Forward Focus: Scott Johnston

A conversation with Code for America’s Chief Product Officer
A headshot of Chief Product Officer Scott Johnston with the following quote:

2023 was a transformative year for Code for America in many ways, including the fact that we welcomed a new set of faces to Code for America’s executive team. To kick off 2024, we’re featuring conversations with these leaders in our “Forward Focus” series—highlighting their journey to our organization, their vision for the future of government services, and how we can build a new digital age that works for all. First up in this series is our Chief Product Officer, Scott Johnston.

Tell us a bit about your professional journey and what brought you to Code for America. What excites you most about our work? 

I’m a longtime product manager with a background in hardware and software engineering, and I’ve always taken great joy from building tools that are useful to others. It feels like this magic way to create time for people. Most of my career has been focused on productivity tools like Google Drive, and Google Meet. Code for America is building products that are the ultimate productivity tools, focused on connecting people with government programs that can serve their basic needs. I’m very excited to apply what I have learned building software products to this area.

Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence are rapidly redefining the ways tech fits into our daily lives. What do you think is going to define the “new digital age” we’ve entered? 

It is such an exciting time to be building software. The progress in artificial intelligence has opened a world of new possibilities in what we can accomplish with technology. That being said, I think it is really important to remember that the people we serve are coming to one of our products to accomplish a task—whether that’s applying for a benefits program, filing a tax return, or some other interaction with a government service—and they don’t care what technology is used to help them complete it. So you need to start with foundational design principles like critical client journeys, not the technology itself.

What do you see as the most important factors for ensuring government prioritizes equity in digital service delivery? 

One of Code for America’s superpowers is that we work in teams that closely partner program and policy specialists with technology experts. This allows us to consider equity across the entire delivery process, not just within the technology itself.  For digital delivery to reach everyone, it needs to be integrated with local initiatives, community organizations, and the government workers who are part of service delivery. Within the digital service itself, I believe transparency in decision making and outcomes will have the most impact on equity.

What makes you most excited about the state of civic tech and the year ahead? 

The tools we use to build software are improving in leaps and bounds thanks in part to an infusion and renewed awareness of AI. These new technologies allow us to rapidly create working prototypes, and iterate quickly on the products we build. Over more than a decade, Code for America has built trust with state partners as a nationally recognized nonprofit in civic tech. As a result, we are in a unique position to work with administrators and community organizations to leverage these tools to create better software in civic tech. The low-code tools are also getting better at a rapid pace, which will allow us to bring our program and policy experts into the build process. Infusing subject matter experts into the creation process results in solutions that more closely map to the policy landscape. This can and will dramatically increase their impact.

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