Jennifer Pahlka founded Code for America to improve government services with technology and design expertise. She served as deputy chief technology officer under President Obama and advised state and federal governments. In her new book Recoding America, Jen explores why government is failing in the digital age. A conversation about policy, hierarchy and how to proceed.
Constance Frischen: In government culture, you write, implementation is seen as the poor cousin of policy. Why is that?
Jen Pahlka: It goes all the way back to the British civil service dividing their employees between the intellectuals who make decisions and the mechanics – the people who get things done. That dichotomy still holds true today, even though companies in metaphysical Silicon Valley are started by programmers who would be at the bottom of DC’s social fabric—an interesting inverse. But still – in government culture it’s the ideas that matter, and how they actually get out into the world is the job of less important people. That separation is not helpful. In our complex, fast-moving world, when big ideas come up, executives need to be at the table.
Frischen: Because the constituency experiences policy in the form of implementation?
Pahlka: Precisely. Just look at our tax system. People at the highest levels of government, economists and analysts ponder our tax code, but the average American has no idea of that complexity. We experience policy by delivery.
Frischen: And the delivery, if you will allow me to summarize the many examples in your book in one informal word, is often worthless – good intentions notwithstanding and technology notwithstanding.
Pahlka: Yes. A good example I describe in the book is when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services tried to pass a law that would pay doctors more for better quality care. A good idea, but many single practitioners and small practice physicians were a) already frustrated with their current interaction with Medicare, and b) the administrative leaps they would have to make to upgrade to the new system were so overwhelming that they were threatening with departure, which would cause the quality of care to deteriorate. The entities that could easily benefit from the new law were the major healthcare systems – because they are better at complying with the paperwork. In other words, the way the law was to be implemented was instead of incentivizing everyone to provide better care to doctors through their ability to perform administrative duties.
Frischen: And the ability to meet administrative requirements, you write, correlates strongly with money and power?
Pahlka: Absolutely, you can see that in so many ways, like the ways that a lot of wealthy people take advantage of the tax system because they have lawyers and accountants to do this for them, while low income people don’t even get the tax breaks they deserve. have a right to. That’s why when we think about the complexity of government services, it’s not just a matter of convenience, it’s a matter of fairness. People who care about justice have such an instinct to collect more and more data, which requires more and more paperwork. We need to balance that and really think about whether the impact of all those trying to track equity ultimately leads to declining equity. Delivery is how we perceive policy, and one of my messages to policy officers is to look at it from the delivery view upwards and from the policy view down.
Frischen: A major theme of the book is what you call the waterfall culture in which civil servants operate. Can you describe that?
Pahlka: Government culture tends to be one in which power, information and insights just flow downwards. If you get directions from the person above you in the waterfall, you have very little opportunity to question it and turn back, which is why very often well-meaning officials will just literally do what they’re told, even though they may have well done. their own opinion whether this is good or not. General McChrystal described why this is problematic, saying to his people, “Don’t do what I told you to do. Do what I would do if I knew what you know on the ground.” The bigger insight here is that while the waterfall appears to serve those in power because they can tell the people below what to do, it actually serves no one.
Frischen: But you’ve seen time and time again officials rise through the ranks if they follow procedure — even if the outcome is dire. How can that culture be changed?
Pahlka: First, it is important for people to understand that we, the people, have created this culture. We elect our officials who help promote this useless allegiance to bureaucratic processes. Second, there are innovators with a passion for the mission, who understand the intent of a law they need to implement, and who have the courage to keep it sharp, even if that means a somewhat loose interpretation of the literal words. of the regulation. People want to work for such daring leaders. We shouldn’t blacken the servants who follow the process to the iota for operating rationally within the system, but we do need new leaders who are creative and who want impact and reward them. To help make this change happen is one of the reasons I wrote the book. I know some of these new leaders who are civil servants, and they are attractive to top tech talent.
Frischen: Speaking of the technology industry, your book is a strong reminder that technology alone will not reshape government, it takes a mindset and culture change. What practices can the government adopt from the tech industry?
Pahlka: Hiring. It currently takes about nine months to hire a government product manager, which is simply too long. In the meantime, you accept another job offer. We could solve a lot of government problems right now just by making it possible to hire people quickly. Second, incremental budgets: budgets that start small and allow teams to learn what they need over the right amount of time and then grow it, rather than pretending they can know everything the need to know from the start. software should do. But overall it’s culture. Culture eats up even the most well-intentioned policies when applied in such a risk-averse, legalistic way – it ends up having the opposite effect. I think it’s Deepak Chopra saying, “What we pay attention to grows.” We must pay attention to how the policy is implemented, to the new leaders among the civil servants. And we need to actually design the systems around users, around the American people, instead of just taking the rules that come out of Congress and then making paperwork to fit them.
Frischen: Can the left and right agree on this in the current climate?
Pahlka: Yes – I mean the left could call it administrative burden reduction and the right will call it regulatory reform – whatever you want to call it. The necessary cultural change is not about deregulation in the sense of removing all rules. It streamlines the way rules are enforced. We shouldn’t have to choose between many cumbersome rules and no rules at all. That’s a false choice. The big opportunity here is a shift to accountability and actual impact. And for that to happen, we need to hire talent and set them up for success so they can get the job done.
Jen Pahlka has been an Ashoka Fellow since 2012. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.