Digital transformation has made everything from shopping to banking to going out on a date dramatically easier than it once was. But it hasn’t yet had nearly the same effect on accessing and receiving government services or benefits.
Jennifer Pahlka has, for more than a decade, driven the charge to change that—as the founder of Code for America, where she helped create technology-driven, delivery-focused solutions like Clear My Record, which reduces barriers placed on people with criminal records; as the deputy chief technology office in the Obama administration, where she launched the U.S. Digital Service, which is aimed at transforming the ways the federal government uses technology and design in service delivery; and as the co-founder of U.S. Digital Response, a nonprofit that, beginning in 2020, connected thousands of tech volunteers with local governments that needed help in their pandemic response.
Now Pahlka is channeling that experience and insight into a new book—"Recoding America: Why Government is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better"—that every policymaker should read, according to The New York Times’ Ezra Klein.
In it, Pahlka explains that, while new laws and policies are what get all of the attention, the real work starts after those changes have been passed. She writes that governments at all levels need to focus more on the difficult work of implementation—which now almost always involves using digital technology.
Above all, Pahlka says, the public sector needs to beef up its internal capacities and capabilities to deliver. As she describes in an interview about her new book with Bloomberg Cities: “If you’re a gardener, you can’t keep trying to grow plants in soil that has been depleted. We’ve got to enrich the soil of these capabilities of government, and then our plants will grow.”
Here are additional takeaways from the conversation that leaders can use to improve their cities’ digital game.
Digital transformation is a complex process that starts by building internal know-how.
“One thing people don't realize is that the way governments build and buy technology is very problematic—and it's really hard to build technology and digital services that can comply with 90 years of changes in policy. For those who look at government services and say, ‘Hey, this is not as convenient as using Lyft or Uber,’ it’s really a fundamentally different problem and we have to grapple with different legacies if we're really going to solve it.
“Too often the approach is to find the requirements [for a new service], fulfill all the requirements, and then outsource it entirely to a vendor so that all of the blame is on them when it goes badly. Policymakers need to figure out how to support a different approach that involves having enough internal competencies and capacities on an ongoing basis so we can outsource well.”
Top-down solutions don’t always drive the best results.
“There are these levels of remove between the people creating the services and those who use them. The people on the ground understand how users are using—or are unable to use —systems. But they're not able to get that information back up the chain. So, they're following orders that made sense ‘up here’ but they don’t make sense ‘down there.’
“A basic thing we can do more is to ask the people at the bottom of the hierarchy to participate in conversations at the top of the chain. They're not invited to the table. And one way to collapse those levels of remove is just talk. Think about who you're inviting to the table when you're creating laws or policy or regulation and bring those folks up from the bottom of the ladder, because you'll get insights that will help you write implementable policy and policy that will not suffer from the effect of it being eaten by the culture.
“That really challenges leaders’ understanding of power and how government is supposed to work. It’s supposed to be a waterfall from top to bottom, but what really gets good results in today’s age is a cycle of ‘measure, build, measure, learn.’ That’s more about dialogues with people with different experiences than it is directives that just come from the top and cascade to the bottom.”
“Project management” requires knowing the product in the first place.
“In government, we rely very heavily on project management, which is the art of getting things done. But we have to empower the discipline of product management, which is: What are you deciding to do in the first place? Who is it serving? And are you constantly checking whether what you're building actually works for the people who are supposed to use it? Vendors are more successful when there are the right internal capacities and competencies, when the people in government aren't just saying, ‘Here are 6,700 requirements, go build them. Oh, and by the way, when it comes back and the system doesn't work, we're going to blame you. That doesn't work.’
“I've seen over and over again that there are career public servants who care very, very deeply about getting to the right outcome and serving the American people. And when they actually get trained in how to be a good product owner—and be really deeply involved on a day-to-day basis making decisions about what's important or what do we do when user needs and policy are in conflict—not only do you have much more successful products that are on time, under budget and delight their users, but you also have these people in government who say: I love my job.
This isn’t always about reinventing the wheel.
“A quick example of where government got it right was COVIDtests.gov, the system the federal government used to distribute free COVID tests. People will say that was really simple—and so of course they got it right. But imagine what would've happened if they'd run that drill of finding all the possible requirements instead of looking for a framework that would be easy for people to use and was already there. They used the U.S. Postal Service infrastructure. They clearly prioritized accessibility. It launched in multiple languages. It had scalability; it performed beautifully even though there were millions of users. They could have thrown many, many, many more requirements on that, and they chose not to.”
Next up for cities: A focus on competency and capacity.
“Fundamentally, I think cities are still figuring out: What is the right internal competency and capacity? We have a lot of people, sometimes not enough people, but what are we really charging them with doing? If we're spending a lot of money on technology but not getting the outcomes we wanted, the answer is not to re-look at the RFPs. The right starting point is what competencies and capacities do we have in-house in order to fundamentally change our approach? We've really invested in procurement expertise, but we've let procurement requirements and compliance get very, very complex. And we haven't invested in actual tech and design competence. And so that's where I would start in city government: closing whatever gap there is.”