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Q&A: Jennifer Pahlka, Code for America founder

Q&A: Jennifer Pahlka, Code for America founder

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Code for America connects the best and brightest web developers and designers with perhaps the least tech-savvy sector: government.

Code for America connects the best and brightest web developers and designers with perhaps the least tech-savvy sector: government. Through an 11-month fellowship program that deposits participants at municipalities across the country, the nonprofit aims to make government work not only more efficient, but also more sexy.

With major funding from the Omidyar Network, Google and the Knight Foundation, Code for America also runs a seed accelerator for civic start-ups and recruits volunteers to its Brigade, encouraging communities to launch their own efforts.

I spoke with Code for America founder and executive director Jennifer Pahlka last week. Below are excerpts from our interview.

In your TED Talk, you described Code for America as the Peace Corps for geeks. How does the program work?

There's this amazing community of people building fantastic applications. Some are developers. Some are designers. They've been asked to build things like Twitter and Google and Facebook that have given incredible value to our society. But they haven't been asked to rebuild our public institutions in the same mold. The program works by calling to service that community and inspiring the people inside government to say, 'We want our public institutions to have the same advantages as the private sector.'

We do an open call for applications from city governments and developers and designers. We've had enormous response. For our last program, we had 550 people apply for 26 slots. We chose 26 fellows in eight cities. We have a structured way of engaging them. We try to leverage some of the dynamics that have created a lot of value on the internet in the past 10 years. It's become easy to experiment in digital media. You have a lot of interesting projects that maybe don't work initially, but it's easy to change course. We try to get our teams to work within that mode of learning quickly, failing fast, finding what does work and building on that. We have them partner with the cities to help solve problems in a specific way.

Do the cities identify the problems to be solved?

The typical model is that the city will describe a problem area. For example, New Orleans has a huge backlog of properties they need to demolish. But they sometimes demolish the wrong properties. Their official set of information isn't mapped to the on-the-ground neighborhood information. While neighbors might know that so-and-so's brother is moving to New Orleans to renovate the house, the city doesn't. We need a better connection between on-the-ground knowledge and official knowledge. In Santa Cruz, it's difficult for a new business to file all the paperwork with the different departments to become an official business. We shouldn't be asking these engines of our economic growth to be spending all their time on confusing paperwork. Teams are working on those issues.

We try not to have them write an app someone has already designed. We try to have them work within a defined problem area, but find through their own research the right app that will improve the situation. They're problem solving. That gives them the ability to say, 'Let's try this app and see what the response is. What features are being used? How much do citizens engage with it?' As they get that information, they change the plan based on actual use by real citizens.

Who are the fellows?

The average age of our fellows this year is 28. This is a doer crowd. We select people on their ability to produce interesting things in this space. Many times, they've already created interesting apps. Many of them worked at major tech companies. We have a woman who is taking a year off from Google. A guy is taking a year off from Apple. Some of them are seeing it as a break in their careers to give back. Many will return to that career path, but there are others who want to build a career in this open government movement or around civic applications or public sector technology.

One of the problems we hope to solve through this program is making working in government sexy. There are an enormous amount of opportunities in the public sector. The public perception often from the tech industry is that if you go work for government, you'll be chained to your desk and unable to do anything interesting. We're hoping to change that perception.

Why can't government do this work on its own?

The obvious answer people will often go to is government has become an overblown bureaucracy and it's not agile enough. These things are true. We've built in a lot of process around government. We wanted government to be accountable to the public. As a result, a typical procurement cycle for a piece of technology inside a city government is about two years. You don't see that anymore in successful parts of our economy. You see things happening at a much, much faster rate.

We had a project in Boston that took a couple of our fellows about two and half months. If it had gone though regular channels, it would cost $2 million and taken more than two years. There are a number of problems with that:

  • Municipal governments are in a financial crisis. And that $2 million is orders of magnitude more than it costs somebody on the street. That's not acceptable.
  • We don't think government can solve our problems in a reasonable time. The problem we were trying to solve in Boston was about parents trying to get kids into public schools. That means it's completely irrelevant for two years of parents trying to get their kids assigned to the right public school. It simply won't help them two years later. It creates a lack of trust between citizens and government because they know it shouldn't take that long.
  • Governments often go to a set of vendors who specialize in the procurement process, not in beautiful, easy-to-use technology. You get technology coming out of government that doesn't work for the user in the way modern web apps work for consumers. We were able to build something that was simple, beautiful and easy to use.

It's easy to blame government. But the reason government has all these processes is that citizens have asked government to have them. Citizens have asked government to be highly accountable and not take risks. The truth is that you simply cannot innovate if you don't experiment. If you're going to experiment, you will sometimes fail. If your tolerance for failure is zero, you will not move forward. We must change the rules for government and say, 'We want you to move faster. We want you to try new things. We will accept small failures in the service of getting better.'

Your focus is on not just connecting citizens to governments, but connecting citizens to citizens. Why?

There's a large population that expects government to do an enormous amount. It doesn't scale. You can't expect a system that isn't innovating to do more and be funded less every year. If everything is a call to government services, the requirements on that institution will always scale up with population. If we can find ways for citizens to support each other, we have a way of supporting civic life that scales. Government's role is to coordinate and connect, but not necessarily always to do everything.

The media industry has been hugely disrupted over the past two decades. You see more sources of information than ever before. It's created a lot of chaos, but also some value. If you look at any industry the internet has disrupted, it's done the same thing. It created point-to-point connections and found value where it hadn't before. You can't expect that government won't go through that transformation at some point. We need to go through it in a smart way.

What projects do you consider to be Code for America's big successes so far?

They did a number of projects in Boston. The one being replicated in other cities came from parents being frustrated because they couldn't get their kids assigned to the right public school. There was a 28-page printed brochure that had a paragraph on each school. You could read that entire brochure and still not know which school you were eligible for. There was essentially a mapping problem. Our fellows were able to quickly turn something that was hours of frustration into a five-second interface, DiscoverBPS. That demonstrated to citizens that the solution could come quickly and not cost much to taxpayers. We're seeing other cities now wanting to adopt that. The traditional model of IT in government is broken. Every city tends to approach each problem in isolation even though the problems tend to be much the same. Making everything we do open source and replicable is important.

Another project in Philadelphia is Change by Us. It gathers input from citizens on what they want in certain neighborhoods and ways to improve the city. It turns those ideas from complaints -- 'I wish there was a bike lane here' -- to actions. Getting better methods of citizen input is hugely important for the future of cities. But going beyond input into action, so these ideas become reality, is as important.

Why is this work important to you?

My original thought was I would work in nonprofits. I did that for a couple of years and didn't find it very satisfying. I felt like I was working inside an ossified system. I changed direction and spent many years in tech media. I ran an event called Web 2.0. In all those years, government was never something I thought much about. But as part of my work on Web 2.0, we started this brand called Gov 2.0. The idea was to bring the principles and value of the web into government. Having been in tech media, I had the opportunity to see the best and brightest. I was surrounded by people who had changed the world. When I started working in government, that approach was rare. The contrast was shocking. It came home to me that we can't ignore government.

I graduated from college in 1991, the year after recruitment began for Teach for America. I was chatting with a friend of mine who works in city government. He'd been asking me if people from the Web 2.0 community would write apps for Tucson. I kept saying no. I didn't see how you could possibly get people to pass up opportunities for fame and fortune in the start-up world in favor of government. Back in 1990, people didn't think you could get Ivy League grads to teach either. But when you tell them, 'This is what your country needs from you,' people do respond. The most satisfying thing that's happened in my career was getting the first pool of applicants for Code for America. People do care about our public institutions and they're going to put their money where their mouth is. It reaffirmed my feeling that the world is full of really good people.

Photo: Jennifer Pahlka, courtesy of Code for America

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure