A Conversation on Leadership, Technology & Innovation in a Time of Transition

A webinar in partnership with the Tech Talent Project
a title placard for the webinar. Title in white font on a purple background with a picture of the U.S. Capitol

Any new administration faces challenges when first starting out, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic downturn, and rising calls for racial justice, the ability of the new administration to quickly and effectively deliver equitable policy solutions has never been more critical. A key component of policy is its technical implementation.

When technology isn’t done well, government not only misses opportunities to help people, but can do lasting harm. From crashing unemployment systems to malfunctioning vaccine signups, the pandemic has laid bare what many in the technology world already knew: our government runs on technology, but its outdated systems have left Americans vulnerable. The new administration has an unprecedented opportunity to change that and modernize our systems. Last week, we hosted a webinar in partnership with the Tech Talent Project, an organization that aims to boost the government’s ability to recruit and retain the technical talent they need to deliver on major policy goals.

Code for America’s Amanda Renteria and Ryan Ko engaged in a lively conversation with Tech Talent Project’s Cass Madison, Aspen Tech Policy Hub’s Betsey Cooper, and Walton Family Foundation advisor John Bailey. Our panelists shared their insights into the realities of technology hiring and procurement, the unique technical challenges facing President Biden’s administration, and their hopes for how government might better adapt policy implementation for the digital age. To check out the conversation, watch the video or read the transcript below.

Transcript

Jahvita Rastafari:

All right. Thank you everybody. My name is Jahvita Rastafari. I am the Senior Director of Marketing here at Code for America and my pronouns are she, her, hers. Thanks for joining us for a conversation on leadership, technology and innovation in a time of transition. This event kicks off our summit series as we lead up to our annual Code for America summit. Our annual summit is a two-day virtual experience that brings change makers into the room to tackle some of government’s biggest challenges by removing barriers and expanding government access to serve all Americans. Today’s event is in collaboration between Tech Talent and Code for America. And we’re so glad to have you join us.

Jahvita Rastafari:

I’m going to take you through a few quick housekeeping slides just to get everyone in order. So we have a code of conduct. Our code of conduct applies to all gatherings here at Code for America. And you can access the link in the chat and chat the host to report any violations or you can directly contact safespace@codeforamerica.org. Questions, we’d love for you to share questions. Please submit your questions for panelists by clicking the Q&A button at the bottom of your Zoom screen and we’ll answer as many as we can during the conversation. And then lastly, we’d love to hear from you. So please feel free to reach out to us via social. You can reach us @codeforamerica. And then you can also tag us using the CFA summit hashtag.

Jahvita Rastafari:

So as I mentioned, today’s event is in collaboration between Tech Talent and us, Code for America. And for those who may be a little less familiar, Code for America believes government can work for the people by the people in the digital age, starting with those who need it most. We build digital services and enhance government capabilities, and we help others do the same across all levels of government. We organize thousands of volunteers across over 85 chapters nationwide who improve government in their local communities. Our goal, a 21st century government that effectively and equitably serves all Americans. And with that, I’d like to introduce you to our moderator for today’s conversation, Cass Madison. Thanks Cass.

Cass Madison:

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. So I’m Cass Madison. I am VP of Partnerships at the Tech Talent Project. And at the Tech Talent Project, we are focused on helping the US government recruit modern technical leaders to achieve critical economic policy and human outcomes. And we have a great panel with us today. I’ll introduce them in just a few minutes in more detail, but we have John Bailey, Betsey Cooper, Ryan Ko, and Amanda Renteria. Thank you all so much for being here. Can you advance the slide? So as Jahvita said, I’m going to give a little bit of foundational information about some work we did over the summer to prepare the incoming administration to think about technology and transition. And then we’ll turn it over to the panel discussion where I have some questions prepped, but we’ll also take questions from the audience. And just a reminder, just submit the questions through the Q&A section. Can you advance the slide?

Cass Madison:

So just a little bit of foundation here. So thinking about the last year, I don’t have to remind any of you that it’s been a really tough year from the pandemic to social unrest, to wildfires, to what we’re seeing this week with the collapse of the electrical grid in Texas, our country is navigating multiple crises simultaneously. We also have a new administration in the White House, which brings with it a unique set of transitions that impact government, not only the at federal level, but at the state and local level as well. And not only is our country experiencing all this at a meta level but we know that there are millions of families across the country that are also facing personal periods of great instability. And for these families, access to government services can literally mean the difference between life and death, hunger and satiety, shelter and homelessness. There is a lot at stake.

Cass Madison:

And one of the cornerstones of our government is our ability to provide stability in not only the day to day… You went back up two slides actually. Day-to-day business of government while also being prepared to respond to any crisis that may arise. And I think in the year 2020, tech really underpins our ability to do this effectively. And our government really runs on technology. You can stay here for another 30 seconds. But I think the thing here is that our systems have really left America vulnerable. And so when you look at tech innovation in the past two decades, it has completely changed how the world does business, but government has not kept pace resulting in vulnerabilities across all of our public systems. So you saw this when the unemployment websites crashed across the country or in the difficulty that people are having signing up for vaccines.

Cass Madison:

I don’t know about all of you. I’ve still been trying for a month to get my parents signed up in Pennsylvania and it’s been really difficult. So when tech isn’t done well, not only do we miss an opportunity to deliver efficient and effective services, but we can actually do real harm. And while it’s true that great leaps in innovation often happen during periods of crisis, it’s also really the painstaking work that we do, that our public servants do during extended periods of stability that define our ability to respond effectively in a crisis. Next slide. So the challenge, you can see on this chart that our country’s systems are not just aging, they’re old and outdated. There’s some systems on here that are 50 plus years old, but that’s not the only problem. Government is also using antiquated approaches to software development, to project management, which really continue to result in the high profile failure of technology projects at our healthcare.gov at the federal state and local level. And so the greatest challenge of modern policy-making rests not in our ability to develop new ideas, but in our ability to implement them effectively.

Cass Madison:

Next slide. So the lack of technical understanding by senior leaders and federal agencies prevents essentially $90 billion that we spend every year on tech from delivering real results. So there’s a big opportunity lost here. Next slide. And so any presidential agenda in the 21st century really must prioritize technology in order to accomplish its goals but this feels particularly important in 2021. Next slide. So what’s the recipe for success here? Well, we believe that the tech-focused roadmap is really what’s going to get us there. And the roadmap really focuses on two things. One is the right people and two is the right actions. So first on people, the government has millions of career civil servants out there who are doing important work every day to make people’s lives better. And these folks are filled with creative ideas for how to do things differently, for how to innovate.

Cass Madison:

And so we really have an opportunity to leverage the experience of these career civil servants and the private sector by prioritizing the placement of leaders in government who understand modern technology. So that is part of what Tech Talent Project is trying to do. We’re developing this network of technical leaders who are ready for a tour of duty in America’s public agencies. And while at the Tech Talent Project, we’re primarily focused at the executive level. Right now we are thinking more broadly about the pipeline. And we’re excited to be working with partners on like Code for America, Aspen Tech Policy Hub, which Betsey is here today, Anita Borg to ensure that talented people at all levels with the desire to serve can find their path into government and find the path that’s right for them.

Cass Madison:

Next slide. So on the right actions and you’ll hear a little bit more about this from our panel, but we over the summer worked with 80 plus experts in tech and federal government to ensure that new leaders coming in in 2021 understand the tech priorities and challenges of their agencies and have a roadmap essentially for the first 200 days. And so these memos for a tech transition or these briefs that we produced focus on nine key agencies involved in COVID recovery and response and include critical information on the current status of tech projects and priorities, critical positions that need filled and key actions that can be taken in that first 200 day window to really build momentum and to make meaningful progress.

Cass Madison:

And so what’s important here is that this is the first time that an incoming administration will have had this critical information on the state of tech in all of their agencies and with the administration in full swing, they’re already being used and we’re being well utilized during the transition as well. Next slide. So from our perspective whether it’s finding good people or making sure that they have the information that they need to be successful, the takeaway is that technical leadership and talent really matters in government. So I’m really excited that we’ll hear from this amazing panel about their work and the potential for impact. So I’ll go ahead and introduce them now.

Cass Madison:

We have Amanda Renteria, who you all know and love. She is Chief Executive Officer of Code for America and she has served as the Chief of Operations at the California Department of Justice overseeing a 1000 public servants and $850 million budget. She served as National Political Director for Secretary Clinton managing the political and outreach strategy for the 2016 presidential campaign and as a Chief of Staff at the United States Senate during one of the most productive periods in the country’s history. While she was there, she was the first Latino chief of staff in the history of the US Senate. We’re so excited to hear your thoughts here Amanda.

Cass Madison:

And we have Betsey Cooper. Betsey is the Founding Executive Director of the Aspen Tech Policy Hub. Previously, she was the Founding Executive Director of the UC Berkeley Center for Long-term Cybersecurity and was a legal counselor at the Department of Homeland Security. We also have John Bailey. John serves as an advisor to the Walton Family Foundation and is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He previously served in the White House where he led the reauthorization of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program and coordinated the emergency programs established during the 2008 credit crisis to destabilize… Sorry, not to destabilize, to stabilize $200 billion in student loans. He also served as Deputy Policy Director to the United States Secretary of Commerce and as Director of Educational Technology at the US Department of Education.

Cass Madison:

And we have Ryan Ko. Ryan is Chief of Staff at Code for America. He spent seven years at McKinsey & Company leading teams that support state governments on large IT mega projects with a focus on integrated eligibility systems and Medicaid management information systems. He counseled technology firms on strategy and operations, advised nonprofit institutions on a variety of education and ed tech topics and published in depth research on the future of work and automation. So thank you so much to our panelists. Welcome. So let’s dive right in. And maybe we’ll start with John. John, could you tell us a little bit more about the tech transition papers? What were your observations from the process of crafting them? Did you see any major trends?

John Bailey:

Great. Thank you. Yes. And I was trying to stabilize the student loan program, not destabilize. So oh my gosh, we’re already having a conflict? I love this. It’s so great. I’m just kidding. So I mean, the participating in the Tech Talent Project’s transition paper was like by far one of the best things I’ve ever done in my career. And it was mostly just because of getting to learn from 80 plus volunteers that just dedicated their time to trying to dig down into a bunch of agencies and just tee up and surface what are some of the big challenges that a new administration would face? And those are challenges as it relates to personnel, to policy but also opportunities like where were there missed opportunities without an agency, particularly at this point of a COVID crisis and a health crisis and an economic crisis where tech or digital delivery or just doing something a little bit different, a different mindset is the difference between whether or not literally someone’s life is saved or not, or when someone is getting food or housing assistance.

John Bailey:

And so learning from these amazing volunteers was just so important. Also, I have participated in a number of presidential transition processes in the past and I just have never seen anyone sort of give such detailed papers and guidance. Transitions are a sprint. In many ways you’re wrestling with a lot of tensions of competing priorities to have an outside group essentially create a bit of a roadmap is just a gift to both presidential transition teams. And so that was amazing. A couple of the big themes that really did surface from a number of the working groups that are looking at agencies, one was this whole notion of pairing non-technical talent with modern technology advisors that this is just so important. It’s important for tech to have a seat at the table as policy is being developed and debated before it’s even being implemented.

John Bailey:

And that is so critical and so pairing up someone that has that sort of technical acumen with another policy wonk who’s in the room trying to think through the policy contours and this is so important. So policy is being designed from the beginning with some tech input. Prioritizing strong data leadership, data was an issue that came out through all of the different transition papers across all the different agencies. It is for a couple different reasons. One is like at moments of national crisis, data gives you insight and information by which to make decisions. And it was one of the things that part of our challenge with COVID is that we’re fighting that blind because there just wasn’t robust data collection and reporting and open sharing of that data to drive a lot of other decisions out there.

John Bailey:

And so data leadership is super critically important. It’s also especially important with the number of agencies that are wrestling with artificial intelligence and machine learning, either as they’re using that for digital delivery or because they’re regulating it. And so data leadership again came as a theme across many of the different memos there too. And then lastly, this isn’t about starting over and starting from scratch, it’s about building on the progress that has been made. There’s a number of different legislative packages that have been passed over the last couple of years. The evidence-based policy active, 2018 is a good example. All this sort of helps set the table and to create additional momentum with a new team. And we’ve seen the Biden team do that. They’ve taken a lot of what volunteers again, had recommended in these transition papers.

John Bailey:

They’ve taken advantage of a lot of the authorities that Congress has given the executive branch over the last decade and have hit the ground running in a really powerful way and in a way that I think is going to benefit millions of people around the country. So lastly, which I know we’ll get into is it’s so important not to forget about state capacity. So much of where federal policy is implemented is in the digital literally at the state level. And so I think that is like a more robust conversation we need to have as a country is how do we make sure that we’re building and enhancing the capacity of states to make sure their digital delivery of these policies is smooth and seamless in a much better experience for the people that we’re trying to serve.

Cass Madison:

That’s great. Thanks, John. And just to maybe dive one step deeper so thinking about the tech transition memos, are there things that you’re particularly excited about that seem to have been latched onto by the Biden administration that you’re seeing move forward?

John Bailey:

Oh, gosh. I mean, a ton of different things. I mean, first of all, there was a ton of COVID data that was being collected, but it was being shared with some state policymakers, but it wasn’t made open. And now within the first three weeks, all that data is open. And I can’t tell you how important that is in terms of driving decisions and for research that elevating OSTP’s role. OSTP has always been the science and technology policy office. And yo-yo is a little bit in administrations back and forth. Sometimes it has a seat at the table, in other times it’s delegated more to like an advisory sort of group a little bit like the council of economic advisors and the Biden team has sort of made them part of the cabinet.

John Bailey:

What that means is that science and technology policy has again what we were saying before it’s pairing, but it’s making sure that there’s a voice in the room as we’re thinking about things like unemployment benefits, expanded benefits or extending those benefits, the science and tech is represented there. Same thing with COVID. Same thing is like I know we’re going to be facing with education, with addressing learning loss, all these different issues. It’s just going to be so powerful to have a science and tech voice at the table there. So those are two examples, but there are a number of other things too that every single day we’re seeing the Biden team implement something that was like in a memo a couple of months ago. It’s really inspiring to see that.

Cass Madison:

Yeah, that’s exciting. Thank you. And Amanda, I want to turn it over to you to talk a little bit about the human impact of all of this. So Code for America has been doing work on the ground to help government get better and work better for those who need it most, what does it look like when government fails to deliver working technology for those who need it most, what’s the human impact? Can you share a story with us?

Amanda Renteria:

First of all, just thank you for this panel coming together and for everyone on the call watching this as well. It’s just such an important time as we think about where our country is, as we think about everything that John raised in terms of not only what folks are facing, but also the potential to get this right and get it and get our systems in a place where they really can reach all people. What we’ve seen at Code for America for a decade now is we’re actually able to see the data of what people are going through. So pretty immediately, when the pandemic hit, we could see applications go up 10X. We also saw overnight when we were working on a disaster relief assistance for immigrants, overnight a 100,000 people showed up on our systems looking for help.

Amanda Renteria:

When you see that on the backend, you’re quickly reminded of what folks are going through. It’s not just the food lines, but at Code for America, we’ve actually seen those applications on the rise and we’ve seen the need. I’ll also say one of the things that during this period of time that we’ve also seen state governments respond to is reducing some of the access to barriers that have happened in the past. So things like interviews, you can no longer go in because of COVID to interview systems. And that in and of itself really harmed people’s ability to apply, but also made matters worse in that moment.

Amanda Renteria:

And so what we saw at Code for America is really this trying to meet people where they were for the first time ever, but because of the major need that we have seen. And so it’s been this moment of both need, but also of change has been an important piece for us to how do we reach out not just to our folks who we’ve always had in our snap systems, but as pandemic EBT happened, for instance, for those of you unfamiliar, when school is closed, we have millions of kids on school lunch programs. And so across the country, we were trying to figure out how do we reach them, not just in California where we are and really embedded, but in Minnesota and Pennsylvania and Michigan and all across the country.

Amanda Renteria:

And we saw that our data systems that John talks about weren’t ready. And so what do you do in short order to try and reach folks as fast as you can, and as many as possible. The story there is that for states who were tech ready, who leaned in more to cleaning data, who leaned in more to cross functionality in government systems, they were the ones that were most ready. And I think that’s the hopeful story here is what we can learn from the last several months, is it matters that our systems are up to date?

Amanda Renteria:

It matters that we’re actually putting in place a lot of the recommendations in the transition papers so that we can reach people where they are not just in a crisis, but every single year when we know people fall into these places of need. So again, thank you for having me as part of this conversation, but really thank you for the entire ecosystem, because it is going to take all of us as we move forward to make sure that we have a government and government systems that are ready for everything that’s ahead of us, including recovery in this pandemic.

Cass Madison:

Thank you, Amanda. It’s so nice to hear some bright spots. It make us feel hopeful about where we’re headed. And I hadn’t really connected with that idea that we had to reduce barriers. So some of the question is how do we post pandemic make sure that those barriers don’t go back up for people. So Betsey, question for you, a lot of our discussions on tech and government’s ability to deliver tech effectively focus on implementation, but I think John started to get to this. The recipe for success actually starts a lot earlier than that in the policy-making process, so what’s the relationship between policy and the successful implementation of technology?

Betsey Cooper:

Yeah. Thanks Cass and thanks for having us. So I think that’s for us the crucial question that we try to impart to all the folks that we train at the Aspen Tech Policy Hub. So for me, policy is broader than just having an impact on government. It’s not just legislation, it’s not just regulation, it’s about how to get decision makers to change their behavior in a meaningful way. And so if you think about policy like that, policy is the idea that you want to have implemented and then the implementation process is actually getting that across the finish line with the decision makers actually making change. And oftentimes we don’t think about those two as separate pieces of the process. When we go to design a new government database, we don’t get the buy-in of the stakeholders necessarily that have to use it.

Betsey Cooper:

We don’t necessarily do the user-centered design that Code for America and others are so good at to make sure that it can be implemented effectively. And so that’s one of the reasons that I think it’s so important as we both train people to go into government and to assist on what you can call public problems or problems that governments tend to have to grapple with. We need to provide training to allow them to see that ecosystem from the decision-making process to implementation and to take into account the users that are going to actually be affected as you’re building up these systems.

Cass Madison:

And so is that the primary role that you see technologists having at the table is bringing that user voice or what are the other opportunities for them to influence things early in the process?

Betsey Cooper:

Yeah. So I mean, I think it depends if you’re somebody who’s outside of government, you can work with programs like Code for America, like the US Digital Response to actually come up with innovative solutions that might not exist now and to do some of that initial networking. I also have very many people on this webinar interested in going into government, and then it really depends on the type of role that you play. So you may be a chief technology officer or chief innovation officer, and you’ll have a seat at the policy-making table telling the secretary or the equivalent what is important. You may also be someone who might go into the US Digital Service or 18F. These are sort of more operations focused technology places in which case you’ll probably get from above an idea for a policy.

Betsey Cooper:

And you need to re-scope that and figure out how to implement it appropriately, taking into account some of the sensitivities around diversity and inclusion that perhaps the initial policymakers may not have thought of for instance. So I think it often depends where you have a seat at the table but it also means that there’s a wide range of things that technologists can do in this space. What you bring to the table is an ability to understand and explain the technology more deeply and thus to understand the implications of implementation and say, no matter where you sit at the table, that’s something that you can bring that almost no one else can.

Cass Madison:

Excellent. Thank you. And Ryan, so the Tech Talent Project and Code for America, both organizations exist in part to engage the tech community and encourage them to think about service. So how is Code for America thinking about bridging the gap between technologists and government and what do you see as the vision for the future there?

Ryan Ko:

I think it’s important to really build on what Betsey was saying, which is that it’s quite exciting that there is a lot of interest from many folks who are listening to this panel on how to join government. At Code for America, we’ve seen a few different pieces. The first is actually that there tends to be a shared vision that technology can and should be a force for good. And we hear that from technologists. We hear that from people in government and increasingly because of what we’ve seen in events last year and this year, I think even non-technical folks in government are really starting to realize that technology is going to be an important way, digital outreach, online applications, not being able to do things in person. So that sort of shared vision is really starting to converge.

Ryan Ko:

And I apologize. I think there’s a bit of an echo in my thingie. Okay. With that shared vision though, there’s a few pieces that do need to be brought together. On the government side, government programs and services are often here to serve the most vulnerable populations, to serve everybody equitably and fully. There are lots of safeguards and structures that are put into place to ensure program delivery. There’s also policy and structures. On the technology side, it tends to come in more from a scale and efficiency perspective, right? How to reach as many people as possible, how to replicate, how to use reusable components, how to move, et cetera. And those can come into tension at first but bridging that gap is really, really important, making sure government understanding technologies impact, technology understanding government’s impact.

Ryan Ko:

That’s an incredibly, incredibly powerful thing. A lot of programs such as the Aspen Tech Policy Hub and some of the programs such as USDS have done a really good job and I’ll actually call out USDR because one of the things that they’ve done recently is really trained technology volunteers to work in government, to understand what that’s like and also governments to work with volunteers. Volunteers is of course only one part of the story, there’s also people moving into full-time service, et cetera. But really bringing those concepts together of the benefits that technology can bring and the government trying to serve everybody is incredibly important.

Cass Madison:

Excellent. Thank you, Ryan. And now we’re getting some questions from the audience, so I want to start to take some of them. So we have a question about open data, maybe we’ll start there. And so the question was about we’re talking about opening data up, and I think John, this was aimed at one of your comments. Are we talking about opening data up within government to or to all policymakers or completely opening data up to the public? And so I’m interested in the panel’s thoughts on the importance and limitations of open data for the public?

John Bailey:

Yeah. At least, I mean, I’ll just comment on how I meant it. I meant it as like opening it up to the public, but also meant it is making sure that it’s machine readable, it’s in an open format that other people could do good things with it. Amanda was just talking about when we closed schools back in the spring, it disrupted the entire way school meals are distributed to kids. And that’s not just a minor thing. Like this is, for some kids, the only meal they’re going to get a day. And a good example of where open data would have been super helpful here is like we had some states that were listing on their websites where the pickup locations were, where a family could go do a grab and go kit.

John Bailey:

But it wasn’t machine-readable. And so it made it really difficult. Like ideally what you would want is to make that machine readable so that Google maps can take that data and list those sites up on their website and Apple maps in other places. But it wasn’t the mindset that a lot of state governments had in terms of doing that. And it wasn’t really the mindset of USDA to sort of encourage or incentivize or mandate that these sites not just be published on a static webpage or a PDF, but in a machine-readable format. And then more recently we’ve just been seeing like HHS and CDC have been doing risk assessments of COVID with its spread and positivity rates and ICU cases and hospitalizations. And all of that was getting shared as a PDF to governors, but it wasn’t open.

John Bailey:

And if it was open in a machine-readable format, a lot of other researchers could have been doing some work with it. It would have powered a lot more strategic decisions being made at the state and at the local level too. So that’s what I meant, but I think there’s amazing power in terms of taking data and making it open, shareable and in a machine-readable format so that other organizations, applications and services can take that leverage and build on top of it and do even better things with it.

Cass Madison:

Great. Other panelist Amanda or-

Ryan Ko:

If I may jump in-

Cass Madison:

Yeah. Please do.

Ryan Ko:

Thanks, Cass. Sorry that you can hear. Building on what John has said, it’s been really interesting through the pandemic, because we’ve seen real time evolution of public servants and their understanding of what data can do for them. That’s something that’s been incredibly powerful. We’ve seen mindsets shifted from, well, I get this PDF and that’s all I need because I’m a state and I’m reporting something to HHS all the way to, oh, actually I need to match the child’s student data for my education department with the social services department so we can get them their free and reduced price lunch subsidies, right?

Ryan Ko:

The people have come a long way and that’s an important piece. And I can’t stress the talent enough. It’s been mentioned earlier on that more and more governments have been introducing data scientists, data analysts roles more than a compliance and reporting role, but more actually how we use that information. So opening the data as the question asked, as John discussed, sharing that data, making it machine-readable, flowing and useful, and also having the talent to interpret, use and understand it has all been incredibly powerful. And we’ve seen this in real time in 2020.

Cass Madison:

Thanks, Ryan. And let’s stick on the topic of openness for a bit and talk about open source. So there’s a question here about as we obtain more information about the SolarWinds hack and now vaccine interruptions, it appears that government has a problem securing proprietary and vendor code systems. So wondering what the panel thinks about the effort towards open source software systems to replace things that are typically used in government today. Thoughts on that and the move towards open source and security and all that stuff? Anyone can feel free to jump in. Betsey, do you have any thoughts on this or miss?

John Bailey:

I’ll just-

Cass Madison:

Oh, go ahead.

John Bailey:

I mean, a couple of different thoughts. I should have said at the onset to when you had asked about were there any trends in the transition paper. Cybersecurity was a trend and that was before even some of the hacks had been revealed and had surfaced. And I’m not sure we penetrated sort of the public consciousness yet or even the political consciousness. I don’t see Congress reacting to the severity of the last several hacks that we’ve had, the OPM hack a couple of years ago and then this most recent SolarWinds one, and you would think that would be a mobilizing event of sorts in terms of resources to sort of protect not just sensitive government data, but sensitive personal data. Like this is personal information on millions of people from around the country too.

John Bailey:

And it’s an ongoing… As the threats emerge and as the tactics emerge and change, you need a more sort of vigilant and agile sort of system that’s responding to that and anticipating that. And I’m not sure we have that sort of system in place yet. I’m optimistic over some of the team that I’ve seen enter into the Biden administration that maybe there’s a chance to do that. I think four weeks in, that’s a lot to ask of anyone. But I’m going to be looking and hoping that we’ll see some structural changes and some other improvements in the next couple of months here too.

Cass Madison:

Betsey, do you have thoughts from a security perspective on this topic?

Betsey Cooper:

Sure. I mean, I’m not an open source expert. That’s a really specific question that I think someone who’s more, Chris Crabs, you should call him and ask him what he thinks of that. But what I can say is that one of the general security pieces of advice is not to have all your keys to the kingdom locked up in one place. So if all of government is relying on Microsoft systems and relying on SolarWinds, then those are wonderful targets that actors are going to try to get to because once they get in, they get access to lots of different things.

Betsey Cooper:

So the more we can dis-aggregate risk and spread it around to different places, the better. Open source provides some benefits on that side because it allows new things to be developed, but it also provides some risks because it gives actors the ability to sort of see inside to how things work in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily get to do with proprietary software. So I think the overarching principle I’d seek is to make sure that if you have several different vectors of risks that you don’t place them all with one vendor or on one server, et cetera, and we’re a long way from achieving those sorts of goals now.

Amanda Renteria:

One of the things I’d like to add to this discussion as we think about change or new ways of doing things or open source is that what we’re seeing from a lot of the unemployment insurance breakdowns is that the complication in the system as it exists now actually helped folks hack into the system because it was confusing on the backend. And so some of these reports that we’re now reading through and trying to figure out how do you make it better, the simplification upgrading systems, making sure that we’re not putting band-aids on each other, that has actually made it tougher or even the way we ask questions, right?

Amanda Renteria:

All of those kinds of complications in the process have allowed hackers to come in or folks who really want to have mal-intent to come into these systems versus what we’re seeing on a lot of our data in food stamps, for instance, that if you can see clean data, you can actually see the spikes and understand something’s going on here, how do we address it? And so I know government is always worried when we think about changing systems but I’m worried that we’re not changing systems and that is what has allowed the security issues to rise.

Cass Madison:

That’s a great point. And we have a question too a little bit on government process. So how much of the federal government’s technology problems stem from the budgeting process itself? Anyone want to take that big question?

John Bailey:

I’ll take a shot at it because I’ve lived this both when I worked in a state agency and also lived it when I worked at several federal agencies. I think I would say it’s a budgeting and procurement. And procurement is such a challenge in the government settings in that it can be a very cumbersome lengthy process in order to go through it all and jump through all the hoops, which then creates us an incentive to go off and purchase off a pre-approved list of vendors that rarely have the type of talent or agility sort of mindsets and processes that we’re all talking here. And so in some ways that perpetuates the problem because if you want to do an IT project quickly, you have to kind of go off of the list.

John Bailey:

And so procurement is like, what are these things like you’re never going to see a governor campaign on procurement reform or a president campaign on procurement reform, but it literally can make or break a lot of these projects. And then budgeting is around that in terms of making sure that the dollars are there. But I think as we’ve seen some of the biggest sort of tech failures of the last decade, 15 years, hasn’t been because of a lack of budget, it’s been because of the type of development process that kind of went into it. And that all goes and feeds back into a procurement sort of mindset. So I always sort of put procurement first and then budgeting second. But I don’t know, every day it’s a tug of war of who’s the worst on that list.

Cass Madison:

Any other thoughts on budgets from the panel?

Amanda Renteria:

I think we could all… Anyone that’s been through the process at the federal level or the state level, the rush for everyone to spend their budgets so that we have a budget next year, creates all kinds of dysfunctional behaviors. The ability to not say this is a multi-year investment and there’s flexibility, I think that is something that requires, I would argue, even more tech talent to understand how to manage that kind of investment within the system itself. How do you make sure that IT can sustain over time, even though you’re going through a yearly annual process? I’m not convinced we’ll be able to change that process anytime soon, but I do think this is why it’s even more important to have Tech Talent sitting next to folks who may not have that tech talent to be able to address and bridge these gaps so that it works for modernizing and upgrading systems.

Cass Madison:

Great.

Ryan Ko:

And this is an interesting shift that we’ve seen. Three years ago, I don’t think we were getting as many of these questions, but as the pandemic started to take its toll, we started getting lots of questions from non-technical public servants. “Hey, I’m working with my IT team who’s trying to procure a system to do testing vaccines, distribution safety that supports what have you. I used to just kind of tell them what I wanted, give the IT team what they needed, and they would go spend the budget. I’d like to get involved because there seemed to be really people outcomes that are important here.” We’ve been seeing that mindset shift and people asking for that. The theme here is it’s not just a techie thing, right? We call it IT procurement, but everybody’s involved from the finance department to the procurement department, to the actual programs administrators.

Cass Madison:

Yeah. It does seem like all roads lead to procurement and government. And sometimes it takes a while when you’re new to government to get that, but you certainly understand it after a few years. Okay. So let’s pivot back a little bit more of the human impact and what’s happening on the ground out there. So we have a question from someone who works for a nonprofit serving immigrants in San Francisco. And the question is on the digital divide.

Cass Madison:

But not only in order to be on the internet, not only do you have internet connect to your house, you have to have a computer in the home, but that’s not going to solve every problem. People need to know how to use it. They’re facing language barriers and literacy levels are a huge problem as well. There’s also the problem of trust and the fear of sharing personal information with a faceless web form that can come from experiences for this community immigration processes where one wrong answer to a question could separate you from your children. So what work is happening to address these kinds of barriers? And that seems like a great one to lob to Amanda and Ryan to start.

Amanda Renteria:

Yeah. Thank you for the question and you’re absolutely nailing it particularly in the immigrant community and the Latino community of that trust gap, right? And one of the things that we did, so we stood up the Disaster Relief Assistance Program in 35 days, but the way we did it and the way we distributed wasn’t Code for America or wasn’t the United States government, or even the California government. We actually worked with community-based organizations to be the conduit to the program, to do and work with them on the outreach in order to really get to the community where they were in a trusted way. That kind of relationship not only did it help for us to help these community-based organizations upgrade their own systems, but it really did speak to that trust.

Amanda Renteria:

And we were better for it too. We often talk at Code for America in making sure that we center the folks we are serving. A lot of times what’s really helpful is working with the community-based organizations and community leaders to help us in that process to make sure our applications, our questions are really reaching the folks in there, whether it’s our language or the way folks talk about income, for instance, are really important. So it’s twofold. It’s one, the system itself can be more welcoming, can reach you where you are and the way you show up whether that’s through a community-based organization or even the view that you have on your application, right? I often talk about technology can actually meet you as like, “Who are you?” Or, “Hey, welcome. Who are you?” Right? And making sure it’s that other aspect where we’re actually welcoming is really important in the design of systems, but also in our partnerships on the ground so that you’re building trust from the very beginning.

Cass Madison:

And we have a related question on that. Oh, go ahead. Ryan, were you wanting to jump in, or John?

John Bailey:

I was just going to say because this is another issue that I’ve been working on. When I’m not on Tech Talent panels, a number of the funders that I work with are very passionate about advocacy to make sure that we close the digital divide. Both, it’s not just the availability of the technology, it’s increasing the adoption of it. And that is a right role for government particularly at this point, it’s criminal that it just has not been part of the last four legislative packages. It looks like there might be like seven billion to hopefully close the homework gap as part of this next package, which is great and welcome and needed. But we also know that more is going to be needed, especially for rural and underserved populations.

John Bailey:

And so I think there’s a lot of hope that is part of an infrastructure package will get some additional dollars to sort of build out to communities, but it is like an important part that unless people have the devices, the connectivity that have the adequate capabilities, then so much of these digital services that we’re building and delivering will shut them out. And then Amanda is just so right in terms of like the anchoring on communities and anchoring on people’s needs. And that’s both in terms of understanding fears and trust, but it also just applies a lot to UI and UX that for so many low income and particularly Latino families, they’re accessing a lot of this over phones and not many state government websites and services are delivered as like mobile friendly. And so just that minor experience tweak prevents a lot of people from getting needed benefits. So anchoring in the needs of communities, it starts very much there in a mindset that again, Code for America brings but we need to sort of infect that with the way government sort of approaches all of its tech projects.

Cass Madison:

That’s a great point. We actually got a question specifically about MobileFirst and someone in the audience made that observation. Have you all seen that shift start to happen at the federal or state level to move away from just designing for web to MobileFirst or are there levers that we could be pulling to make that happen more effectively?

Betsey Cooper:

I can start with that. So just for two seconds of background, we run a program that trains technologists how to do policy and how to engage in both policy processes and policy implementation potentially to go into government or otherwise, and a side plug, but we are actually open for applications. If you like what we’re talking about, please apply and come join us. But so one of our projects focused on helping older adults online and that project actually identified that the failure to go MobileFirst was actually a key ingredient that was preventing older adults from reporting that they had been scammed. So our fellows worked, we were actually based in the Code for America offices and they came up with a design guide for helping to design for older adults that government agencies could implement. And that focuses in part on putting MobileFirst because they found that at least the older adults, they did their user design workshop with actually releasing iPads, who knew?

Betsey Cooper:

So I do think that this is exactly why I love the type of work that Code for America does, they’re focused on user centered design, helps give our fellows the sort of training that then enable them to go out and say actually, here’s how people are using this sort of work and we need to engage more. So I think we need much more of that. I think mobile is only a piece of the puzzle, other things that they found great outboxes that older adults didn’t understand, fonts are too small. There’s all sorts of design decisions we make that make things less accessible. And so MobileFirst is a piece of that puzzle, but there’s much more that can be done.

Cass Madison:

And another tech related question to piggyback off of that this one is about shared platform. So why don’t we see more examples of shared platforms that deliver these services throughout government or at scale, is it possible to do this at scale so that everybody’s not recreating the same technology or is that taking things down a failed road? John, do you have thoughts on this from the state level? This is a challenge at the state level, this lift and shift idea with technology.

John Bailey:

I don’t have great… Can you repeat the question again just so I know the prompt? I was getting tangled up in my head with thinking through the answer.

Cass Madison:

Sure. So yeah, there’s this idea of it seems like all over the place governments are building the same technologies. Like they need peace management systems, they need the same places for people to log in and apply for things but the government hasn’t really succeeded at building shared platforms so is it possible to do that without falling into the traps that government has fallen into for the past 10 years of these mega projects?

John Bailey:

Yeah. I think that the reason I needed you to repeat the questions again is I started having traumatic memory of trying to do this a couple of different times. Yeah. I mean, one of the frustrations is every state government thinks they’re a unique snowflake in terms of these needs and wants to just build from scratch. And partly, that goes again to the way we set up some of the federal systems is that we could create all sorts of incentives to try to help promote a shared platform development and sharing of code, but we just don’t create those financial incentives. And so instead it leads a lot of states to just sort of build on their own as opposed to sort of sharing. I have not seen a good and easy way to sort of crack that code.

John Bailey:

And in fact, in some cases, we see this with some of the education things, you can in fact create almost like a defacto monopoly of certain providers and sort of get a number of states and are building these systems for states and then all of a sudden instead of the states developing a shared platform, it’s one vendor that has built this once and then they go out and essentially are selling it and reselling it to all the other states. And it is like the same platform. So we need to kind of like reverse that and flip that a little bit. It would be better to target our dollars to enhancing the experience as opposed to recreating the wheel every single time. But I will admit I don’t know that the best way it’s sort of accelerating that. I think it’s at the end going to have to be some sort of financial incentive in terms of how the federal dollars will allow.

Amanda Renteria:

Yeah. To add to that is I think that is the opportunity right now. Should all this investment going in and you asked the question earlier and John addressed this a little bit earlier, which is, there’s a lot of investment in thinking going around at the federal level, but it must link to what’s happening in the state. And I think that’s where the opportunity is whether it’s creating cohorts incentives to really take people together along a journey so that you’re not doing a 50 state strategy for anything you want to roll out. There was some really good work done in the Affordable Care Act on Medicaid waivers, where you began to see certain states sort of come together and try and figure out how to connect that. And there was a window into that opportunity. I think that is still there today where you can build those cohorts, will it be one system and everybody’s going to do it in the same way? Absolutely not.

Amanda Renteria:

But can we get better scale, maybe more regionalization so that there’s some economies of scale here in platforms that can work for certain kinds of states or in certain kinds of ways. We’ve particularly seen some progress when you take program by program, maybe it is social safety net where we’re beginning to see some of those platforms and actually vendors adjust to that. But I mean, I do believe that’s the opportunity right now as we’re making this huge investment is to not lose sight of always saying, are we doing something and is it repeatable and is it scalable? And if so, then let’s lean on that a little bit more as opposed to the customized products that we’ve continued to see over time.

Cass Madison:

Yep. And I’m curious, Amanda and Ryan, Code for America’s experience helping with CalFresh and on the Integrated Benefits Initiative, do you have any big lessons learned there for how to help states or governments more broadly really build their capacity and expertise to deliver technology?

Ryan Ko:

A couple of pieces, I’m going to quickly answer the previous piece as well. And there’s a lot that has been happening on shared components lately. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a lot of front end design systems, screeners templates. There’ve been lots of organizations that have worked on this. The challenge of course is then to make sure that states adopt and can actually use that. We’re starting to see some commonalities, right? As you’ve mentioned, case management systems, digital outreach systems, we’re starting to see some vendors really figure out how to work with governments in ways that they actually are served. So we’re definitely seeing some movement. On the federal side I added in the chat that 18F, GSA has been working on this with a couple of components such as login.gov. The biggest talent piece here for states, I think is really bringing the technical and non-technical folks together so that they understand both the technology requirements as well as the fundamental program requirements.

Ryan Ko:

Oftentimes there’s this ping pong that goes back and forth of wait, we can’t use this off the shelf text messaging solution, for example, because of security concerns, right? And it turns out that actually there are ways to work around those security concerns with the whole system that is still secure, privacy and compliant and actually therefore it gets to text people who may not have computers and can reach them on their mobile phones, right? We’ve heard some really, really interesting examples such as wait, the finance department won’t let the technology department use the software tool because it requires a credit card and the state doesn’t use P cards, right? Bringing that together is a talent piece, it’s a capabilities piece, but more than a skill thing, it’s also a will thing to move all of this together.

Ryan Ko:

And by working together across technical and nontechnical, merging the actual program and human outcomes desired with the technical pieces, that’s actually going to help a lot of the states. I personally am pretty optimistic we’ll get there. I think we all have tough stories of having tried this in the past and not quite gotten there. The past couple of years if there’s any silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that everyone has started to see the need for more of this collaboration.

Cass Madison:

Thank you. And there are lots of great questions. Unfortunately, we won’t have time to get to them all, but really appreciate everyone in the audience jumping in with them. We got to as many of them as we could. One closing question for panelists before I turn it back over to Jahvita. So a lot of folks in the audience, I think we even had one person that said, I’m inspired. How can I join? So for folks who are thinking about joining government, do you have any words of wisdom for them about A, what should they be thinking about and two, what are the paths in that they should be exploring? And maybe why don’t we start with Betsey?

Betsey Cooper:

Thanks Cass. So there’s a bunch of amazing different programs you can look at. So we host both a paid fellowship and an unpaid part-time program that trains people how to go into government. So if you’re interested, check that out. There are programs such as Tech Congress. If you’re interested in getting on the hill, the Code for America Brigades are amazing sources and ways to get involved. US Digital Response is taking volunteers to help do COVID work. So there are a million different ways that you can engage. If you’re a younger person Coding it Forward, I believe is another place to look. So what I would suggest is come join us, come learn more from any one of us, and we will bump you to the right place if you don’t land in the right place first. So happy to volunteer myself for that, I’ll put my information in the chat but either way, there are plenty resources for you. Come on, join us we could use you.

Cass Madison:

Thanks, Betsey. John, any closing thoughts on your end?

John Bailey:

No. Betsey covered it. Like all those groups. I mean just don’t… It seems so intimidating if you’ve been in the tech professional your whole life and trying to figure out this amorphous crazy scary vague government thing, but there’s groups now, they’re navigators, like all the groups that Betsey just listed and the Tech Talent Project with Cass and others that can navigate you and can help find a way to leverage your talent in a way that is needed and can have maximum impact. And so there’s never been a better time. And we have a once in a century health pandemic that’s creating a once in a century economic crisis and the education crisis that we’re seeing unfold right before our eyes and mental health issues with students and learning loss, there’s going to be so much need and such a willingness to leverage your talent. So sign up and reach out to Betsey. I’m going to sign up for Betsey as soon as I hang up.

Cass Madison:

Thank you. And Amanda, any parting thoughts?

Amanda Renteria:

Yeah. I want to impress upon folks too that there’s the technology route to go. There’s also public service openings in general in programs as well. I think many of us sometimes think of being sort of singular in our thinking, but technologists are good everywhere. And so if you’re fired up, I know I started in government as a budget analyst on the front lines and moved into different kinds of policy and economics. I think that is the beauty. Oftentimes, as a longtime public servant, government gets the rap of it being stale, or you can’t move, not true. If you’re fired up about something, your skills as a technologist, your skills and lived experience in general are incredibly important for government. And I would argue, as John said, this is a once in a generation window of opportunity where governments everywhere are rethinking the way they do things. And to be able to be a part of that movement that will have implications on generations to come is actually really exciting. And we actually need you to be joining government today.

Cass Madison:

Thank you so much, Amanda. And thank you to all the panelists. I really appreciate you answering all the questions and being here for this important discussion today. I will turn it back over to Jahvita.

Jahvita Rastafari:

Thank you, Cass, and thank you to all the panelists for leading such an amazing discussion this morning. And for more conversations like this, we’d love you to join us. We have much, much more to discuss. We are trying to bring as many people into this tent as possible and as many, some of you may know, some of you may not, we have our annual Code for America summit coming up this year. This year it is virtual. It will be held May 12th and 13th. Many of the people that are on this panel will be there in some form or capacity. And ticketing launches on March 1st. And tickets will start at $25. We would love to see you there.

Jahvita Rastafari:

And there will be much more content to engage with. And just a reminder, you can find us online. You can check out our awesome Code for America blog. There are ways to donate. If you’re interested, you can learn more about all of our events on codeforamerica.org/events. And if you are not already, please follow us on Twitter and we look forward to continuing these conversations. Thank you everyone. And I hope you have a wonderful rest of your Thursday.

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