We’re Going to Need a Bigger Tent

Lessons on delivery-driven government from Jennifer Pahlka at Code for America Summit

The eighth annual Code for America Summit brought together an audience that included public servants from 42 states, 196 cities, and 10 different countries. They were joined by hundreds of people from the nonprofit sector, from the government contracting ecosystem, as well as activists, advocates, and the Brigade volunteer network. In front of that audience of 1,300, Code for America founder and executive director Jennifer Pahlka spoke about where we came from, where we’re going, and why we need to bring more people with us.

“You’re here because you’re trying to do something really hard and really important. And that’s make government work as it should.”

The idea of Code for America was born 10 years ago, inspired by a series of conversations Jennifer had with a frustrated public servant who knew there must be a better way to make government work in the digital age, but felt ill equipped to do so. In many cases, when trying to change government systems that feel immovable, there’s a temptation to “go rogue” to make a difference. Changing how government works requires courage, but going rogue can also hold us back from bringing everyone into the tent. Too often, the idea that there are tech people and non-tech people divides us—the reality is that everyone who wants to make government work is on the same team.

“It takes an enormous amount of courage to say that what we’ve always done may feel safe, but it’s not going to get the job done.”

Luckily, as the years have gone by and the proof points become more common, there’s less of a need to go rogue to change how government operates. Jennifer walked the Summit audience through how Code for America is showing what’s possible with government services so good, they inspire change. We’re teaching others how to do it themselves through a new form of government—delivery-driven government—where not just tech but policy and operations are driven by user needs and delivery. And we’re building a movement of people who believe in delivery-driven government, and are ready to make it real in their own communities. And for all of them, we’re going to need a bigger tent.

“I want all of us together to look forward. We’re going to look towards where this work goes next. We’re going to look at what we can do to build a more fair, just and equitable systems that govern us and to whom we can bring into the tent to work with us and grow the movement.”

To hear Jennifer’s presentation in full, watch the video or read the transcript below.


Jennifer Pahlka:

Hi. Good morning. Big thank you to Cori and Dan. It has been a real pleasure to enjoy the event this year and the lead-up to it, having the two of them chair. And I’m so excited for what they put together. And welcome to all of you to the eighth Code for America Summit. I really think it’s such a remarkable event. It is every year. It is particularly this year because you come together from all over the country, and in fact there are people here from all over the world. And you’re here because you’re trying to do something really hard and really important. And that’s make government work as it should.

There are people in government from 42 states, 196 cities, and about 10 different countries represented here, which is totally amazing to me. And I’d like to give a special welcome, to start, to all the public servants in the audience. Now I know many of you have been public servants or will become public servants, hint, hint. But for those of you who are doing these incredibly difficult jobs today, I would just like you to raise your hand. And can we all give them a round of applause? Raise your hands. Raise your hands. Thank you. Awesome. Thank you for all you do.

You are not the only ones here of course. Others have come. It’s still up to all of us. You’re joined by people from the nonprofit sector. If you work for a nonprofit, can you raise your hand? Excellent. You guys are awesome. How about advocates and activists, maybe some of the same people. Who’s here from academia? Yes. A couple of you. Thank you for joining us. What about industry? We have the best people from the government contracting ecosystem here. Industry folks, welcome. You’re the awesome. Last but not least, I’m sure there’s others of you. But can we give a warm welcome to all of the people from our amazing Code for America Brigades. Raise your hands people. Where are you all? There you are. Yeah, excellent. Thank you, all of you. All 1300 of you are going to make the next two days something really, really special. But the thing is that designing and delivering better government is really about more than the people that we have here today or the people watching on a live stream, or even the about 10,000 people who’ve ever come together for this event. It’s about more than even the tens of thousands of people who might identify as working in civic tech or public interest tech or digital government, whatever your term of choice might be.

The way of making government work, that we are all gathered here to talk about, is let’s be honest, still pretty far from the mainstream. There are 22 million people working in government across 30,000 jurisdictions in the US alone. And ultimately, we’re going to need to welcome all of these colleagues into the fold. For this way of working to become the new way that government works for people. We need everybody to be part of this movement. We need everyone in a big tent, this big tent. And that’s actually what I want to talk about today, making a bigger tent and getting everyone into it. But before we fearlessly charge into the future of a bigger tent, I would like to look back for just a moment.

A lot of you have shared with me how you got started in this work, what made you decide that you wanted to do things differently or what made you want to help make government work better be how you make your community better. I’d like to share a little bit about how I got started. I’m just going to pull up an email that I sent on July 27th, 2009. I sent this email to two colleagues about an event that I was helping produce. It was called the Gov 2.0 Summit, not to be confused with the Code of America Summit but actually there’s a lot in common. This just a while ago. So you can’t read it but I’m going to read it to you. There’s the date, almost 10 years ago. I wrote to my colleagues, one of whom I’m now married to and is sitting in the front row.

“I had an inspiring weekend hanging out with Andrew Greenhill, who is chief of staff for the mayor of Tucson. He’s in that space where he’s just exasperated with how IT works in city government and he sees there’s a better way and he feels compelled to figure out how to get it there, but he knows he’s ill-equipped. He talked about how severe the budget cuts are and how devastating the impacts are going to be on Tucson citizens if they don’t figure out some new ways of doing things, specifically reducing administrative and overhead costs and getting citizens more involved. Sample quote from him,” I am still reading from the email. “‘I’m ready to go rogue. There aren’t any other viable options. I just don’t know how to do it.'” And still reading form the email. “One idea I brainstormed with him was Code for America, roughly based on Teach for America.” And then I go on in the email to describe what became the original Code for America Fellowship program, which we started recruiting for about six months after I sent this email.

So I look back at this email from almost 10 years ago now, and it strikes me that where we have been can tell us a little bit about where we’re going next. As we move towards building a bigger tent, let’s talk about what holds us back from doing that. And the first thing that comes to mind of course is that idea that we need to go rogue just to do the job that we’re supposed to do, just to serve people through government in the way that we know that they should be served. Anyone here felt that? I know that some of you have because you’ve told me that. You’ve told me that many times. It takes an enormous amount of courage to say that what we’ve always done may feel safe but it’s not going to get the job done. And it can feel like you’re going rogue and that there’s going to be hell to pay. And sometimes there is hell to pay. I’d like to say that when we have that courage to stand up and say we’ve got to try something different, it always turns out perfectly. We make great digital services, make them better and faster and cheaper, we serve people better, we’re always the hero. And sometimes we are, and celebrate that here today.

But the reality is that what we’re all doing is learning. And learning requires the space to make mistakes. Even if they’re small mistakes, unfortunately there are those who want to jump on even the smallest mistake and make a big deal out of it, even when we know we’ve avoided a much larger mistake. There is more than one person here today in this room for whom it’s been my great honor to offer a shoulder to cry on when things didn’t go the way that we’d hoped them to. And that is part of the work that we do together and it’s part of the real work to have that courage, continuing to do it, keeping going because you know it’s the right thing and you hope the next person will have to have a little bit less courage. That is courage on your part, and I really want to honor that.

But the courage that is required to change how government works, I will say does remain a barrier to bringing everybody into this big tent that we need. There’s another barrier I see when I read this email, looking back. Back then, as Andrew said, there were the government people like him, and then there were the tech people, the folks that I was supposed to bring in. And too often that idea that there are tech people and non-tech people keeps us apart and it divides us. Really, there are just people. There are people who want to make this work. And it’s really whoever shows up to drive change. That’s what Andrew said to me, “We need to support the people who self-identify as ready to drive change.” It’s anybody that wants to do that that we need to welcome in. We are all part of this.

And then when I move, from looking back, into the present, today, I see more things that can make it hard to bring everybody into the tent. And one of those is that the bar keeps moving. Now this is a good thing, but it can make it difficult. So what do I mean by that? So, for example, our work with our partners at the state of California on delivering SNAP, food assistance, is a great example of closing the participation gap in the program by continually streamlining the application process and making the benefit more and more accessible to the people who really need it. And we’ve done this through an iterative process of listening to users over the course of many years now. And you’re going to hear a bunch more about this and hear some great, exciting announcements from Caitlin Docker and Kim McCoy-Wade tomorrow. So I don’t want to talk too much.

But you’re also going to hear about how we started to run essentially the same play, streamlining processes, to increase access on a very different problem, the problem of people who’s criminal records have been expunged or reclassified by the law but their criminal records don’t reflect it. So these two projects, the SNAP and the clearing the records, started out very similar, but they are very different today. In records clearance, we really hit a wall. We went through about four major versions of this service that makes it easier for people to apply for records clearance, and then we realized that no matter how streamlined or accessible we made the service, it was never really going to get the job done. Moreover, we realized that the process doesn’t really need to exist at all.

You’re going to hear about this also from Cristine and Evonne tomorrow. And I don’t want to entirely spoil what happened next, but let me give you just a little bit of a teaser. So Clear My Record, this project I’m talking about, has been written and rewritten and rewritten about six times now. In fact, the team will say it’s many more. And the new product isn’t a version of the original product at all. What we’re using to clear records today bears little resemblance to what we started with because the real opportunity wasn’t to streamline a process. In this case, it was the petitions process. The real opportunity was just to get rid of it all together and to instantly and automatically clear those criminal records.

So does writing a piece of software six times sound like an enormous waste of time? It is literally the antithesis of how it’s supposed to be done in government, right? The whole point of gathering all those requirements for your RFP is that you’re supposed to get it exactly right the first time. And then you’re supposed to live with whatever comes back for like 20 years. But let me assure you that all of this rework has been absolutely worth it because we’re closer and closer to something that gets the job done at the scale that we need it to happen. If we had built it once or twice, or even three or four times, we had built something that makes a hard process a little bit better. And that’s good. But ultimately, it wouldn’t get the job done. Getting the job done means clearing all the eligible criminal records as the law intended. Getting the job done is making sure that no one has to suffer the burden of a record years after voters and elected officials said they shouldn’t have to. And now we’re on our way to that goal because we did it in a way that basically breaks just about every basic tenet of government IT procurement in a traditional sense. I should hasten to say we did not break any laws or rules. Everything is very above board, but this is not what we are taught to do.

The last few years at Summit, we’ve talked a lot about how user-centered and iterative and data-driven approaches aren’t just how to do technology in government. It’s the right approach for policy and operations. It’s the right approach for all of what makes up government. Now we’re seeing examples of what look like tech projects truly driving new process, new policy and new law, and how what we learn from users doesn’t just help us streamline processes, but throw them out entirely. And sometimes subtraction can be much more valuable than addition when it comes to really meeting user needs. So this takes an enormous amount of political will. And it’s really set the bar a lot higher. My point is, I’d love to see more of it but you don’t have to start there. We are all meeting our partners where they are, at the right place to get started in this work. And we need to welcome that and understand that while we hold that high bar of where we can really, really make change.

So there are a lot of reasons why it can be hard to bring people into the big tent. But despite all this, they are still coming. Our tent is still getting bigger and, happily, a little bit more crowded. Not many seats out there empty. And that’s because as more and more of us practice this approach and get the results that people notice, we have to go rogue less. At Code for America, we are very intentional about this. What we do and what we want all of you to do are basically just three things. Sorry, get back to the slide. I want you to show what’s possible by making government services so good they inspire change. And you’re going to see countless of examples of this from your peers over the next couple of days here together. Two, you got to help others do that, help them practice what we call delivery-driven government. You can read more about it at the URL on the slide. It’s basically each one teach one as they say. That is why we are here. And more of us are here than ever.

And I want all of you to be people like Rebecca Woodbury from city of, yes, she must be here, from San Rafael. So I think Rebecca has brought more and more people to this event every single year. Thank you, Rebecca. People like Dave Wilkinson, who I think is bringing a whole cohort from the state of Connecticut here for the first time. Woo, Connecticut. San Rafael. So people like you, you are more than ambassadors for a way of thinking, you are actually exemplars of our third strategy. Number three, build a movement of people who believe that government can work for people and are willing to make it real in their own lives, in their own communities. Elevate and celebrate that work. And ultimately, that brings us back to number one. Because then we have more examples of what’s possible and we drive this flywheel together. So this flywheel, this virtuous cycle, is why despite how hard we all know this work can be, we’re still going to need a bigger tent.

Now many of you know that I announced a search for a new executive director to succeed me at Code for America last week. I want to thank all of you who responded to that news so generously and thoughtfully and positively. I’m really proud that the organization is at a place, it’s in a position to merit new leadership. There’s something so valuable there that it’s worth resourcing it to take this energy to a greater scale and greater speed. Now when people talk about succession and nonprofit, they often use that metaphor of handing off the baton, like in a relay race. For me, it’s more like I’m moving to a new position on the field where I can play a different role in moving the ball towards the goal. I am definitely going to be handing off my job to an executive director, to be sure. But it’s not so that I can go rest on the sidelines or run some other race. I am definitely looking for someone else to play quarterback, but I’m still going to be in the game and you’re still going to see me here next year.

Thank you.

And if you know me well, you know that the only thing I like better than a very half-baked sports metaphor, because I really don’t actually understand sports at all, is mixing metaphors. So stay with me. For the foreseeable future, I tend to be playing that game right alongside all of you but under an even bigger tent. So this change in my role is part of why I’ve spent some time recently looking back into old emails and things like that. But today and tomorrow I want all of us together to look forward. We’re going to look towards where this work goes next. We’re going to look at what we can do to build a more fair, just and equitable systems that govern us and to whom we can bring into the tent to work with us and grow the movement, especially all you people who are here for the first time. If you’ve been here for a number of events, please adopt a first-timer and make them feel welcome. Yes, we are going to need a bigger tent. We’re going to fill it together. And we’re going to make our government really work for all people. Because when I look around this room and I think about what this community represents, I could not be more excited and hopeful.

My final words to you are, if we could get that slide up, everyone is coming but it’s still up to us. Thank you.

So I hope I have left you on a positive note. But I also want to remind you that today is about really the reality of this work. And we have some tough realities to deal with. And our next speaker is going to talk about some of those tough realities, especially as it relates to cyber security and the erosion of trust and faith in media, and a bunch of other topics that I know will all scare you but give you all the tools that you need to handle these sometimes scary situations that we’re in. Alex Stamos was formerly the chief information security officer at Yahoo and then at Facebook when both of those places had to deal with a lot of big, scary things. And he’s now doing work at Stanford to help everybody deal with this world that we live in today with some sanity and clarity about what to do next. So please welcome Alex.

Related stories