Leadership
24:20 Are Our Systems of Democratic Governance Still Fit for Purpose?
28:23 Commonalities Across Jurisdictions
32:19 The Role of Civic Tech in Government
37:41 Don’t Give Up
38:55 Closing Remarks and Book Giveaway Announcement
Hi. I'm Ryan Androsoff. Welcome to Let's Think Digital. What is state capacity? Well, at its most basic, it asks the question, can government do the things that it says it's going to do? It's really all about implementation or what we sometimes call delivery. And in my experience, one of the hardest things the public servants have to do is implement. Sure, we can have as many policies and vision statements and strategies as we want. We can have the greatest ideas in the world. But if you can't deliver on them, then frankly, they aren't worth the piece of paper that they're written on. In the digital era, that ideal of good implementation means being able to deliver digitally. And when we think about state capacity in that context, too often these days we find our institutions coming up short. That's why I'm so excited to bring you my interview today with Jennifer Pahlka. Jennifer has a long history as a leading figure in the digital government movement south of the border. She served as Deputy Chief Technology Officer for the US government under President Obama's administration, where she helped to create the United States Digital Service. She's also the founder and former executive director of Code for America, which she led for 10 years. More recently, she co founded and is Chair of the Board of Directors for the United States Digital Response, which is a new organization that was set up to help governments respond to the COVID-19 crisis through mobilizing volunteer tech talent. She's also the author of a new book called ReCoding America, which draws from her incredible experience and expertise to talk about the fundamental things that need to change in government if we're going to address the big issues of the day, whether that's recovering from the pandemic, decarbonizing our infrastructure and economy or responding to a rapidly realigning geopolitical environment. Her book is all about implementation and how to deliver on digital. So in my conversation with her, we talk a lot about why governments seem to find themselves in a crisis of implementation and delivery, regardless of partisan strife. But we also talk about ways to get unstuck, stay motivated, and a really heartwarming end to the interview where Jennifer talks about what to do when we are feeling demoralized, and that change is never going to come. This is our second interview we're bringing to you from our on-site podcast recording booth at the Forward 50 conference that took place in November. If you missed our previous interview with Sean Boots and his call to action on how to create a modern government up to the challenges of the digital era, I really encourage you to go back and listen to that episode. Please be sure as well to follow and subscribe to Let's Think Digital on your favorite podcast app and on our YouTube channel so that you're always notified when new episodes drop. But for now, let's get into my conversation with Jennifer Pahlka.
Welcome, Jennifer. Great to have you on Let's Think Digital!
Jennifer P 3:18
Thank you for having me.
Super excited to be here with Jennifer Pahlka. We're at the Forward 50 conference in Ottawa. Welcome to Canada. Welcome to Ottawa. And, you know, I'm thrilled to dive in. I mean, Jennifer, you are, you've been a leader in technology in the government space for many, many years. You've worked inside the US government, you helped to set up Code for America, a large civic tech organization down in the States. And one of the things most recently you've done is write this wonderful book ReCoding America, which has been a great read and I know has caused a lot of buzz in the digital government community in the last year. You had a really fascinating talk this morning at Forward 50. And I want to just maybe start, have you share a little bit of a what your journey has been in the space and you know how you got involved in this intersection between better government and technology.
Jennifer P 4:08
Thank you. Yeah, it has been quite a journey. And I think that journey has been one of a lot of learning for me when I got involved, you know, with this gov 2.0 events back in what was that? 2008, 2009? You know, it was obvious to me having spent some time then in DC and other places sort of learning what, how they were approaching digital, and being able to contrast that with the world I had come from which was the web 2.0 world. The contrast was rather stark. But you know, the original idea of Code for America was sort of, Oh, tech can help government and I think part of my journey over those years has been Oh, it's a very much a two way street. And we have so much to learn in the tech world about policy, about democracy. And we have so much not just sort of knowledge to learn, but I think sensitivities to develop an appreciation for government. So I think that's probably been the most defining characteristic of sort of my arc. You know, going, leaving Code for America three years ago, having a chance to reflect on, on all of that and sort of write down kind of the, the lessons of it, you know, I've really landed now on the frame of state capacity is what I want to work on. And it's not because I don't care about digital, I still think digital has so much to do with how the public actually experiences government. It's absolutely critical. But this idea of state capacity, which is just, you know, can government do what it says it's going to do? Can we achieve our policy goals, really gets at sort of these fundamental core competencies of government like hiring and funding and oversight and sort of the proceduralism and says, we're going to have to work on those in order to create a different environment in which digital teams can succeed. So I'm kind of, I guess, you know, going upstream to echo the theme that Alistair started out with this morning at the at the conference.
Yeah. And, you know, you talked about this divide between policy and implementation or policy and delivery in your talk this morning. And I mean, my experience here in Canada, at least, I'd be curious, your experience in the US, is that within government policy is kind of treated at the top of the hierarchy of disciplines, right. You know, there's not a lot of love given to the folks who are doing the operational roles. But it leads, I mean, particularly, we're talking about federal government that tends not to be as connected with people on the ground, you get policy people who are very disconnected from the realities of what's happening is that the same experience you've had in the US is that disconnect between kind of the policy, the policy disciplines are in some ways more valued, but they lose the ability to actually have real impact on the ground?
Jennifer P 7:11
I think, yes, 100%, I think we have a sort of class structure in government that we inherited from the British who have a clear distinction between the intellectuals, as they say, and the mechanicals and the intellectuals are the policymakers. And the mechanicals are the people who do operations and delivery there. And we really would do ourselves a great favor to really knock down those barriers and, and sort of shed, shed that old way of thinking, you know, we look at the world around us today, the stuff that really works was built bottom up. It was built from first and foremost understanding what people need and how to get that to them. You know, possibly you could say, in the consumer world, we've gone too much towards what people want, right? Not what people need. But that's the special sauce of government is that we are about what people need and giving it to them. But we really have to start valuing that bottom up look and a bottom up strategy. And and getting rid of the not just the certainly the silos, but also this sort of divide between the thinkers and the doers. It's not a helpful divide. We can only think now in the context of doing.
Yep. Yeah, and that notion of making being a doer of the valuable thing. That helps you in your career that, that has a spotlight put on it. So I'm actually I'm curious, you know, you made that comment about how industry can learn from government as well. Right, the tech sector can learn. I mean, is that part of it, in your mind is this notion that... I might make the argument that the tech sector over the last two decades has really focused, as you said, on what people want to the exclusion of asking the question sometimes, is that a good idea, are there societal harms from that? You know, we often talk about trying to recruit tech talent at the government, do you think it is a place to have thoughtful policy folks from government go into the tech sector?
Jennifer P 8:26
Oh, 100%. And actually, to be honest, a bunch of that has happened, especially when Trump was elected in the US a bunch of Obama policy and, and leadership folks ended up going into tech because they needed somewhere to go. But I think it's a very healthy back and forth. Again, none of this should be one way. It's all bi directional. And it's all about different communities with different backgrounds, really learning from each other and appreciating their other perspective.
Yeah. So tell me a bit about the book. I'm curious, you know, what inspired you to write the book and, you know, if you had kind of a list of two or three key messages from here, you would want people should read the book number one, but But you know, in terms of kind of the Coles Notes version of what you know, why did you decide to write it and what do you hope people really take away from it?
Jennifer P 9:58
By the way you can listen to it too, the audiobook is, I hear is good. Yeah, I wrote it in part because I felt like, I kept getting these questions that couldn't be answered in the time, you know, it takes to have a drink at a cocktail party. And I really, really needed to give the answer the time and space that it really needed. And, yeah, I mean, it could have been quite a bit longer actually. You know, it's generally these questions like, Well, why isn't this working? You know, aren't government, public servants must be stupid or lazy if we're getting these outcomes, and I would try to say, no, that's not what's going on, let me try to explain it. But it just needed that format of like a deep dive, and frankly, could have been much deeper dive. And then I realized that, you know, I've spent so long talking to delivery teams, people who are adjacent to the delivery teams in government, to people who are considering working in government. And we're done a lot there. And I think that that general community is trying very hard and doing what it can do. And in order to make more progress, we have to start talking to people who aren't in that community, but have influence or power over it. They need to see their own role in making government work for people, in bringing policy and delivery together in all of these things that are talked about in the book. And so it's my attempt to, to stop preaching to the choir, and start converting.Ryan:
Yeah, and this notion, and you talked about it this morning, in your in your keynote address at Forward 50 is that this is everybody's responsibility at some point.Jennifer P:
It is everyone's responsibility. Yeah.Ryan:
I mean, do you, are you optimistic or pessimistic about where we're at on this kind of digital government transformation right now? Because I'll be very honest, you know, from my perspective here, and we talk about this on the podcast often kind of feels like we're stuck in the mud right now. Like, we've got a sense of where we should be going. We can't quite seem to get there. And I think a lot of people, especially types of folks who would be at events like this, are trying to figure out what that is. I mean, does that, does that resonate with you? Or do you think that, you know, from the US perspective, do you have a pretty kind of clear path of where things are going? Do you think things are moving in the direction and that at the speed that you'd like them to move?Jennifer P:
I am getting the sense of frustration here in Canada, and a sense of stuckness. And I guess what I'm here to say is, it's always going to feel that way, sometimes. But from a US perspective, certainly there is not a clear path that makes it sound so easy. And it's never easy. But some stuff has started to click and our Customer Service Executive Order, it's not perfect. No words are magic. But you know, it's a tension on an issue from a higher level of government than we've ever seen before. The even just recently, the executive order on AI was actually quite good actually, believe it or not, I don't know if I'm supposed to say this, I got an email from somebody in government saying, we were reading your book, and we, here are five things that we tried to do in the oh, you know, make it implementable not add more, you know, not add more complexity, not add more layers, like a lot of the messages in the book, you know, you can start to see coming out in actual policy statements and strategies. And, you know, more importantly, you know, I have all these teams that I sort of check in with around, around Federal Government, and I can hear from them, for instance, they were, they were complaining about hiring for a long time. There was a new process for hiring that a USGS team had built and a team at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services kept trying to use it. And I would check in and I'm like, No, it's still not working, like, you know, we're stuck, we're stuck. And then one day, they're like, it's working, you know, and that's what happens is, you know, they say, How did, how do you go bankrupt slowly, and then all at once. Change can be very slow, and then it can start to feel a little bit unstuck. It does not mean though, that anybody has a glide path on this. There's so much work to be done in our larger culture. And I've really come to believe it's not just, you know, convincing ministers or executives or, you know, other, you know, in the US, you know, legislators, city council people or whatever. It's actually a conversation we need to be having as citizens in our personal capacities, about the role of government and, and what we expect of our elected leaders. It has to be different from what we expect of them today. We are so tied up in this idea of, do you match my values? And I understand that that's important, and going to be the first step everywhere. But if we don't go beyond that, and say, Great, we have a values match. Now I have to understand how you as a leader are going to care about the Civil Service, care about implementation. You know, care about these things that our leaders don't think are their jobs right now, until we tell them that's their job, they're not going to change. And we, as civil servants, or people in the civic tech community have to get our friends on board with this.Ryan:
Yeah. It's I mean, it's a really interesting and important point, because I often, you know, think certainly in our context, but I see this globally, a lot of the real success stories around digital government are when there's political leadership, that's able to align with the right conditions in the public service to make magic happen.Jennifer P:
I can put it that way. And I think some of the frustration we can get into is when we don't have political leadership that gets this.Jennifer P:
And I think people, you know, kind of banging their head into the wall saying, oh, Why can't our politicians be more enlightened, but I think you're making a very important point, which, you know, politicians are kind of the ultimate user researchers like they, they respond to what the electorate wants them to do ultimately, right, and are driven by those incentives.Jennifer P:
They, they do they never get questions about this. From the, from at townhall meetings, from donors, from media, because I think there's some way in which we've bought into this notion that it's not their job, it is their job.Ryan:
Yep. Yeah, and it's, you know, it has become I mean, technology has become so foundational to everything government does. You know, we often talk about in some of the leadership development programs we do that you can't be a modern public service executive if you don't have an understanding of how the digital world works. And I think that equally applies to elected officials, too. I mean, it's tough to imagine how you're going to effectively lead government, if you don't have some conception of how the digital world works.Jennifer P:
Yeah. And this, by the way, I mean, I think people hear that and they think, Oh, we want more programmers in legislatures. No, that's not what we're talking about. I would actually say it's, I think a way to frame it that is less scary, is that we just want them involved in implementation, right? Because implementation is digital, and they're gonna have to, but I think, you know, part of what happens is people hear oh, they expect me to be a digital leader. I don't know anything about technology, I'm going to look stupid, I'm let me let me resist that frame. Whereas if it's, look, you're saying you care about this policy, it's important to you. So you're going to pass a law or whatever, do you care about the actual outcome? Or do you just care about getting the words made into law?Ryan:
And if we can frame it in that way, we want you to follow through. And we want you to understand that following through and getting that outcome is a matter of supporting the civil service and bringing them together around clear goals. And making sure we can hire people, making sure that people aren't overburdened. So I mean, when I say about state capacity, which is the you know, the frame that I'm trying to promote, and a frame that I hope electeds will buy into is, there really only two ways to improve state capacity. You can have more of the right people doing the right work, or you can burden them less. Right now, we're not able to get the people we need, and we're burdening them enormously, and our elected leaders think their job is to mandate more and add more and more on top of them without looking at how much their predecessors and their predecessors going back hundreds of years, have burden the civil service with rules, we're gonna have to start removing instead of adding, it's another way we have to redefine what we want out of our leaders. Remove, don't add.Ryan:
Well, and you talk, and you have some examples in the book where you talk about this, right, where I think, you know, probably good intentioned legislators...Jennifer P:
Very well intentioned.Ryan:
frustrated, probably with the lack of action.Jennifer P:
get very prescriptive in legislation.Jennifer P:
And causes implementation problems, you know, down the pipe, you actually have a quote in the book where you talk about how culture eats policy, really resonated with me, I have this, this graph I use often in presentations called my PacMan model, same premise of culture eats strategy.Jennifer P:
And my notion is often that incentives, eat culture and structures eat everything else. And I think very much talking about a similar theme to you are, can you talk about that a bit, that notion of kind of culture eating policy, I think it's a fascinating concept, and we'd love to hear your take on that.Jennifer P:
Maybe, maybe I'll give an example of it from the book. It was, it was very clear to me that that was going on when a friend of mine went to work for the well, he was working with the USDS but part of the Defense Department and he got, gets asked to go look at this project that's from the Air Force where they're trying to update the software that runs the satellites that enabled GPS. So not small, kind of a big deal. And this thing is way, way, way behind schedule and way, way, way over budget. And he comes in, and he sees that there's a very simple way to get the data from the satellites to the ground stations. So kind of the standard, you know, simple protocol, universal data protocol, Datagram Protocol, there's the obvious way to do it. But somehow in the middle of it, they've stuck this giant Rube Goldberg machine of software in the form of an enterprise service bus. And he's like, Well, obviously, you know, what's happening, of course, is the data is timing out before I can get to the ground stations has got to go through all this craziness. And he's like, Well, we'll just take this out. And they said, well, we can't, it's a requirement from the Air Force to the contractor. And so we have to do it. So he goes and pulls the thread on that. Why is it a requirement? Well, because it's in the Air Force Enterprise Architecture, why is it there? Because it's in the Department of Defense enterprise architecture. Why is it there? Because it's in the federal enterprise architecture. Why does the Federal Enterprise Architecture exist, because Congress asked the CIO Council to write a plan for... sort of tell agencies how to do government, government technology better. So you have this intention of better government technology. But because an enterprise service bus is mentioned in one of these documents, truly, if you look at it closely, just as an example, it's not mandated. It has gotten incrementally more codified, and sort of baked in to, to become like an actual real requirement down, you know, as it has descended through the hierarchy. And now they can't get rid of it. They feel like it's, you know, it's sort of written into law course, it's not written into law, but it's become so. And it's just one of many examples where you see a legislative intent of let's make something better, that ends up making something worse. And what's happening in between that is a culture where at every level that it stepped down from Congress to this team at Raytheon, and Aurora, Colorado, trying to update the software. Every person interpreting what came to them from above is taking a maximalist rigid interpretation. And that's a culture of risk aversion, which flips the intent of the policy. And once you see that, it's funny, because I've had people call me and tell me, there's like, once you see that pattern, you will see it everywhere. And, you know, then people say, so obviously, we need to update policy. Well, if your policy is gonna get eaten by the culture, maybe what you need to work on, is the culture.Ryan:
And the incentives and the behaviors and the reasons people are choosing that rigid, maximalist interpretation.Ryan:
Yeah, I mean, to have some sympathy for elected officials, they're essentially working with one or both hands tied behind their back, because they are trying to have certain directions happen. And as you said, the culture is not letting them be able to turn the knobs on the machine to be able to get there. So there's, on this kind of topic around, I guess, how we translate, you know, democratic, democratically elected officials who are kind of giving direction to the civil service. Clearly, there's a theme of let's let the implementers implement, let's value their work, let the policy folks essentially support them, rather than see themselves as different. I do wonder, and there's been interesting conversations around as we kind of move in this world of agile in, you know, human centered or user centered design. I'm a big believer in that. But there's an argument that it almost kind of runs counter to our traditional notion of democratic governments, right, where there's this notion of we have elected officials whose job it is to make decisions and set policy, and then public servants just implement, but what we're actually saying is the implementers have a huge, important role in this, to be able to understand the nuance of the public well, and give them some discretion to be able to move on that. Do you have any thoughts on what this actually kind of means for our broader political system? I mean, do we, you know, in the early days of like, the web 2.0 revolution, I was always a big fan of Beth Simone Novak's book, The Wiki Government, you know, which really kind of thought about, can we think about Wikipedia as a model when it applies to government? And it kind of feel those conversations have stalled out a little bit, but I think it's still, from my mind, a relevant question of, you know, are our systems of democratic governance that were set up hundreds of years ago. Are they still fit for purpose in 2023?Jennifer P:
You're bringing up some some big meaty issues and I think one of them is that this conversation about sort of bureaucratic culture and the gap between policy and outcomes, does exist in a political context. And it's a very complicated political context. So I've had a lot of people say to me, you know, well, obviously, the, you know, the reason services don't work is that some, you know, in the US, they'll just say one party over the other doesn't want to see them work. And it is absolutely true that there are times that administrative burden, for instance, is used as a weapon to cobble a service. It is also absolutely true that a lot of times, that is not why your service works, that we have shot ourselves in the foot, and you can't look at California, the state where I live and not conclude that, I mean, it's as blue as you get. There's some red areas in the rural, you know, red rural areas. But this is a very pro welfare ideology. And yet you have poor outcomes you have, for example, you know, when we started working on SNAP, supplemental nutrition assistance benefit, in 2013-2014 in California, through, this was through Code for America, California was the second worst state for participation rate in the country.Ryan:
The bluest state has the lowest participation rates, that is not intentional, it's the result of a whole bunch of dynamics that are again, not, they're, they're very well intentioned, that have the outcome that you don't want. So a, I think this idea that it clearly falls around party lines is misguided, and frankly, a little lazy. I will say also, though, to the degree that which sure, we do have some intentional interference. I don't know what to do about that. But I do know what to do about what's not intentional. And we ought to work, we shouldn't let the thing that could happen, keep us from doing the work that we can do. I also think, honestly, that there are a bunch of people who either formerly or now still identify as Republicans who are very interested in this concept of state capacity, who see the dangers to our country of not being able to do what we say we're going to do. And, you know, there's a much more complicated political, I think, response to the book than most people realize. And I think that's actually really healthy.Ryan:
Yeah, I mean, I like to say that, you know, digital is a nonpartisan issue at its core, right, every stripe of government, at the end of the day, wants citizens to have better services, hopefully, they run effectively, hopefully, they run efficiency, the emphasis might be a little bit different. Yeah, you know, but the core bit about, as you said, state capacity or having a well functioning government. I mean, it having a poorly functioning government stops any administration from being able to implement the policies that it has been elected to do, and that wants to be able to do.Jennifer P:
Yeah, and we're never gonna get rid of the messiness of democracy. We're n- like fixing implementation doesn't suddenly make our ability to pass laws in a bipartisan way, somehow perfect. But it is actually just the work that we can do together across party lines that I, that I hope we do.Ryan:
And, you know, the work behind this, I mean, do you think it is jurisdictional specific, and what I mean by that is, you've worked obviously, in the US at the federal level and state level, you know, you've done local work. I mean, for people who are listening to this, who might be kind of embedded in a municipal government somewhere or in a provincial government somewhere, do you think there are kind of common playbooks that they can run to try and move things forward? Or is a lot of this really dependent upon the context of their particular jurisdiction and kind of the the culture of that particular spot?Jennifer P:
Uh, both. There is something in common, I think, with, you know, every jurisdiction that's trying to overcome its legacy. And I think there's some core attributes that are helpful. But in the end of the day, you know, people trying to make that change. There's there's just no clear roadmap that you follow. That's like step one, step two, you you have to just figure out how to find your allies make the case, change the conversation, and, and make progress. I do think that we're seeing more and more and I given, I think, a good role model in the book with this 26 year veteran of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, she's answered chapters 10, 11, 12... her name is Yadira Sanchez, of somebody who A, you know, doesn't come from the outside. She uses energy from the outside. She uses sort of the USDS team. That's some of them are from outside government. Some of them are inside government, which is outside CMS, who come in with some different ideas about how to do things, she uses that. But the change that happens in that agency comes really, I think, first and foremost, from her. And I think really often we forget, as change agents that our job is to empower others, I think that's a principal that is probably going to be useful, no matter where you are. And I think Yadira as a role model herself, she really gets out of her lane, you know, she's told you got to do this. And she says, I don't think we should do that. Here's why. And she does that over and over again, people throw at her, you know, very complex regulations. And she says, she and her colleague, Natalie say, I get that it's complicated, but it has to make sense to a person. And let's go back at that. And that's not what delivery people are supposed to do. They're supposed to fulfill the requirements, someone hands them. But she does this sort of incredibly persistent and effective constant pressure towards what she knows is going to be right for users. And she does it in a way that's extremely respectful, very, very, very humble. And ultimately grounded in empathy and respect for her peers. She's She's not coming in as a disrupter. She's incredibly disruptive in what she succeeds in doing, but she doesn't come in to disrupt. She's the anti disrupter. And there's really, I think, something that I learned, I learned a lot from her, and how powerful she was, and yet how quiet and humble she'll fly.Ryan:
It's, I mean, it's a really important lesson, because I think sometimes, you know, digital teams can get a bad rap, that they're the cool kids, right, who are coming in, and you know, nobody knows what they're doing. And we're gonna kind of shake it up. And that notion of having empathy, not just for your users, but for your colleagues, to be able to shift that is is really powerful. I thought that was a really good story from the book. And you talked about that earlier today, as well.Jennifer P:
And I don't mean that teams aren't going to need to shake things up. You are. But you know, I think if it's always in the service of empowering others, you are going to be far more sustainable than if your team is trying to succeed. You want others to succeed.Ryan:
Yes, absolutely. I did want to also ask you about Code for America. Because you know, we we've occasionally talked a little bit about civic technology on this show. Not a ton, though. And you had this unique experience of standing up and leading Code for America, major civic tech organization in the US. curious if you could maybe just talk a little bit about, you know, what civic tech means to you, you know, what code for America's kind of purpose was, and how you think that civic technology groups or communities can be part of the solution we're talking about?Jennifer P:
Yeah, well, I haven't been with Code for America three years. But I think it's still, you know, on the same journey, essentially, you know, somewhat reflects my own journey. Civic tech has never had a good definition. But it you know, and initially, it sort of meant outsiders working with open data, you know, very focused on transparency, and then over time Code for America, at least, and I think the civic tech label maybe traveled with it, went inside and said, you know, we are, Code for America employees aren't, aren't state employees or city employees, but they're working side by side, on services that the state or city delivers not, you know, an application that we, you know, are offering to the public, as, you know, using open data, for instance. So we kind of went from the outside into the inside, and I think it carried some of the same ethos along with it. And so I think some people are asking, what's the role of the insiders, what's the role of people who kind of have one foot in and one foot out? And then what's the role of the outsiders? And I think, you know, to take each of those a little bit separately, I'll start with the the outsiders, I think that kind of work that outside groups need to do is changed a lot. And there's actually a ton of opportunity, especially if you think not just in the framework of civic tech, but in the framework of state capacity, like what can we be doing? I'll speak to the US where we have this Inflation Reduction Act, you know, passed a federal level, gigantic bill, one of three gigantic bills. And, you know, one of its one of the big things it's trying to do is to decarbonize our economy, so that we can avoid a climate climate collapse. Is there anything more important out there? I don't know. Right? But enormous number of things have to happen at the local level for it to succeed, that the fence cannot and will not really pay attention to they can't see it right, like, so if anybody ever worked on a Code for America Project, think about how cities permit residential solar, or permit the installation of the heat pump. That is not a frictionless project process.Ryan:
Anyone whose done it well is about is about going, Yeah, that was so hard, so much harder than it needed to be, right. In Australia, you get, you want a permit to put solar on your house, there's a little app you on your phone, you fill it out, and it emails you the permit immediately. And then, yeah, there's compliance stuff. It's all on the contractor but it is frictionless to get that, we don't have that. And we don't have the capacity from the feds or from philanthropy to go in and fix, you know, there's 30,000 local jurisdictions in the US, all of whom should hopefully have the problem of, you know, twice to 10 times as many requests for permits of this kind. And they need to speed that up. I'm just, just one example. isn't, isn't that a great service design challenge that outside groups could help them with? Couldn't they be showing up at City Hall and saying, What are you guys doing about your capacity to permit solar? You know, there's so many things that people can be doing now, that maybe don't look exactly like the, you know, the 2010s when we were doing the Open Data stuff, but are, like, literally critical to the country's survival. So I hope that spirit, not just persists, but actually, you know, grows.Ryan:
Yeah. And that's, I mean, in some ways, that's the exciting thing, as you're saying is, you don't have to be a career civil servant to effect change on this, right, the, you know, the, the revolution that the web brought us, in some ways, democratized technology in a way, that there's more entry points into shaping that public policy environment.Jennifer P:
And we're at a point where there is so much policy to be implemented.Ryan:
Yes, the world's more complex.Jennifer P:
And we've, at least in the US, we have just, you know, we've just swallowed three elephants in the Inflation Reduction Act, the Infrastructure Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act. And, you know, I think it should be a whole of government and whole of nation effort to implement those things. I don't really want to hear about new legislation before I hear about the implementation of what's on our plate right now?Ryan:
Absolutely. Jennifer, it's been fascinating as we kind of wrap the conversation up, you know, in your book, you dedicated it to public servants everywhere, with the message of don't give up. So if there is a public servant listening to this, and they are thinking of giving up, what, what message would you give to them to hold on to hope?Jennifer P:
I'm so glad you asked that. You are not alone, you are actually, if you are feeling like you want to give up that is because you are human with deep feelings, which means you're a good person. And this is just a sign that you are alive. And so many people have been in your position before. And what kept them going is what they reached out, they reached out to someone else who's been through it. It's incredibly emotional serving the public. It's so hard and it takes so much of you. And the only way you get through it is by asking for help from others. And so if you're here at Forward 50, there's a ton of people around for you to reach out to. But if you're not, just gonna put that bat signal out, because everyone will recognize what you're feeling and be able to support you.Ryan:
Wonderful last words. Thanks so much, Jennifer for the time, this has been a great conversation.Jennifer P:
Thank you. It's delightful.Ryan:
I want to thank Jennifer for taking time out of her busy schedule to talk to us. I really enjoyed her book. And if you're listening to or watching this podcast, I know you'll love it too. Be sure to check out the show notes for a link to purchase ReCoding America. And I'm excited to let you know that this week, we have a special giveaway for our listeners. Anyone who has signed up for our newsletter mailing list by next Friday, December 22 will be eligible for a random drawing for a copy of Jennifer's book, just in time for your holiday reading list. Go to letsthinkdigital.ca to sign up, or look for details in the show notes for today's episode. And that's the show for this week. So what did you think? Did you see your experience reflected in some of the anecdotes that Jennifer told? Let us know, email us at email@example.com or use the #letsthinkdigital on social media. If you're watching this on YouTube, make sure to like and subscribe. And if you're listening to us on your favorite podcast app and you've liked this episode, be sure to give us a five star review afterwards. And remember to go to letsthinkdigital.ca and sign up for our newsletter and catch up on past episodes of the podcast. Today's episode of Let's Think Digital was produced by myself, Wayne Chu and Aislinn Bornais. Thanks so much for listening. And let's keep thinking digital.