Jennifer Pahlka founded Code for America to enhance government services with technology and design expertise. She served as deputy chief technology officer under President Obama and has advised administrations at state and federal level. In her new book Recoding America, Jen examines why government is failing in the digital age. A conversation about policy, hierarchy, and how to move ahead.
Konstanze Frischen: In government culture, you write, implementation is seen as policy’s poor cousin. Why is that?
Jen Pahlka: It goes all the way back to the British Civil Service that divided their employees between the intellectuals making decisions and the mechanicals – the people who get stuff done. That division still holds today, even though in the metaphysical Silicon Valley, companies get started by programmers who in the social structure of D.C. would be at the bottom – an interesting reverse. 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 divide is not helpful. In our complex, fast-moving world, the implementers need to be at the table when big ideas are being cooked up.
Frischen: Because constituents experience policy in the form of implementation?
Pahlka: Exactly. Just look at our tax system. People in the highest levels of government, economists and analysts think about our tax code, but the average American has no idea about that complexity, they know that they’re supposed to file taxes every year and interact with the system and find it frustrating. We experience policy through delivery.
Frischen: And the delivery, if you allow me to summarize the many examples in your book with one informal word, often sucks – despite good intentions, and despite technology.
Pahlka: Yes. One good example I describe in the book is when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services were trying to implement a law that’s going to pay doctors more for better quality care. A great intention, but many sole practitioners and doctors in small practices were a) already frustrated with their current interaction with Medicare, and b) the administrative jumps they’d have to go through to upgrade to the new system were so overwhelming that they were threatening to leave altogether, which would then degrade the quality of care. The entities who could easily take advantage of the new law were the big health care systems – because they’re better at complying with the paperwork. In other words, the way the law was to get implemented was instead of incentivizing everyone to provide better care ranking doctors by their ability to do administrative tasks.
Frischen: And the ability to comply with the administrative requirements, you write, highly correlates with money and power?
Pahlka: Absolutely, you can see that in so many ways, like the ways in which many wealthy people take advantage of the tax system because they have lawyers and accountants to do this for them whereas low-income people don’t even get the tax benefits they’re entitled to. That is why when we think about the complexity of government services, it’s not just a question of convenience, it’s a question of equity. There’s such an instinct amongst people who care about equity to gather more and more data, which requires more and more paperwork. We’ve got to balance that out and really think about whether the impacts of all of those attempts to track equity end up decreasing equity. Delivery is how we experience policy, and one of my messages for policy people is to look at it from the delivery view up as well as the policy view down.
Frischen: A big theme of the book is what you call the waterfall culture in which civil servants move. Can you describe that?
Pahlka: Government culture tends to be one in which power, information and insights only flow down. When you get direction from the person above you in the waterfall, you have very little opportunity to question it and circle back, and so very often, well-intentioned public servants will simply do literally what they’re told, even though they might have their own opinions as to whether this is good or not. General McChrystal described why this is problematic by telling 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 larger insight here is that while the waterfall seems to serve people in power because they get to tell people below what to do, it actually does not serve anybody.
Frischen: But you have seen time and time again that civil servants rise through the ranks when they stick to procedure – even if the outcome is terrible. How can that culture be changed?
Pahlka: First, it’s important for people to understand that we the people have created this culture. We elect our officials who help foster this unhelpful fidelity to the processes of bureaucracy. Second, there are innovators out there with a passion for the mission, who understand the intention of a law they are being asked to implement, and who have the courage to keep that in focus even if that means a slightly loose interpretation of the literal words of the regulation. People want to work for bold leaders like that. We shouldn’t vilify the servants who follow process to the iota because they are operating rationally within the system, but we do need new leaders who are creative and who want impact and reward them. To help bring about this change 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 level tech talent.
Frischen: Talking about the tech industry – your book is a strong reminder that technology alone will not reform government, it takes a mindset and culture shift. What practices can government adapt from the tech industry?
Pahlka: Hiring. It currently takes about nine months to hire a product manager in government, which is simply too long. You’ll take another job offer in the meantime. We could solve a lot of government’s problems right now by just making it possible to hire people quickly. Second, incremental budgets— budgets that start small and allow teams to learn what they need for whatever amount of time is appropriate, and then grow it, rather than pretend that they can know everything that the software needs to do from the beginning. But overall, it’s culture. Culture eats even the most well-intentioned policy when it’s applied in such risk averse, legalistic ways — it ends up having the opposite effect. I think it’s Deepak Chopra who says, “What we pay attention to grows.” We need to pay attention to how policy gets implemented, to the new leaders from 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 down from Congress and then making paperwork that fits them.
Frischen: In today’s climate, can the left and the right agree on this?
Pahlka: Yes — I mean the left might call it reducing administrative burden and the right will call it regulatory reform – whatever you want to call it. The required culture change is not about deregulating in the sense of taking away all the rules. It’s streamlining how rules are imposed. We shouldn’t be choosing between lots of burdensome regulations and no regulations at all. That’s a false choice. The big opportunity here is a shift towards 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 is an Ashoka Fellow since 2012. This interview was edited for length and clarity.