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The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

Uncommon Interview: Center for Effective Government Democracy Fellow Jennifer Pahlka

Jennifer Pahlka, former White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer, calls for smarter and more agile delivery of government policy.
Center for Effective Government
Center for Effective Government Democracy Fellow Jennifer Pahlka speaking at an event at the Harris School of Public Policy.

Jennifer Pahlka is former White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer and founder of Code for America. She is also a 2023 Democracy Fellow for the Center for Effective Government (CEG), a think tank housed in the Harris School of Public Policy which aims to strengthen institutions of democracy and improve the capability of the government to solve public problems. The Maroon sat down with Pahlka to learn more about her.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and shortened for brevity.

Chicago Maroon (CM): Could you walk me through your career?

Jennifer Pahlka (JP): I came to the government sector sort of accidentally. I worked in the tech media business for a long time, starting with the Game Developers Conference and then the Web 2.0 conferences. Through that, I started working on the Gov 2.0 conference, which is how I got involved in government. I got interested in the idea of how to apply the principles and values of Web 2.0, like participatory web, to the thing that’s supposed to be the most participatory part of our culture—our government. Through that, I got the idea for Code for America, which I founded in late 2009. [Code for America] was about bringing tech and government together and helping to make interfaces for the government simple, beautiful, and easy to use.

I ran [Code for America] for a couple of years and then took a year leave of absence and went to the White House. I got to work for the second ever Chief Technology Officer of the U.S. as a Deputy Chief Technology Officer. Then, I went back to Code for America and continued to run that organization until I stepped down six weeks before the pandemic shutdown. I handed [Code for America] off and wrote a book, Recoding America. I’m affiliated with a couple of think tanks in DC, and I’m now working on this idea of how we should build state capacity — the ability of the government to achieve its policy goals.

CM: What were some projects and programs that Code for America established?

JP: I started out with the realization that the web was full of user-generated, lightweight, simple apps. This was the era where… you can build something really simple but also with and for users. The way that we were building technology in the Web 2.0 world actually had its highest and best use applying it to government.

I can give you an example. Our first year, we were working with the City of Boston. One of the projects that we did there was that they had just changed the policy around school assignments. A key part of that policy was that you were more likely to get placed in a school that was a specific distance from your home, but they had no way of communicating that except an 18-page printed brochure. That, of course, doesn’t help you since it’s a mapping problem.

So, our fellows jumped in and built an application where you could just type in your name, the age of your kid, your address, and it popped up a map that showed the schools that you were likely to be preferenced for. It took our fellows about 10 weeks to build this and it looked more like a Web 2.0 application than a normal government software. When it was done, we were told that if it had gone through the regular channels of procurement, it would have taken at least two years and cost at least $2 million. It was just wildly successful. And the woman who ran Boston Public Schools at the time said, “you’ve just changed our relationship with parents — they trust us now.”

If you’ve done it the traditional way, where you have the policymakers here and eight steps until the developer… if [the developer] realized [there is] a problem, they are not able to [easily] tell the policymakers. That’s why you get so many websites, applications, and forms from the government that just seem like they were created in a vacuum without understanding what the needs of people are.

[Code for America] kind of evolved over time into an organization that works on a much longer-term basis with city, state and federal governments to do things like make it easier to apply for social benefits or clear your criminal record.

CM: Since these digital platforms have an ability to make governance a lot more effective, why hasn’t the U.S. done more of this innovative digitizing work?

JP: I think somewhere down the stack is the issue that the policymaking process and the delivery of those policies are two very separate things. What normally happens is policymakers do something, and somebody develops a lot of requirements that aren’t about what users need. I call that, in my book [Recoding America], policy vomit. And then it gets handed off. There’s this long requirement process, a long bidding process; a vendor wins the bid and gets hired to do it. Years later, with all of this stuff in between, there’s a group that has no connection to the people who wrote the policy. They’re not talking to them. There’s no connection. That contract developer makes something close to the specs, but they’re not actually close to policymakers or the users. They’re just developing something off a piece of paper that they’ve been handed. And if they can fulfill the requirements, they get paid. So, it’s this long cascade with all of this stuff in the middle instead of policy and implementation working together in time to say, “okay, this works.”

CM: What lessons did you learn from working at the White House and establishing the United States Digital Service (USDS)?

JP: I came [to the White House] with a very specific mission, which was to set up a U.S. equivalent to the Government Digital Service in the U.K. I don’t think that’s what most deputy CTOs do, because mostly what they’re doing is policy work. I built an institution to do delivery work.

One of things I learned is—I had been working with public servants for several years at that point, and I thought that I had a lot of empathy for them—but what I learned is, you really need to do public service to have empathy for the people who do it, because it’s so much harder than it looks. I left [the White House] transformed in terms of my respect and care for those who actually work in government.

Second, I learned that this resistance to bringing policy and delivery closer together is much stronger than I thought. What I could see in the past was that the policy institutions really have this allergy to being involved in delivering. They feel like policy institutions should focus on policy and not get involved. That resistance to having something that seems like detailed implementation is softening. But it comes from this belief that the policy institutions are the intellectuals, and then people doing the delivery in British civil service are called mechanicals. I think that kind of thinking has translated to the U.S., where we think of policymakers as the most important people and their status as degraded by being involved with implementation. And it’s [that] kind of thing that needs to change in order for us to do digital well and actually achieve our policy goals.

CM: Did your realization of a need for a culture shift influence your decision to write Recoding America? Can you talk more about what you advocate for in that book?

JP: Yes. In Recoding America, I tried to show examples of why what’s wrong with government technology today is not just that which people assume—like oh, there’s bad practices, there’s bad vendors. It really runs much deeper than that.

There’s a story I tell of early 2014, when I was working in the White House to set up USDS. One of the projects we did to show how we were going to approach problem solving was with the Veterans Administration. They had a big problem with the veterans benefit management system. It was running very, very slowly. So, I started this meeting with this guy who’s a senior official there. He said, “I’m so glad that they sent someone from the White House to confirm that everything is okay”. And I was like, “I don’t think everything’s okay”. But I learned the next day that everything was okay, because he had defined latency in the system as over two minutes. So, if you clicked on a link, and you waited a minute and 59 seconds for the page to load, we’re not allowed to report it as latency. He wanted to show that to the White House and say the problem was fixed.

As he was explaining, we were asking this guy all these questions about how the management system had been built. Over and over again, the senior officials said to me, “that wasn’t my call, you’ll have to ask the program people. I don’t know, you’ll have to ask the procurement people”, etc. And I said to him, “with all due respect, why don’t you have an opinion on these things? You’re the Senior Technology official”. And he said, “I’ve spent my career teaching my team not to have an opinion on the business requirements. If they asked us to build a concrete boat, we’ll build a concrete boat”. At the time, 16 veterans a day were committing suicide, most of them without having gotten their benefits, because there was this huge backlog. And he was abdicating responsibility for the technology’s systems because what he was saying is, all we do here down at the bottom of the waterfall is what people above this on the ladder tell us to do. And then I asked why, and he said, “that way, when it doesn’t work, it’s not our fault”. But that does not work. That results in concrete boats.

CM: I guess that brings us to the present day. Why did you choose to become a Democracy Fellow at the Center for effective government?

JP: I heard from the leadership of the Center that they care about implementation, they care about the outcomes of policy as much as they care about policy. And I want to be where people care about that. The thing that I worry the most about in the world is that because we have been passing laws and policies but not really implementing them, [these laws] have not been fulfilling their intent in ways that people actually feel in their real lives. We are degrading trust with the public. And I think that we are enabling this frustration and this desire to blow the whole system up, which is very dangerous. But you can’t just blame people for being frustrated with the government when that’s their lived experience. I think the most important thing we need to do to save democracy is to make the government work in such a way that people feel that it works. If they don’t feel it in their real lives, they are not going to be happy. We are lying to ourselves when we celebrate a policy when we don’t follow through and do the implementation.

CM: And with that goal in mind, what are you aiming to do during your fellowship? 

JP: I’m meeting with a bunch of fellows and a bunch of students. I’m also looking for research partners here. The work that I’m doing right now is sort of predicated on the thesis that we’re in a crisis of state capacity. We can determine policies, we can pass laws, but there’s all this erosion of capacity because we don’t really implement [policies]. I think people associate me with technology, and I think that’s a part of it. But what I’m really looking at is all of the things that contribute to us not being able to implement policy to state capacity.

I think there’s really three ways that you can improve state capacity: you can have more of the right people; you can focus them on the right things; and you can burden them less. I’m doing projects under each of those banners. I approach policy through a practice lens… I can read legislation, and I can tell you what it says. But that doesn’t say anything about what people actually go through… I think that’s especially true for civil service rules. You can read the rules that govern our hiring processes in government, and they say a lot of valuable things about the meritorious unbiased process. And when I read those things, they all sound great. But what happens in practice is extremely unmeritorious. So, I prefer to study what an HR person does on a day-to-day basis, because they’re wildly different from what the law and policy say they’re supposed to do. I call that “culture eats policy”. What’s actually happening is that we select on the basis of insider knowledge. And we actually hurt veterans’ reputations in the process. There’s enormous amounts of data collection that I want to do and I’m hoping to find research partners to help me with that.

CM: What advice do you have for students or young professionals interested in pursuing a career like yours, whether at the intersection of tech and governance or just improving the effectiveness of governments overall?

JP: I think you are all going to go into your fields with a lot of status and respect because of the education that you’ve gotten here. And what I would hope you would all do is not let that status keep you from understanding the problems you’re trying to solve from the ground up. Go sit on the front lines of delivery and see what’s actually happening, and you will be a far better policy analyst. If you don’t know how the work actually gets done, your proposed improvements are unlikely to have the effects that you expect.

What tends to happen is that if you get good grades, and you’ve gone to a prestigious school, you get offered a high-level position and you never take the time to really understand how the work gets done. You cannot be effective in your oversight role if you don’t really understand what’s going on.

Experience the world the way less privileged people do and find a way to stay connected to the actual users of our system. I got taught that by our Code for America fellows. They would insist that if we were going to work on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, I would try the SNAP application myself. And I credit them for giving me that discipline. If you’re going to talk about this, you need to have done it. And it just so seldom happens that the folks in charge understand the experience of the users.

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