The 2021 Code for America Summit was all about embracing change. It marked the first year we held an all-virtual Summit—a difficult task that took months of preparation after the 2020 Summit, originally scheduled for March of 2020 in Washington, D.C., was cancelled due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Like the rest of the world, we had to adapt.
But it wasn’t just the format of the event that embraced change. This year’s theme, designing an equitable government together, seized on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have to enact enormous positive change. Despite the grief, trauma, and exhaustion of an incredibly difficult year, Code for America CEO Amanda Renteria welcomed attendees with a message of hope. “As we look back, it’s been a year of extraordinary challenges for all of us in communities across the country and around the world,” she said. “It’s also been a year of reckoning with the status quo, finally pushing for meaningful progress on issues that have been sidelined for generations. Today, we are seeing policies that can set a new foundation for our country.”
Those policies came alive at Summit, where speakers and attendees shared their visions for a world where government serves everyone with respect—and where the people most impacted by policies and services have a seat at the decisionmaking table, their lived experiences represented in the designs.
As Amanda notes in her opening remarks, “for the first time in my career, in my lifetime, we are seeing an openness to systemic changes in government.” The COVID-19 pandemic, widespread protests in support of Black lives, and a major national election have caused a reckoning in American society. People across the country are reevaluating the role of government to understand how we can better utilize its policies and services to support people and families in their daily lives. From experiments with universal basic income through the pandemic stimulus checks to the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, we’re seeing a historic moment for change—and we don’t want to see that momentum slip by as things start returning to “status quo.”
In conversation with Code for America founder Jen Pahlka, Amanda noted that Code for America stands at the ready to work with government and communities to create systems that work for everyone. But that change doesn’t happen by chance. It takes elected officials, public servants, civic and community leaders, and volunteers to do the hard work of transforming government to work for the people in the digital age. “The work is hard and it’s always been that way,” Jen said.
To see Amanda’s full opening and closing remarks, and her conversation with Jen, watch the videos or read the transcripts below.
Welcome to Summit 2021. I’m Amanda Renteria, and this is my first summit as CEO. I got to say, this isn’t exactly according to plan. I was hoping to be with you in person, but we believe in flexibility and iteration, so here we are, virtually with all of you. Let me begin by thanking our Summit co-chairs, Arlene Corbin Lewis and Ryan Ko, the entire eight-person content committee and Contasia Placide, our event producer, for their tireless work in organizing this summit in these still challenging times and in an all-virtual format. Thank you, all of you for connecting in, and even more importantly, thank you for your commitment to this work.
Given everything that we have and are going through, there has never been a more important time to come together. It will take all of us and all we got to fulfill the theme of this summit, to design an equitable government. As we look back, it’s been a year of extraordinary challenges for all of us in communities across the country and around the world. It’s also been a year of reckoning with the status quo, finally pushing for meaningful progress on issues that have been sidelined for generations. Today, we are seeing policies that can set a new foundation for our country.
As someone from an underserved farm working town in the Central Valley of California, with parents who grew up in the fields as farm workers, I lived my early years with both fear and hope ever-present. A dad from Zacatecas, Mexico who deeply believed in the inspiring vision of America, the land of opportunity and at the same time was too often quieted, discriminated against, looked down upon because of his accent or the deep poverty he experienced. Even as a kid, it never seemed quite right to me that poverty was a whisper of reality in America, or that racial injustices was an accepted truth no one talked about, yet it was all around.
I saw the development of more prisons than schools or hospitals where I grew up, even though education and health outcomes were some of the worst in the entire country. In my lifetime, we became the region with more prisons per capita than any other, while education levels and health outcomes dropped. Given all that, you might wonder why I decided to try and change government, an institution that’s hard to trust for people of color and the daughter of an immigrant father, especially right now, but I have been dedicated to public service because I still believe government is the place we can make change at scale.
I was first a high school teacher in my hometown, later a Chief of Staff in the United States Senate, then National Political Director for a presidential campaign, and the Chief of Operations for California’s Department of Justice, and with each role, I learned the same exact lesson: we needed the system itself to change. A mindset shift, a different perspective, a new way.
As I look back on my 20 years of public service, this is the time I knew would eventually come. For the first time in my career, in my lifetime, we are seeing an openness to systemic changes in government. We are finally naming truths that have existed for many of us for a long time and acknowledging our own power for change. Since our founding a decade ago, a core part of Code for America’s work has always been to create systems that work for everyone, in the center, the people who use government services.
In the wake of the compounding crises of the past year, we realized that we needed to make explicit what has always been foundational in our work. That we have a responsibility to design equitable government services, to be a force for systemic change, and center the needs of the most marginalized. So, as we gather for this Summit, we see the monumental tasks ahead, and a window of opportunity to make fundamental changes in how government works and for whom. How we act now matters for the kind of government and country we’ll have for generations to come.
Our part as Code for America has been to foster a volunteer civic tech network, hello brigades who are out there, and build an organization that partners with governments to rethink and reimagine the way government serves the public, making it easier for people to access food assistance and health coverage by modernizing the online enrollment process, promoting economic justice by helping marginalized communities access tax benefits, and encouraging state governments to adopt auto record clearance and clean slate policies.
As we look to the future, we’re energized by this moment of change and conviction to address some of our society’s toughest challenges, and hopeful that all of us together can make the difference that’s needed. So we stand at the ready to help serve the American people in a human-centered, equitable, and outcomes-focused way. In doing that, we look forward to creating the government we’ve all hoped for. A government by the people, for the people, in the digital age, and that’s a great starting point for our kickoff conversation.
Amanda Renteria: We are so fortunate to have with us today Code for America’s founder and current board member, Jennifer Pahlka. As many of you know, Jen’s a true visionary who’s changed people’s lives for the better through deep partnerships with government around a new model of delivery. To this day, I have Jen on speed dial to ask for her guidance, friendship, humor, and of course, her wisdom. Jen, thanks for joining us today at our virtual Summit.
Jennifer Pahlka: Thank you so much for having me. Big congratulations on getting this Summit off the ground, to you and the entire team and the whole community. We’ve done a lot of these Summits. They are hard when you’re in-person, but they are so worth it. As I’m sure we all know from all of the moving of delivering services online, especially this year, everything is hard when we move it online. So super kudos to everyone. It’s so exciting.
Amanda: Thanks for saying that. We’re just at the beginning. This is one of the kickoff conversations. I’m just excited to have 15 minutes with you to talk about, as we were thinking about it and thinking about Code for America’s origin story, I love to hear, just as we go back 10 years, as you were thinking about this idea of civic tech, Code for America. We’d love to hear where it came from, how the idea became reality, and what those early days were like.
Jennifer: Sure. Well, it actually started a little more than 10 years ago. Let’s go back to 2008. I was working on a big event called Web 2.0. I think that younger members of our community will be like, “What is Web 2.0?” The older ones will remember. At the same time, Barrack Obama was about to win the presidential election. One of the things that got credited for that was this thing called Blue State Digital which is a participatory platform, and hundreds of thousands of people were able to be engaged in his campaign in a way that hadn’t happened really in the past.
The folks that I was working with started asking a really important question which is if this Web 2.0 stuff can get this guy elected, and of course, Barrack Obama got himself elected, if this can be part of getting a visionary and inspiring leader elected, can these principles and values of Web 2.0 also help them govern? I should say, I’m obviously a fan of Barrack Obama, and went on to work as deputy CTO under him, but Code for America has always been a nonpartisan organization. We’ve worked with Democratic and Republican leaders, all across the country. But it was part of the start of the organization.
That also started my journey towards understanding government better and service delivery. To be honest, it radicalized me because it became clear to me the ways in which we’re really failing the American people in delivering services to them in a way that was respectful and dignified and efficient. One day, I was with an old friend who was Teach for America alum, but now he worked for the City of Tucson, and he was describing his woes as a government leader. We came up with the idea of a service year program for the tech industry to go work with government.
I was on an email thread with some Gov 2.0 colleagues, this event, including Tim O’Reilly, board member and now my husband. I threw this idea out there and Tim wrote back immediately and he said, “Can you launch this program by the next Gov 2.0 event?” and we did. Those first fellows came together in January of 2011, so basically 10 years and four months ago, and the brigades started about a year after that, very much driven by the community that we had brought together. Very Bottoms up.
Amanda: That’s great. As that was happening around the space, like brigades, volunteers were getting excited about this, did you see that coming or adjust to it as it was coming?
Jennifer: The whole organization has been about the people who came to it saw and what their own experiences were. That very first day that the fellows came together, we sat them down and said to them, “Why are you here? You could be doing something that is more lucrative, possibly higher status, but you’re here.”
Scott Silverman said to me, I remember so clearly, “I’m here because I believe that government services could be simple, beautiful, and easy to use.” I had not thought of that. He brought that. Karla Macedo was like, “I’m here because I’m a second-generation American and this country means something to me. I have a lot of feelings about this. I have a lot of feelings about how it should serve my community.” I hadn’t thought about that. The brigades came around because other people said, “I can’t come to San Francisco for a year, but I want to serve my community.” I hadn’t thought about that.
It became really a platform for the ideas of a lot of people with a lot of different perspectives that you could never have put into the original idea. I think it also, really importantly, became a platform for learning. It’s not like when Code for America started, we knew how to do this. We learned how to do it, not just because we had these brilliant fellows, but because amazing government partners who taught us what we needed to know.
Amanda: I think this idea of government as beautiful, government as delivering services to all people in a beautiful way is pretty remarkable, and still a vision that we talk a lot about at Code for America, network still talks about, and the vision we still are trying to strive for. As you were thinking through this and going through it, how did you know that Code for America was going to be around a while, that it was out of startup phase and really moving in the direction of a movement beginning?
Jennifer: I never really thought about it that way because the way it started is like Monday, you have the most amazing revelation. Your fellows tell you something that is mind-blowing, and you see all this potential, or they finally get the data they’ve been waiting for, and they start building, or you understand something you’ve never understood before, and you have the best job in the world. The next day, you’re like, “This is never going to work.” [chuckles] A complete disaster. Because government is so big, and what it needs to do for the American people is so big. I think that may be averaged out to like, “Okay.”
Amanda: You have some of those conversations, Jen, about, “Yes, we have this idea. Let’s do it,” and then explore the reality of. [chuckles]
Jennifer: Most of what I do now is talk to people who are doing this work, whether it’s Code for America or USDS or 18app or any of the universities that are doing this, all this huge community of people or people in government who may or may not be working with one of us. That’s the consistent theme. We have the best jobs in the world, and we have the hardest jobs in the world. I know I sound bipolar when I say this about one day is great, the next day, you’re just curled up in fetal position, crying, but that’s the work. The work is hard and it’s always been that way.
I never wanted Code for America to be one of those organizations that persist for the sake of persisting. We wanted to be an organization that survived because we had visible, tangible human impact. When I look at the organization today, I still see that. I never wanted it to be surviving to survive. I never looked for that moment. We had projects that people were excited about. They showed some way that was somehow different from what went before. That definitely meant to me that there was energy for continuing.
Amanda: When you think about an organization that’s starting up and moving forward, those early accomplishments, those early wins or the tangible things that you’re doing really make a huge difference. As Code for America was going through that phase of, “Hey, what are you about? What are you doing?” What were those early accomplishments?
Jennifer: Well, I think a lot of people will point to some of the apps that got a lot of attention and got a lot of use. They’re incredible. The very first year, we had Discover BPS, Discover Boston Public Schools, which solved an enormous problem for the city and parents who couldn’t figure out how to know which school their kids were eligible to attend. The team put something up in a matter of weeks that was simple, beautiful, and easy to use, like Scott Silverman had said. What they said about that, what they told us at BPS, the Boston Public School was you changed our relationship with parents.
Then you had the next year the New Orleans team do that with blight status which they told us, “You changed our relationship with the people in our neighborhoods who are fighting for resources who are trying to improve their communities.” That made an enormous amount of difference. Then the next year, you had the team that famously refused to leave like they finished their fellowship year. They were like, “No, we are just getting started.” We’re going to make half dozen prototypes that are going to help us understand the problems in service delivery of SNAP. One of those prototypes was GetCalFresh, which now is responsible for an enormous amount of service delivery in SNAP.
Also, probably that relationship was the foundation for things like, PEDT that we saw in the pandemic, not just the technology foundation but the relationship foundations. Probably, in some ways, projects like that are responsible for SNAP doing better in the pandemic than things like unemployment insurance which didn’t do so well. In the apps and the people who made the apps, I think were the obvious accomplishments. I think the less obvious accomplishment is that we brought people together in a way that hadn’t really happened before and we built a field.
Back when we started, the technologists and the policymakers just didn’t talk. They talk now like– We come together. We have a dialogue. We’re trying to build something together that isn’t just bits and bytes and isn’t just words on a piece of paper that make a policy, but that’s a service that’s meaningful to people. I think the creation of that space and so many people, not just Code for America who come to create that space and redefine the work, that’s probably a bigger accomplishment in the long run.
Amanda: I agree and it’s been fun to dive into it and hear all the different groups coming together about how they view not just Code for America but just the evolution of the ecosystem.
Jennifer: Yes. No, it’s amazing. it’s so much fun. Now, Amanda, it’s my turn to ask the questions. [chuckles]
Amanda: Okay. All right. I’m getting ready. I think I’m ready. [chuckles]
Jennifer: Okay. It’s been 10 years and four months to be accurate. Give us a snapshot of where we are now, particularly because it’s this moment, how does the transition to a new presidential administration create more opportunities for this reimagining of government?
Amanda: The way I think about it is I really hope that as we look back at this moment that it was is the tipping point for what we can become as government for what this country can unleash in terms of the potential of the people in it. When you think about it, we’ve not seen something like this since the Great Depression in terms of the investments that came at that time, and what I hope is that our political leaders, our volunteers, our state leaders, really that people demand to say we want a government that works for us. When you go back to those Great Depression investments, we had a country that was willing to look at itself and say, “What do we need here, and how do we have the courage and vision to really not just solve the crisis but set a foundation for what we can be?” That’s when we did see social security come in, when we looked at some regs like child labor laws, when we invested in dams and roads, in fact hydroelectric power back then. We actually created that during the Great Depression.
When I think about this moment we’re in now, we have a real chance to do that again. As I look back on it, there was this perspective and this view that government had a real important role to play at that period of time. I think if you look back, most people look at it and say, “Government played their rightful role and really did unleash potential.” Now, I’ll say potential for some, not all, but it put in place investments that were really important to what would happen to America today and over the course of the next century.
Jen: It’s so funny because, Amanda, you’ve taken the helm of Code for America when we don’t have an office, but you may not even know since I love that you brought up the great depression and the creation of the capacity that government needs at the time that it needs it because we’re absolutely in that moment. You may not know that our main conference room is named after Francis Perkins, who created so many of those programs. I love what you’re naming here. It’s so resonant. Do you see leaders today and in the current landscape open to designing these equitable programs that work for everybody?
Amanda: I do. I really do. You’re seeing it by who now is in cabinet positions. You’re seeing it over the last several years of different leaders bringing up voices and we’re naming equitable outcomes. If we’re going to talk about a government by the people for the people, it must mean all people. Really, I think that’s our generation’s charge is how do you create a government that supports what life is like in the 21st century. The reason I’m hopeful about that is because I do think we have a real understanding now around transformative change.
When you think about people or policies or perspectives, we’re at a transition point for all of those in terms of the people who are now leading our government, the lived experience of women at the forefront, people of color at the forefront. Really thinking of Deb Holland, native American leader who’s been there for a long time is now leading secretary of interior. I think that opens up a whole new set of views and perspectives and really one that matches who we are as a country today. Their second piece which is it’s not just about putting those people in perspectives in place but having the kind of policies that really are shaping our future.
The idea of broadband and child care and elder care or climate change and a whole new generation of how we think about healthcare and social services delivery, we’ve got to have the policies in place for that kind of thing. We’re seeing it now. Those discussions, USDS, a lot of the conversations that you started back when are now surfacing. Then, of course, perspective change. The idea that it used to be government, please get out of the way, I think has really now come to surface to say actually we need government to work and how do we all do our part in making that happen again.
Jennifer: Absolutely. This change at the federal level, what are you seeing from state and local governments?
Amanda: You are seeing state and local governments. Frankly, over the last several years, they’ve started to build up their digital innovation programs and their digital teams. I think this is why this year is so interesting because it’s time to now put the federal and state together in order to really say we’re going to have a different kind of service delivery. I know we’re almost out of time. We’re at like three minutes. Jen, I’d love to hear before we head out of this, I’d love to just hear any closing thoughts that you have about Code for America, where we are, where world is today.
Jennifer: Well, you said it all, Amanda. I think it’s about having a different table. It’s we’re setting a different table so that we can get different outcomes. There’s different people at those tables. People who represent different viewpoints and technology and policy and service delivery, all coming together, understanding who the American people are today and what they need. It’s so exciting. I also have one thing since our time is running out that I would really like to say. You came on board as CEO of this organization during one of the most difficult moments imaginable. People here may not know, you started when the shelter in place had already come down.
You’ve been unable to meet the people who make up the organization you’re leading in person, and you’ve led this organization through an enormous scaling. We served six times as many people in the year since you’ve been here than the previous year, and those people needed this. Not only did you handle that in stride, but you’re taking Code for America to places that we could scarcely imagine when we started it a decade ago. It’s very personal for me because it is every founder’s dream to hand the leadership of their organization over to someone as strong and as capable and as empathetic and as grounded in your values and as brilliant as you are, Amanda.
I literally pinch myself some days making sure I’m not dreaming. I want to thank you for taking the helm and being exactly who we needed at a time of great need for the organization, for our partners, and for the country. You have to accept all of this love– I know you’re getting uncomfortable– for all the people who could become part of this work because you were there, for all the people who needed these benefits. I know there’s still a long way to go, but I feel like with you at the helm, we’re going to get there. Thank you.
Amanda: I’m so glad we only have like seconds to go because I’m so uncomfortable, and incredibly grateful that I get to really build on this foundation. Thank you, Jen, for having us, for being here with us, for building this, for having this vision. God, what a way to kick it off.
Jennifer: Have a great Summit.
Amanda: [chuckles] Okay.
Thank you so much for attending the 2021 Code for America Summit. We had more than 1,700 participants from 47 states and territories and international representation from Code for Canada, Code for Pakistan, and others across the Code for All network. As the Summit draws to a close, I want to thank all of our panelists, keynote speakers, track session presenters, workshop leaders, and participants, and all of you for joining us and sharing your perspectives and being a part of this incredible community.
I also want to personally thank our entire CfA staff because when I first started, though, I was a bit of a fish out of water. Now, a year and 12 days later, we’ve figured out how to swim upstream. I am lucky to work with such a committed caring team. I want to give a special thank you to our Summit co-chairs, Arlene and Ryan, the entire content committee, Tyrek, Cyd, Don, Amy, Simone, and Dan, and our event producer, Contasia, for all the work they’ve done in the past several months to make sure we could do a virtual gathering and have a space for all of us.
By the way, our content committee published a blog post on our race, ethnicity, and gender breakdowns of our presenters. A best practice that I hope we begin to see it more at tech and government events. After all, we say it often, we are what we measure. We set out this year planning the summit, knowing it would feel different, be different as we brainstormed what would be the best use of our time together. We thought that it was really important to focus on the work itself. What will it take to do the kind of work where real equitable outcomes are possible as a matter of practice, not chance?
We know it doesn’t happen by chance. It takes dedicated government officials like Lieutenant Governor Gilchrist of Michigan or Deputy Secretary Terry Ricks of Louisiana, who are leading systems change to be more responsive and serve all people. It takes committed public servants who are on the front lines pushing to make processes easier and faster, centering real people and doing the hard work of transforming the way bureaucracies work for a new age. It takes volunteers, all the hours brigades have put into helping someone file taxes and apply for benefits or building technology systems, to enable rapid response by government when people are in crisis.
To redesign those systems, we’ve known and learned, especially this year, that we must surface the tough complex conversations, ask the hard questions, and acknowledge the need to do this work differently if we want different, better, and more equitable outcomes. We can’t make real change without real people. The research to understand what people go through, the honest work of listening and learning and welcoming people with lived experience to share, and, of course, the courage to do it differently because quoting my friend, Mayor Tubbs, “Staying the same is not an option.”
You heard from many leaders pushing innovation, voices like Sheena Meade, Antoinette Carroll, Stacy Dean, Lynn Overmann, Kathy Pham, and Trooper Sanders. From the start, Jen Pahlka shared the beginnings of the summit, the vision of where we are today with all of you as a movement, as a collective. I know our side conversations weren’t the same in this virtual forum as they are in the hallways of a typical summit, but the spirit of connection and collaboration is even more alive in the work we have been doing together over the last year.
The gov tech sprints in states and cities across America, the digital and policy coalitions that are forming around issue areas, the best practices combined with research around human-centered design, the growing connection with advocacy groups in tech to deliver meaningful outcomes, and the hundreds of people and Jennifer or Anastasis meeting that show up in solidarity to hit our goals of diverse tech talent in government.
I’m also thinking about all those who are in government now, USDS, 18F, all the tech fellows out there, CIOs, CTOs, and their state and local teams, and really all the departments and agencies represented today from around the country. Making this ecosystem even more robust, our summit sponsors, philanthropic donors, corporate sponsors, and individual donors whose generosity enables us to convene this community and push our work forward. We are so grateful that you’re with us.
It’s been a really special couple of days, and that’s thanks to everyone who showed up because of your commitment to designing an equitable government together. You all inspire me and all of us at Code for America every day. As the poet, Amanda Gorman wrote in The Hill We Climb, which she delivered so beautifully at the presidential inauguration. She said, “We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be.”
As we sit here, wherever you are today, listening in, watching from home, we’ve all changed a lot over the past year-plus. Heck, here I am in our empty headquarters at Code for America planning what it will mean to return to what shall be. Here’s my proposal, the next 365 days, till we meet again, is perhaps the most important time to do the work to shape what shall be for all of us.
It’s no longer good enough to just think of government as a building made of marble and concrete or people line up from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Instead, we must do this work to change it together. To help build programs that are easy to access and center real people, design systems that write the historic wrongs of racism and discrimination to show what’s possible and develop meaningful sustainable solutions to the injustice we are seeing every day. To keep our ear to the ground in communities and volunteer networks to make sure we hear real people feedback.
We all have a role to play to make sure we’re building a more equitable government so that it is a welcoming door, no matter when and how you’re interacting with it. A place where people can go to access the services, all the services they’re eligible for, or you feel seen like your needs are understood, and that government is there to help. In its simplest form, that is what our government can and should do. It should be efficient, accessible, and without a doubt, equitable.
Let me leave you with this final thought. This change won’t happen by accidents, and it won’t happen overnight, but we have a unique moment right now to change systems for a generation. By working together with a shared vision and common purpose and conviction, we can create the change that’s needed and move forward to what shall be, to end where we began. Let’s work so that shall be is an equitable government, one by the people, for the people in the digital age. Thank you everyone for joining us for this year’s Code for America Summit.