Building a Better Future: A Conversation with Tim O’Reilly

A conversation about what the future of tech, government, and our democracy could look like when it works for all of us
Building a Better Future: a Conversation with Tim O'Reilly is written in white font on a purple background. A black and white picture of Tim wearing a dark shirt is next to the text.

At a moment where calls for change in government are sounding out from all corners of society, we have to ask the question: where should we go from here? The COVID-19 pandemic has opened the possibility for redirections and redesigns of the operating system of our society. Things like universal childcare, guaranteed basic income, and free college are being seriously considered, and bold ideas are gaining more traction than they have in decades past.

As we enter this era of reimagining, we need to collectively strategize about how to create large-scale and lasting change. For decades, Tim O’Reilly has been a prominent voice challenging large systems to think critically about how they confront the toughest challenges of the day. Over 100 days into a new presidential administration, Tim shared thoughts on where we should prioritize as we reinvent our economy, government processes, and tech structures—so that these systems work for all of us.

As Tim shared during the event, “government is infrastructure for society … If it’s crumbling, we should fix that.”

To check out Tim in conversation with Code for America’s Chief Communications and Marketing Officer Arlene Corbin Lewis, watch the video or read the transcript below.

 

Transcript

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

Hi everyone. Thank you for joining this conversation with tech icon, Tim O’Reilly about building a better future. This is a part of a series of events that Code for America is hosting as a lead-up to our Summit, which is our annual flagship events which is really a coming together of the tech community and the government sector to talk about how we can change the community, change the ecosystem for the better.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

My name is Arlene Corbin Lewis, and I’m the chief communications and marketing officer at Code for America. At Code for America, we believe that government should be for the people by the people in the digital age. Speaking of Summit, I would like to just mention that our annual event is coming up May 12th then May 13th. There is still an opportunity to join us at Summit, and I will share more about that at the end of this conversation, but I do want to invite you to be a part of Summit this year.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

If you enjoy this conversation, there will be many more like it, May 12th and 13th, and tickets are available at this point for $50. They go up tomorrow. So if you’re excited about Summit, please be sure to purchase your tickets soon. One thing I will start by saying, it’s just that we are talking about big ideas and kind of convening and coming together, and there is no better person to have that conversation with than Tim O’Reilly. Tim has been part of this ecosystem for quite some time. He has a history of convening conversations that reshape and have reshaped the computer industry. If you’ve heard the term open source software, if you’ve heard the term web 2.0 or maker movement, government as a platform, the WTF Economy, he’s had a hand in framing those big ideas. He is the founder and CEO and chairman of O’Reilly Media and a partner at early stage venture firm O’Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

He is also on the board of PeerJ, Civis Analytics, PopVox and yes, Code for America. His book WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us was released by Harper Collins in October of 2017. It is my distinct honor and privilege to be in conversation with Tim today.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

I will also mention that there is a code of conduct for this conversation. It will be in the chat, I’ve just stopped sharing my screen. All of our conversations, whether they’re in-person or virtual do follow our code of conduct. So please be sure to take a look at that. But Tim, I just would like to welcome you and thank you for taking the time. And I’ll just start by saying any opening words that you’d like to share with the audience?

Tim O’Reilly:

Well, first off, I want to just thank you for having me. I love the work that Code for America does. I think it’s really one of the most important organizations out there today trying to make the world a better place, because it has a unique approach to how we get leverage. And it’s recognizing the role that government plays in our economy, in our society, as opposed to saying, “Well, let’s reject it, let’s pretend that it doesn’t matter or shouldn’t matter.” It says it does matter. It’s of third of the economy and therefore we must make it better. And not only must we make it better, we must make it better for everyone and not just for a few. Code for America isn’t just an advocacy organization. It’s an organization that actually does things and teaches people how to do things better in government and with government.

Tim O’Reilly:

So the government, as you said earlier, can be by the people and for the people in the 21st century with the tools of the digital age. And it’s so powerful because, of course, if you can create leverage and change a government program, you can sometimes have this incredible multiplicative effect. It’s not just in the realm of politics, it’s in the realm of doing and Code for America shows and leads by doing.

Tim O’Reilly:

The programs that we have built are often transformative, not just because of the direct impact they have, but because they show what’s possible. And then people look at it and go, “Oh, it could be like that.” I think our vision of how things could work becomes so much more powerful because we start to show it working.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

Yeah, that’s good.

Tim O’Reilly:

The Summit is bringing together people who are doing the work.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

Exactly right. Yeah. The Summit is really a place where we thought people from the tech industry, from government, we have advocates. They are all coming together because they know things can be better. And so I just appreciate you taking the time today to have this kind of intro conversation about not just Summit, but how you’re seeing the world right now.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

There’s so much opportunity that we’re identifying at Code for America. I know that you’ve been talking about quite a bit, so I’m just really thrilled that we can have this conversation. I’m actually going to start us off, just thinking about the opportunities that we’re seeing right now. We’re in the first 100 days of a new administration. We don’t have to get all into the politics, but you’ve spoken quite a bit about the COVID-19 crisis, coupled with the change of the administration and how that presents an opportunity for reinvention of our economic system, our digital infrastructure, and ultimately how we transition to a government as a platform. And so I do wonder now that we’re 100 days in, how you’re thinking about where we’re headed. Do you think we’re heading in the right direction and what are the problems that we should be focusing on? Are we focusing on the right problems? And so I’d love to start right there.

Tim O’Reilly:

Well, I would just start out by saying we’re not heading towards government as a platform. Government is a platform. It is infrastructure for society and infrastructure can be good or it can be bad. We go, okay, yeah, we want to improve our roads. Okay, well, great. We want to improve our bridges, but there’s way more infrastructure than that.

Tim O’Reilly:

Our social safety net is infrastructure. And if it’s crumbling, we should fix that too. And so the other thing that government as a platform does is it sets the rules and the rules shape our economy and our society in ways that we don’t entirely understand. And a good example I think is, and one that I think is going to be very controversial, and may not pass, but the Biden administration’s approach to capital gains taxes.

Tim O’Reilly:

We have an economy that has said we have to optimize for capital because that’s where the dynamism of our economy comes from. And that might have been a good idea once, just like when Facebook started, it thought, well, we’ll bring people together. But once we started seeing that they’re driving people apart, we’ve got to make some changes. So we had this idea that we’d make our economy more efficient by rewarding capital to incentivize innovation. And it got way way out of our hand and now you have crazy valuations for companies that aren’t doing anything yet. They’re just sort of this vast casino. That kind of structural change, isn’t just, “Oh, wow, we’re going to tax the rich.” And I think that’s kind of the mistaken way to think about it.

Tim O’Reilly:

It’s a way of saying, what do we value? And we’re saying, no, no, actually we have to actually value building services, for example, we have to fund services. We’re suddenly talking about funding the caring economy at a higher level. And you go, oh, wow. Yeah, people are so awash in capital, they’re throwing bets at crazy companies. Companies are using it for stock buybacks, are saying, well, stock buybacks because we have nothing to invest in. So why are we still incentivizing capital? Why aren’t we saying no, no, let’s take some of what we’ve achieved there and put it towards new things. And that’s a redesign in some ways of the operating system of our society. When we say let’s have a $15 minimum wage, I wish it was 22, but we’re not there yet.

Tim O’Reilly:

I wish it was more, let’s start figuring out how we have more support for children, less support… These are re-directions and re-designs of the operating system of our city society. We haven’t seen something this bold in 40 years. Now, people actually kind of go back 80, 90 years to the new deal. And they go, but we had something just as bold in the 80s where we basically said, we’re going to stop doing all those things. We’re going to start rewarding our companies. We’re going to tell them, it’s called the Friedman doctrine after Milton Friedman. The only social responsibility of a business is to increase its profits. The idea that it would be trickled down, that was a revolution.

Tim O’Reilly:

And we’re at a point where we’re questioning that revolution. And the thing that’s so important about this moment is we now have this meeting of policy ideas that are progressive. But the real worry is that if they’re not implemented well, everybody will say, “Oh, that didn’t work.”

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

Didn’t work, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim O’Reilly:

That’s why, again, the work of Code for America is so important because it’s about how do we do the things that we say we want to do in our society and how do we do them well? I think this is the line I remember in the movie about Facebook called The Social Network that I’ve always loved, where it’s the Mark Zuckerberg character talking about the Winklevoss twins and he says, “If they had built Facebook, they would have built Facebook. They had an idea, but they didn’t actually build the thing that worked. I built the thing that worked.”

Tim O’Reilly:

That’s a really important idea because we have all these arguments sometimes in our country about, well, the program should be this way, or it should be that way. And we haven’t actually interrogated enough. Well, did we actually do what we meant to do?

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

That’s right.

Tim O’Reilly:

And there’s this incredible thing that’s happening today because of technology which is causing us to look at and question things that we just took for granted, that that’s just the way it is.

Tim O’Reilly:

It’s everything from… And it’s great because some of this is like we’re seeing all these bad things all of a sudden. We go, okay, well, we’re going to have a sentencing algorithm or a policing algorithm. And then we’d go, oh my God, look, it’s incredibly racially biased. And then we go, oh, the algorithm, the bad algorithm, no, no, no, no. You don’t say bad mirror when you look at yourself in the morning, you don’t like what you see. You say, I got to fix myself. I think this is incredible mirroring effect that we’re seeing in technology where it’s showing us parts of ourselves and our society. And now it’s time to get busy, making it better.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

Yeah. I’m so glad you said that. As I think about the moment that we’re in and the reflection that we’re seeing of ourselves, it is actually this turning point where we’re actually seeing all of the ills of society that we’ve kind of rug swept for so long are actually coming to the fore. And so how do we actually reckon with that?

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

This is kind of this moment of reckoning that we’re all experiencing right now. And so, as you think about the role of, you mentioned Milton Freeman and the trickle down economy. That has not necessarily worked, right?

Tim O’Reilly:

No, has not worked at all.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

You’ve seen that numbers have shown that that is not actually how this works. And so, as you’re thinking about people who are actually in the economy, people who are going to work day after day, what is their role? What can they do to kind of hold the people who are in leadership accountable? What can they say to them? What can they be pushing for? This is really a moment of revolution and evolution, and I’m seeing this in different ways, but I also get the sense that people feel in some ways powerless.

Tim O’Reilly:

Yeah. The thing I would say about that is that there’s so many different issues to focus on. A lot of them are in the realm of politics. I don’t really want to go into one side or another of partisan issues. But I will say that change happens when people believe that things can be different. And changing the way people feel and think and believe about an issue is in fact almost the fundamental human act. I mean, obviously there’s a lot of fundamental human acts, loving people, kindness, but in terms of this contest of ideas, persuasion is fundamental to how we operate as a society. I remember after I wrote my book, which had that subtitle, which actually I have to give credit where credit is due was actually suggested to me by my wife, Jennifer Pahlka the founder of Code for America.

Tim O’Reilly:

I had some other subtitle and she said, “No, it should be why it’s up to us because…” But then when I published the book, I remember being interviewed by Kara Swisher. And she said, “Who is this we you’re talking about?” And I said, “Look, it’s really is all of us.” And think back, for example, to the American Revolution there were a set of people who suddenly didn’t believe in Kings anymore. And it was very contentious. There were, I don’t know, it was 40% of the population were Tories. They believed that we should still be… I lived in Boston, you can go around old Back Bay and you see these black bands still around the top of the chimneys.

Tim O’Reilly:

And that was how the Tories marked their homes to say, we’re loyalists. And we forget that, we kind of think everybody was on the same side. No, but there were a set of people who believed something different. And it was astonishingly, it seemed impossible. And there’s this great story, which I’ve actually… First, I thought, oh, it’s got to be apocryphal, but apparently it isn’t. When George III heard that George Washington… They won the war, they signed the peace treaty. And George Washington went back to his farm. George III said if he has done that, he is the greatest man in the world because they imagined that he was just going to be crowned King. I think that sense that we could believe something different, that we could believe in a… Obviously you think about the civil right movement, a set of people who believed something different and started making everyone else believe it too.

Tim O’Reilly:

And you look at all the other fights for equity that are still going on today. It’s about people saying we matter too and there needs to be space in our culture for who we are and how we are. And that act of persuasion comes from all over. One of the things that for all that’s still wrong in America, what’s really good is we do have a strong current of multiculturalism that sets this room for multiple cultures, multiple points of view. It’s not, you have to conform, and we have to preserve that. We have to preserve that sense that’s what creativity is about. In some ways you can look at American history as this sort of battle between conformity and creativity and exploration.

Tim O’Reilly:

And we celebrate it in the business realm, but we have to celebrate it in the cultural realm too. We’re reinventing ourselves, we’re making the future. And so who is that us, it’s all of us, and you never know who’s going to come forward. In some ways it’s who would think, for example, that you’d have these different faces. Someone like AOC who was a waitress, and then you have Trump who was a big real estate developer, kind of becoming these figures representing different visions of the future.

Tim O’Reilly:

Anyway, kind of let me bring it back. I just want to say that in politics it often gets framed as zero sum, and there’s an awful nasty strain in our politics where people aren’t trying to find the right thing. But the good side is when people disagree and they have a theory about how the world could be better if you follow my idea. I think what’s really difficult is when it just becomes name-calling and nobody’s actually doing the thing. And again, it kind of come back to Code for America. If we value certain things, we have to show each other how to make them work. That’s what the work is.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

Yeah, absolutely. I have to ask this question, Tim, because it’s been so much a part of the conversation in the last few weeks. So there you are a tech leader, a tech icon, people really look up to you in terms of how you’ve kind of evolved and helped change and shape the tech industry. And in recent weeks, we’ve had other tech leaders talk about removing politics and taking politics and political discussion out of the workplace. And so I do wonder from your perspective, is there a role to have both a sense of let’s make a difference and talk about these issues, this structural issues that are actually harming us or affecting us as a society society and also still be leaders in tech. And is there room for both, because in some cases there’s an idea that there might not be room for both?

Tim O’Reilly:

Well, I think that it’s a really difficult issue because I do think if our society were well functioning, we would expect and we want there to be lots of room for disagreement. For people to argue in good faith and to still be friends. Politics has become really toxic lately though, and so I could see why somebody would want to say, we just can’t keep, it’s just chewing us up too much.

Tim O’Reilly:

I think about that in my own family, where I just go I don’t want to be part of this discussion with some of my family members. It’s poisoning our relationship. I could see that a company might want to say, “Hey, look, we just can’t do that.” At the same time where do you draw the line? It’s just a really hard problem because if something really matters you have to stand up.

Tim O’Reilly:

The question is when are you just joined on each other, and when you are talking about how do we make something better? I think in some ways, we need a better language for how do we move forward than politics. We certainly need to have more room for people who are well meaning with different beliefs, and figuring out how do we distinguish between people we disagree with, and people who are in the old language of the internet, trolls.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

And still the same language of the internet, definitely still trolls out there. No, that’s a great way.

Tim O’Reilly:

Don’t feed the trolls is actually a really great line that somebody said to me once many years ago, when I had gotten in an argument with a note of the internet trolls, was never wrestle with the pig you both get dirty, but the pig likes it. There is that and yet there is also this incredible imperative to stand up and be counted. And we have to figure out how to navigate that in our families, in our workplaces and in our society.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

That’s great. Thank you for that. Switching gears only slightly, I do wonder if we’re thinking about where we’re going from here and the evolution that we see before us. What are the lessons that companies should be taking away from this moment? Especially as we’re looking ahead there’s the movement for racial justice. What are the things that people who are in leadership in tech and different types of companies should be taking from this year of civil unrest, the pandemic?

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

There’s so much that happened this year and from my perspective, I would hope that we are taking some lessons away from it, so that it was not a moment in time that we did not learn from. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

Tim O’Reilly:

I think the biggest lesson that I would take away is it’s possibly easier now for things to be different and better than it was before, because there’s a whole lot of things that were stuck and taken for granted, that have now been really profoundly shaken up. It’s a bunch of things that were frozen are melted and they can be refrozen into a new shape.

Tim O’Reilly:

It’s seize the opportunity to do it differently to say, “oh wow It doesn’t have to be the way that it was. We don’t have to go back we can go forward.” And that’s on so many axes. You think about for example remote work, and you go what opportunities are in remote work for more equity? Because there’s a lot of people who couldn’t participate, for example, in Silicon Valley, because they weren’t in the right place, and now maybe it’s easier.

Tim O’Reilly:

So how do you do outreach? Again, there were incredible missed opportunities. I remember when Amazon was talking about HQ too. I felt guy, if Amazon really wants to be a company that stands out and makes a difference, they should be finding a place that’s not already full of tech people. They should go to a place where they will make it better. I remember once I was working on our property in Sebastopol where I used to live, and I had this landscape architect who came in to help us.

Tim O’Reilly:

And she said, “Everybody always wants to put their nice new thing where it’s already beautiful.” She said, “No, you want to put your nice new thing in the worst part of your property, so you will make it better.” And I thought that was really good advice. I remember also Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist came talking about that was the founding myth of Western society.

Tim O’Reilly:

In the Knights of the round table, you go into the deepest darkest part of the forest looking for a problem to fix. And of course, again, keeps bringing back the Code for America, we think about some of the things that we’ve gone in and we go right now there’s certain government programs are the deepest, darkest, part of the forest.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

Yeah, that’s a great point. Earlier I mentioned summit in this year’s theme for our annual summit is designing an equitable government together. And it is about unearthing some of our biggest problems, what are the things that we’re really tackling as a society that we need to fix, help transform? And so I’m curious to hear from you what that means when you hear designing an equitable government together?

Tim O’Reilly:

Well, I think that there’s so many axes and I don’t know that I have any kind of general prescription, because part of the wonder of tackling something as large as a nation of hundreds of millions of people is that there are hundreds of millions of issues starting locally, and all the way up to the national level. We do think an awful lot about national politics to the exclusion of local.

Tim O’Reilly:

Whereas you think about how many things that really need to be solved are local, and they maybe funded in part by federal government. But you look at the building codes for example which restrict housing density. Well, there are reasons why we don’t have enough housing, why we have a homelessness problem, why rents are so high.

Tim O’Reilly:

And we have to understand that there are people who want it that way, because they want rents to be high. And in some ways the job of government and the job of an economy, is to set rules and expectations about who gets what and why. And if you built a set of rules and you discover that some people are getting too much from the oath and the way the rules are set, you fix that.

Tim O’Reilly:

When I think about a lot on housing I actually had this kind of idea. It’s nowhere near enough, but I was so thinking about the way that the mortgage interest credit is this huge benefit to the middle class and people love it, and it’s really important and it’s been a great source of wealth building for a set of people. And we know that there’s another set of people who were historically excluded from that.

Tim O’Reilly:

And so that program grew and grew and grew until it’s covering second homes and even yachts. Meanwhile, there’s still the original purpose has been lost. And I go wow, what if we said, again, I’m using a term from technology, we’re going to refactor this tax operating system that shapes our housing market. And we’re going to say, we want to go back to this idea of creating an entry point into this source of wealth building for people who didn’t have it.

Tim O’Reilly:

And we realized we’ve made it too rich for the people who are already in the system. And we’re going to shift that, that would be this incredible. First of all, a recognition that when we talk about the market, we act like it’s the law of gravity. And instead of realizing it’s something we built. And that’s actually a lot of what my current work is about is trying to explain to people that you can look at the way that Facebook works or Google or Amazon, and you see that it’s this vast algorithmic thing that affects billions of people and organizes them into a market.

Tim O’Reilly:

But you don’t lose sight of the fact that somebody built it and somebody runs it, and somebody manages the way that works. And yet when it comes to our broader society, we pretend that the way it works is somehow inevitable. As opposed to something that we can perfect, that we can get better at, that we can go oh, it didn’t do this thing, it needs to do that thing.

Tim O’Reilly:

A climate change a great example of that. And you do see the rules gradually start changing and the market has all the independent actors also start changing it. But I don’t know that we’d be where we are with electric vehicles for example, if the government had not made a $500 million loan to Tesla, that was a government intervention. And I think in a similar way if we want to actually solve some of the racial inequities, we need government intervention.

Tim O’Reilly:

And that’s in everything from policing to things like how would we actually start to build generational wealth in the ways that it was done for the middle class? And of course, we also have to tackle the fact that the system we built has gotten so top heavy, that even the original beneficiaries in the white middle class haven’t been doing very well. So we kind of go wow, this whole thing is out of whack.

Tim O’Reilly:

You got to re-engineer the system we built. I keep thinking, gosh, if we can get this idea of technology as a mirror, if we can see it and go oh, Facebook has to fix this problem. Can we see that we have built a thing? And I think when people think about government, they don’t really think about what is it.

Tim O’Reilly:

And first of all, it’s a set of rules and another word for rules is algorithms, right. And then there’s a set of mechanisms by which those algorithms are applied. And sometimes you have actually a good algorithm badly applied where it doesn’t actually do it. And sometimes you have a bad algorithm well applied, and that’s can be even worse.

Tim O’Reilly:

And so we actually have to fix both the fundamental ideas about what is equity, what is justice, what is the society that we want to build? And who should we be benefiting? What’s it for? And I think that if this is fundamental idea, that if it isn’t equitable, it’s broken. It’s not just the inequity as a problem. Oh, no there’s nothing we can do about it, or we can just palliate it a little bit.

Tim O’Reilly:

We could say no, our objective is to build a system of government that creates opportunity for everyone. And when we have identified areas where that is not true, or where that’s unequal, we want to fix it. How do we fix it? Let’s go in and let’s get to the details. Let’s talk to the people. And again, it’s so in the work that Code for America does so much of it is a process of discovery. It’s listening to the people who are affected and going, “Oh, it was that, we thought we had to fix this thing, but no, it was really like that.”

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

That’s right. Yeah, absolutely. No, that’s a fantastic answer to that question, Tim. And thank you for kind of explaining it and breaking it down. You’re absolutely right. It is so much about making sure that we’re listening to the right people, and the people who are most affected by the issues that we’re trying to tackle. I actually want to open things up to the people who are listening right now, and see if they have any questions.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

If folks have questions for Tim, you are invited to ask them through the Q&A at the bottom of your screen. We definitely want to hear what you want to ask Tim. So I’m going to open it up to questions, but while we wait for questions to come in, Tim, you’ve mentioned Code for America quite a bit. And so I’m curious about what it was about the idea of Code for America in the early days that led you to become an early investor in Code for America, and has kind of kept you connected to Code for America after all these years as a board member, a longstanding board member at that?

Tim O’Reilly:

Well, I mean, I guess it’s so hard to say, because in some ways what became Code for America, I was working on with Jen before she started. We had created a conference called the Gov 2.0 Summit, which was really about this idea of bringing together technologists and people in government. Jen and I we worked on, the web 2.0 expo and so when we did the Gov 2.0 thing, we were talking to a lot of people and Aneesh Chopra who was president Obama’s for CTO said, “I hope this can be more than a conference.”

Tim O’Reilly:

And he planted that idea in Jen’s head and after the first year of doing the event she quit, she had this crazy idea to start Code for America. And she called me up, we were talking and she was asking me for advice. And she said, “Would you become a board member?” And I suddenly realized, oh my gosh, she quit her job, she’s a single mom, she’s trying to make this thing happen. Oh my God, I got to help her.

Tim O’Reilly:

And so it was a very personal connection, quite honestly. Well, I mean, it was obviously it was a personal connection that was rooted in the shared idea, that if we didn’t bring government in as a 21st century, then we had a deep problem. But then really just watching the thing unfold, it’s just been this incredible learning journey and it keeps me engaged because there’s so much to learn and we’re learning more and having a bigger impact and that’s really fabulous.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

I love that. I love that answer Tim and glad to have you continuing to be a part of Code for America. I do have some questions in the Q&A, so I’m going to start with a question from Benjamin, who says, we heard many high level abstractions on how to improve our society using technology. Do you have any specific recommendations for building a code or a scientific computing infrastructure? And what are the places within government where data analysts, scientists, engineers, et cetera, can have the greatest impact? Furthermore, how do we convince society that we should be investing in these tech or computing sectors to improve the basic functioning of government?

Tim O’Reilly:

Yeah, I guess I would say the first thing that we really need to get across is that technological capability should not be outsourced. We’ve been in the grip of a theory of government that says this tech stuff is just something you should just buy from the outside. And while I think it’s really true that there’s a lot of value and government shouldn’t necessarily be building up this huge capacity and competing with the private sector.

Tim O’Reilly:

It should have the capability to understand and engage with and manage projects. I mean when Jen took a year off and was at the White House, she actually had an experience with someone who was the CIO of a government agency, who could not figure out how to use an iPad. I mean, that’s pretty seriously out of touch with technology. And now at the federal level, you have United States Digital Service, you have ATNF, you have the Defense Digital Service, where you really have these groups that are bringing that capability to come in and say meet with projects. They say, no this contract just doesn’t make sense, so here’s how we can go about solving this problem.

Tim O’Reilly:

And so building the muscle inside government. And I think at the local level this digital services all through. I think the biggest challenge we have is giving them more authority. There’s so many good people in government who are hamstrung. And one of the things, again, I think this is powerful with Code for America is the inside outside play.

Tim O’Reilly:

Because sometimes we can find someone working in government who has the right idea, but because of the way contracting works, they can’t do the thing that they know, and we can do it. So when you think about our work with GetCalFresh, it was really working with the City of San Francisco who knew they had a problem, that their participation rate was really low.

Tim O’Reilly:

And we had a process where bottom up from the outside we could figure out what was wrong. We could build what in tech we call an MVP for how to fix it. Whereas in the traditional way that government’s been hamstrung, they would have had to already know the solution and put out a requirements, documentation, and had a multi-year procurement, which would mean that of course, by the time it was actually awarded, it would be five years out of date, whatever they were building.

Tim O’Reilly:

And we were able to show this is how you do it and get to a point where they go oh, okay, yeah, now we know, now we can start to build, we know what we can build towards. So I think this is inside outside play. But the other thing I would say, Benjamin, you’ve talked about data analysts, scientists and engineers, and maybe that’s because you are one of those people. I think, again, there are many areas for that, but I think we’re also really in need of people with user experience shops, because so much of the work that needs to be done is understanding users and the issues that they have.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

Great. Thank you. A question from Savita, what do you think are immediate or low hanging steps that our local or state governments can take when trying to improve equitable outcomes?

Tim O’Reilly:

Oh, where to begin?

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

And Savita did know too that this is a broad question.

Tim O’Reilly:

Well, boy, that’s like well, what are the biggest problems? It depends where you are. I know certainly in the Bay Area, people struggle a lot with the rise of homelessness and how we fix that. And so there’s a part of me thinks that figuring out. Again, we have to go understand, well, why are people homeless? And part of it there is a lot of work… There’s different homeless populations and some of them need just give them housing.

Tim O’Reilly:

In other cases though, it’s wow, we have a system where people are just not making enough money and our rents are too high. And you go that’s actually not something you’re going to solve with some kind of homeless aid problem. It’s like working on improving the minimum wage, improving lowering the cost of housing and not through, again, this interplay between understanding this operating system analogy is not perfect, but going, oh, zoning is part of the operating system of our city.

Tim O’Reilly:

And if the zoning says you can’t have multi family units, that’s going to basically make them hard to have. Zoning reform is, again, I’m kind of going a little bit more towards policy there, but I do think that ultimately there’s a hierarchy of things that we need to work on. Look at criminal justice reform and the work we’re doing with clear my record. It’s figuring out, oh, here was this broken process by which people could clear their records after they had done their time, so they could get jobs.

Tim O’Reilly:

And we figured out a way how to make that much faster, but the bigger deeper solution is don’t criminalize so many things. Don’t apply the law unequally to some groups rather than others. The range from implementation through policy, we got to work on all those fronts and this room for so many people to pick your place, to try to make a difference.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

Thanks for that. There’s a lot of questions coming in. I’ll go to the next one, which is for any big change you need to have regular wins on the road to big ones or big goals. At the same time if you have too many goals, you may not achieve any goals. What do you think should be the top two to three priorities for Code for America? And what will regular wins be along the way?

Tim O’Reilly:

Well, I think we’ve shown some really powerful things with regard to increasing access to the safety net. And the work that we started with GetCalFresh and we’re now doing with Integrated Benefits, working in a bunch of states. Yeah, you look at we started local, we went to the full state and you got this a lot of other states. But also identify it’s really interesting our work on the earned income tax credit, really began actually through research.

Tim O’Reilly:

Just use a research into job training, believe it or not. It was we’re kind of looking at how do we improve the job training system. And we realized that it was very hard to fix, because a lot of reasons I don’t need to go into. But that the biggest thing that would make people able to take the time to look for jobs was always more money. Here’s this pot of more money that people don’t even realize that they can get. How do we make it easier for people to get their refund from EITC?

Tim O’Reilly:

Know that there’s actual cash benefit that you can get. And it’s funny it was simply by talking to enough people and listening enough you start to go oh, here’s a point of leverage. So I guess what I would say is whatever your problem that you’re trying to solve, go in and do enough user research, and the market will start to talk to you about what is the point of leverage.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

Great. I’m going to ask this next question, which I think is an interesting one. What do you think are the roles of tech and technologists in the fight against misinformation?

Tim O’Reilly:

Well, I think there are pretty clearly important technological fixes that are available. I think the ability of technology platforms to identify misinformation, or actually again, they’re far from perfect. It’s a difficult battle, but it’s not that dissimilar in a lot of ways from the battle against internet spam or credit card fraud. These are things that you can make a lot of progress with the help of our algorithmic genies that kind of can help us.

Tim O’Reilly:

What we really need is the will to do it. I think that will is often sadly lacking, because so many of these things have become polarized. One person says this isn’t misinformation, this is free speech. I guess I believe that it takes some guts on the part of tech leadership to say, I’m sorry, this is what I believe, it’s when a company like Twitter or Facebook takes a stand, we’re all better off.

Tim O’Reilly:

It’s funny because this kind of a de-legitimization of taking a stand when it comes to these platforms. I go, nobody’s telling Rupert Murdoch, oh, you have to fix what you do. It seems perfectly legitimate for the Fox empire to be biased and to have its objectives. And yet if Mark Zuckerberg were to say “Well, this is what I believe.” And that’s certainly been my advice to Mark.

Tim O’Reilly:

I said, “Look stop trying to pretend that somehow you’re going to get all of the values. Either governments has to pass the law, or what do you believe in? And if you really believe that you want to bring people together, you’re going to have to take a stand.” And I think it really hits back to this idea of our overall financial operating system. And that’s one of the things that probably is the part of my work that’s furthest from Code for America in one sense.

Tim O’Reilly:

It’s just this understanding that we have a set of financial algorithms that shape our market. And the most pernicious of them is this idea that increasing corporate profits is a requirement. It’s you can see a company as a kind of machine. And I think about this there’s a statement I have, probably the thing that I’ve said over the years that’s been quoted most often, is I once said years ago, money in a business is like a gas in a car. You go on a road trip and you’re not taking a tour of gas stations, you don’t want to run out.

Tim O’Reilly:

But there’s a thing that occurred to me lately, which is, but if you take a road trip in an SUV, you need more gas than if you have an energy efficient vehicle. So how do we build a more energy efficient vehicle, so you don’t need as much gas? Because this really shapes, if you look at the machine that is Facebook, for example, you go, oh, they’re making all this money, but there’s parts of the machine where they need that money.

Tim O’Reilly:

And it’s not because Mark Zuckerberg needs some more billions on his bank account, it’s because they pay their engineers with rights to stock appreciation, whether it’s options or various other forms. And that stock has to keep going up. That’s putting the gas in the car and they built this enormous SUV that needs that price to keep going up. That’s why Apple has to have suicide level wages in China, so they can give $90 billion in stock buybacks.

Tim O’Reilly:

No, but it’s because their stock has to keep going up because it’s part of the currency. And I go one of the things I would say, if these companies could do most change would be to say oh, we’re actually going to try to decouple ourselves from that master algorithm of our society and to say enough. There’s an old book I read recently by again, Giorgos Kallis, and it’s called Limits.

Tim O’Reilly:

The subtitle is Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalist Should Care. And of course, everybody thinks of Malthus with this cartoonish version, here’s this guy who said population would outrun food production. And he said that’s really not the point because we know Malthus was wrong. Malthus thought that the poor should be kept poor, because that would make them work harder.

Tim O’Reilly:

But the real thing that we should take away from that was that as people became wealthier, they had fewer children. Well, it was the desire for more children, which is why population will continue to outstrip. And he said, “Okay so take that principle and realize that people can want something different.” And so people didn’t need children to work the farm anymore and they started making different choices.

Tim O’Reilly:

And again, he’s making the point in the rich countries, we have met our needs for a whole set of people, right. So we need to start making different choices. And yes, there’s enough to go around, but not if we have this idea that the people who have a lot must always get more. I think in some sense, building companies that don’t always require growth at that level. They’re not gas guzzling machines, so to speak is a real step. We have to build an economy that’s centered more on people as opposed to we just have to make the machine bigger and bigger.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

Right. We have just a few minutes left. I’m going to ask one more question from the Q&A and then we’ll have to close things off. But there is a question here from Christine about that touches on infrastructure, which you mentioned earlier on Tim. And it is if local government IT infrastructure are decades old, should the focus be on building a strong internal backbone, before focusing on building digital services for the public?

Tim O’Reilly:

No, I think you don’t know what backbone you need until you know what services you’re going to try to build. And there’s a lot of the backbone, when you talk about what can be outsourced, a lot of the backbone can be outsourced, particularly in this year of cloud. What can’t be outsourced is that interface to the public and that interface to the policy makers, who are making decisions about what to do.

Tim O’Reilly:

And so I think if you understand what it is that you’re going to do, then you work backwards to the infrastructure. And of course, this is the way that the tech companies work. It’s the whole idea of the lean startup and the minimum viable product. Eric Reese’s idea, by the way, Eric was once for a while, a Code for America board member too. You can just fake it in the beginning infrastructure wise.

Tim O’Reilly:

He has this thing he calls concierge a minimum viable product, which is you literally you pretend it’s automated and you do it with people for a small number of people, until you figure out what works and then you build it and you work backwards to the infrastructure. Can I jump in with one more, which is Barbara Havens, she said to avoid fraud, better identity management for the best recipients of government funds and services seems an issue for government. What cultural barriers we’ll have to overcome?

Tim O’Reilly:

I think the issue of fraud is a difficult one because there is real fraud, but often the mechanisms that government uses to detect fraud are targeted wrong in the same way that we see in so many other areas. Jen was a co-chair of a commission to look at pandemic unemployment insurance here in California over the summer, last summer. And it was really interesting because the fraudsters actually know how to fill out all the paperwork correctly. They’ve automated it at scale.

Tim O’Reilly:

And we had all these checks that were designed to catch individuals who didn’t know what they were doing. So we raised the barrier for legitimate people, because we were trying to deal with fraud, and it didn’t really affect the real fraud. So again, it’s this process of getting in there and really understanding the problem. So I think that that’s really, really important. Anyway, there’s so many more interesting questions here and maybe I’ll see if I can try to answer some of them offline later, but thanks so much.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

Thank you for that Tim. This has actually been a fantastic conversation. I cannot thank you enough for sharing your insights with us today, and really appreciate you taking the time for being such a champion for change and for a better future. Thank you to everyone who’s joined us as well for asking these questions. I wish we had more time with Tim.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

Just a reminder to everyone watching, that there is still time to hear more conversations like this one at Code for America Summit, which is taking place May 12th and 13th. If you’re interested in joining us, tickets are $50 before the end of the day tomorrow, they go up after tomorrow at the end of April. And you can learn more about this exciting virtual event at summit.codeforamerica.org. Thank you all for joining and I hope to see you at summit and thank you Tim so much for your time.

Tim O’Reilly:

You’re so welcome. It’s really fun talking with you, Arlene.

Arlene Corbin Lewis:

It’s my pleasure.

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