Leading the Field: Amy Paris

A conversation with the Director of Identity Management Solutions at Promise
a quote from the interview with Amy Paris on a purple background

For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. For Pride Month this year, we’re lifting up the voices of LGBTQ leaders who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect.   This week, we spoke with Amy Paris, the Director of Identity Management Solutions at Promise, a technology company that builds human-centered software solutions for governments and all the people they serve. At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the author.

How did you find yourself in the world of government technology? Were there formative experiences that set you on the path to the work you’re doing now?

In 2010, I found myself working in the Office of the Federal CIO after a cryptic interview in a coffee shop. It was a tough job, but there was something formative in the policy work I did there, helping shape the future of Cloud adoption in government, among other things. I had a great mentor, learned a ton about how bureaucracy works, and it’s also the first job where I learned how to set work-life boundaries.

But more than that, I owe most of my career victories to two people. One is my grandmother, who came to this country as a young woman soon after surviving the Nazi occupation of Greece during World War II. She taught me that life is short (so you don’t want to have regrets at the end), that helping others is a virtue, and taking yourself too seriously will cause the “Greek Gods” to strike you down. The other I met by chance in a Chinese restaurant in 2003. Phil West, then the director of Common Cause Rhode Island, had a pitch: We can make the government better. We can make it less corrupt, and we can make it care more about the people it serves. I helped Phil and many others get an anti-corruption ballot measure passed in Rhode Island that next year, and I’ve continued chasing that pitch ever since.

You formerly worked with the United States Digital Service—can you tell us a little bit about your work to improve the federal government’s relations with the LGBTQ+ community?

I joined USDS in May of 2020. It was a tough time to exist for all of us, but some communities were having it a lot harder than others. That wasn’t a new thing, but I did feel like I might have the power to do something about it, however small.

In January of 2021, I led a discovery sprint with a pretty broad scope: How could we make government forms better for underserved communities? We found there were entrenched standards on collecting race and ethnicity data that had existed since 1997. But for the LGBTQ+ community there was far more limited research and practice on how government should refer to us, ask us about ourselves, and perhaps most importantly, allow us to self-identify.

For the LGBTQ+ community there was far more limited research and practice on how government should refer to us, ask us about ourselves, and perhaps most importantly, allow us to self-identify.

During that sprint, the State Department told us that they were going to add an X gender marker to U.S. passports. I was lucky enough to be invited to join colleagues there and from other agencies to figure out how to get “X” on physical passports, code it on backend systems, and allow for interoperability across government.

The first of two main goals I wanted to make sure of was that we conducted user research—defining what X meant with the people not for them. This included people both within the LGBTQ+ community and outside of it. We learned that people didn’t just want a good definition to be clear and inclusive—they wanted it to protect their privacy and safety, too. We also wanted to base the work on burden reduction and the Paperwork Reduction Act. People spend too much time filling out forms already, so gathering legal paperwork to “prove” your gender was absurd. We moved to self-attestation of gender: No one is more qualified to tell the government who you are than yourself. That resonated both with the community, and with most people overall.

What’s a challenge you’ve worked on recently that led to a change you were proud to see happen?

I was the strategy and evaluation lead for the IRS Direct File pilot, starting in January 2023 and leaving at the end of 2024 filing season. There were times I didn’t think we were going to make it. There were intensive lobbying efforts to destroy Direct File from the outside, and even after surmounting that challenge, it took a massive collaborative effort to succeed. In addition to the team from USDS, we had folks within the Internal Revenue Service who were ready to adopt new ways of working like prototyping and starting small while solving massive technological and bureaucratic problems. Add to that the work done by 18F, two contractors, and the folks at Code for America and elsewhere working to ensure state tax integration. It was so exciting to see it all come together as a team effort. We helped people save a lot of money and stress.

We know that because we asked people, even though we didn’t get to survey users who dropped off, which needs to happen in the future. That said, the initial results of our Direct File customer survey are stunning: 90% of users who submitted a tax return with Direct File ranked their experience as Excellent or Above Average, and 86% of respondents said that their experience with Direct File increased their trust in the IRS. That’s the kind of thing that rebuilds fundamental faith in government and democracy. I can think of few higher callings given the challenges facing our country.

That’s the kind of thing that rebuilds fundamental faith in government and democracy.

What about the work you’re doing now makes you hopeful?

It’s amazing to me that late-stage capitalism has broken government so much that a for-profit company with a mission of helping underserved communities can actually make money. People need help dealing with the effects of climate change and other existential challenges, both in terms of applying for and receiving aid. In many places, government can’t fill that gap on its own, so it’s great to be in the private sector with my colleagues at Promise who really care about the people they’re helping. They’re implementing many of the strategies I hold dear from civic tech, like designing with people not for them and reducing user burden. I had no idea those ideas had spread so far, and that does give me hope.

I also still get to mentor, which is one of life’s great joys. I see younger people with lots of energy getting excited about the problems we have left to solve. That really gives me hope.

How has the civic tech ecosystem changed since you entered the field? In what ways have you been able to change it for those who come next?

When I joined civic tech I didn’t even know it was called civic tech. Back then I was more of a writer than a practitioner, contributing to policies like Cloud First and the Federal Source Code Policy. I knew about the concept of what we called “citizen-facing digital services” back then, but at the time it felt more focused on improving website experiences than transforming service delivery.

By the time I joined USDS there were so many more examples of that systemic change I sought, including the Subject Matter Expert Qualification Assessment hiring program I was lucky enough to work on for a while, Login.gov, and improving the pandemic response through user research and building better data pipelines. That’s the kind of work that inspired me, and it’s the kind of work I’ve tried to make the norm. I’ve tried to make sure that civic tech always has its mind on all the people we serve, with a long-term and inclusive perspective. Civic tech is at its best when it’s not just being innovative, but also building capacity at government agencies for sustained technological and cultural change. 

Related stories