“Where do we go from here?”
In the final session of the 2021 Code for America Summit, Kathy Pham, a founding member of the U.S. Digital Service, remarked, “we had a tough year, but I think in many ways that also amplified issues that people have been facing for a really, really long time. That’s what tough times do. They amplify inequities.”
During “Where do we go from here?,” panelists talked about how much has happened in the past year—from the pandemic to natural disasters, from millions losing their jobs to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the police killing of George Floyd. A broader portion of the public engaged in conversations about systemic racism and inequality, the need for universal healthcare, and the way that some systems of government are failing the people who need them most. These conversations sparked important, positive changes in the world of government and civic tech—so now the question is, how do we make change stick? As Amy J Wilson asked, how can we “use this moment as an opportunity to create more equitable outcomes: when it comes to the social safety net, taxes, and criminal legal reform policies, among many things that government touches?”
Panelists discussed how we can redesign systems that uphold and perpetuate inequality, where we can include people who have been marginalized by these systems in every step of the redesign process, and what the hard work of change looks like in each of our individual lives. Looking ahead, we can use the next few years to build a stronger foundation in government and civic tech that stands on justice, equity, and liberation.
The panel was moderated by Amy J Wilson, Founder and CEO of Empathy for Change, and included Chris Kuang, Co-Founder and Advisor for Coding it Forward; Antionette Carroll, Founder, President & CEO of Creative Reaction Lab; Kathy Pham, Founding Product and Engineering Member of the U.S. Digital Service; Michael C. George, Policy Advisor in the Office of Vice President Kamala Harris; and Wendy De La Rosa, Assistant Professor at The Wharton School.
To see the full conversation, watch the video or read the transcript below.
Amy J. Wilson: Welcome to this final session for the Code for America Summit. In this session, we’re going to be talking about the past year, but also looking ahead at where we’re going. This has been a year like no other, and yet our community has really pulled together to do our part in helping in pandemic recovery and relief efforts. In other ways, we’ve also fallen short. Now the question is, where do we go from here? How do we ensure that the lessons learned that we have from the past year aren’t forgotten?
In this final session of this year’s summit, we’re going to be asking how can we make lasting change and use this moment as an opportunity to create more equitable outcomes, when it comes to the social safety net tax and criminal legal reform policies, among many things that government touches. To answer these questions and more, we’ve brought together such an incredible panel for you to weigh in with their values and their views. Let me introduce our panelists for today.
Michael George, he is a Policy Advisor at the office of the vice-president Kamala Harris, and formerly Program Officer at the Gates Foundation. Kathy Pham, she’s the founding member of product and engineering teams at the United States Digital Service, and the co-director of Responsible Computer Science at Mozilla. We have Antionette Carroll, founder, president, and CEO of the Creative Reaction Lab, co-founder of &Design and civic design coach.
Then we have Chris Kuang, who’s the co-founder and advisor of Coding it Forward. Finally we have Wendy De La Rosa, assistant professor at the Wharton School, and co-founder at Common Cents Lab and co-creator and host of the TED series Your Money and Your Mind. Let’s get started. Our first question is, as you look on the back on the past year, what do you see as the biggest takeaway in terms of creating more equitable outcomes for those who use government services?
Michael C. George: Thanks so much, Amy, and so happy to be here. Thank you to our hosts at Code for America for having us. Before I start, I just want to be clear that I’m representing my personal views only, and don’t represent the White House or the US government in my comments here. I think I speak for many when I think about how challenging 2020 was. At the time I was working in philanthropy and trying to think about how you could search support when so many people needed help. I think you’re able to do incredible good in the philanthropic sector and the nonprofit sector.
I think the big takeaway for me is that when the pipes are leaky and broken and not designed to help the people they’re meant to help, there’s only so much you can do to force things through them. To me, it comes down to a big realization about how much we have to do to restructure those systems, I think, in the metaphor I was using to build better pipes. In other words, to get the outcomes we want.
Amy: It’s like build back better, [chuckles] in a bigger way.
Michael: Though again, I am not speaking for the government on that one.
Amy: Kathy, what are your insights?
Kathy Pham: We had a tough year, but I think in many ways that also amplified issues that people have been facing for a really, really long time. That’s what tough times do. They amplify the inequities that many people have experienced for a really long time. I think some of the biggest takeaways are- there are so many takeaways. The two I’ll bring up today is never forget and understanding historical context when we’re building technology. What that means is what is the history of race in this country?
What’s our history of colonialism around the world? What’s the history of people taking vaccines? Thinking about history when we’re building technology and then the follow-up to that is how do we think about communities and society and our “users” and the people we’re building for. Every single step of the way, whether it’s governments buying policing software or governments developing different websites for vaccinations.
Even just a new place for people to get more information, getting down to the deep details of how people communicate, what kinds of languages, people’s access to the internet and technology, to deeply understand all those nuances and details before we dive into getting quickly some people technology out there and build up that muscle so that the next time something hits, we have all of that ready and all of that in place, and to document everything we learn. Hopefully something as intense as 2020 never hits again, but smaller version of that might, and will. We see different versions of this. How do we make sure we have muscle memory for how we respond and build on that?
Amy: Thank you, Kathy, for those insights as well. Antionette, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Antionette Carroll: Absolutely. In my work, we talk about how systems are by design. That means systems of oppression and inequality and inequity are by design. It also means that we can redesign them. When I think about the takeaways from this last year was one, recognizing that we have upheld these designs, in some cases, intentionally, some of them unintentionally. Also that when historically under-invested people speak, we need to listen opposed to continually erase and ignore. Then lastly, it was always possible. We just always got in our way.
We always gave excuses on why something wasn’t capable, or why this technology piece couldn’t be updated, or why we couldn’t provide food access to certain communities, and yet when we were required to do it last year, when we were required to think about digital red lining within communities of color, we were able to step up and get it done. We were able to do it within a month or two because we had to, and we no longer had to focus all the personal politics on why we should not be caring about folks that have been under-invested this entire time.
Do I believe there’s still a long way to go? Absolutely. I do believe we need to really start to question how have we played a role in perpetuating the harm, and then how can we also redesign these communities and these systems so that we actually are, to Kathy’s point, creating a stronger foundation through the lens of justice and equity and liberation, opposed to rebuilding and going back to how things were pre-COVID, because I am actually hoping we do not. There were many community members that did not have the same privileges and opportunities as others, and so we need to redesign through the lens of actual possibility and improvement, opposed to redesigning to put back what we already had.
Amy: Amen to that. Antionette, I have so many questions from what you were just saying and how we can build that back. We’ll be answering that later on, but I’d love to hear from the last two participants in the panel today about this particular topic. Let’s go with Chris Kuang. Do you want to tell us some of your takeaways?
Chris Kuang: Of course. Thanks, Amy. That’s a great question. I think for me beyond what everyone has already said, I think what this last year has made clear is that we desperately need more people in government doing this work. I think last year we saw a tremendous effort supporting government from the outside, whether it’s a center for civic design helping reimagine what voting would look like during a pandemic, or Code for America and US digital response, thinking about pandemic EBT, and making sure that students and families that traditionally rely on free school lunch weren’t going hungry during the pandemic.
I’m a huge fan of all of those organizations, don’t get me wrong, but I believe that for us ultimately, to get closer to what’s truly an equitable government, some of Antionette was talking about, we need more people working in government. Not just when the next pandemic or the next crisis hit, but day-in and day-out, making sure that we’re doing the work and that we’re doing it alongside the public servants that are really holding up all of our structures. I think that for me, was a huge takeaway from this last year.
Amy: Absolutely. We need more people serving and making this country better. For sure. Thank you, Chris. Finally, Wendy, do you want to chime in here and tell us what your thoughts are, or the takeaways that you’ve had in the past year?
Wendy De La Rosa: Thanks again everybody for joining today and Code for America for hosting this conference. For me the past year, it highlighted the importance of behavioral science. Michael, and Kathy, Antionette, and Chris, they highlight the importance of looking at all of the little barriers that can prevent someone from enacting change and whether we call it pipes or barriers, that’s rooted in consumer behavior and consumer psychology. I’ll give you an example of something that I think should be a fundamental right.
We always talk about healthcare, and many people are across the spectrum of healthcare being a fundamental right and I agree, but I also think that we need a fundamental right to an access to a bank account. Why is that? Well, the government immediately wanted to step into action and give aid to people who needed it the most. However, 9 million people still to this day have not received their economic impact payment, otherwise known as their stimulus check. Why? Well, because of your low income, many times you don’t need to file taxes.
You’re not required to, you don’t have a bank account, you’ve moved and we have no way of tracking your different addresses. You may be homeless, and so you haven’t been part of the system for a long time. Most importantly, we do not have a bank account for every single person in this country. When we think about that for a second, when we think about the fact that we’re a country that has the most advanced artificial intelligence technology, and still don’t have basic financial accounts for roughly 22% of the population, that’s not a leaky pipe to me, going back to Michael’s metaphor, that’s a whole broken burst [chuckles] that’s a whole broken block.
We’re ignoring this population and then you put on top of that all of the systematic inequalities that we have talked about, it really fundamentally shows that these systems are not really set up to help us. That’s what we need to redesign. For me, the thing that I came away with was, wow, behavioral science is so important, and just like I think about healthcare as a fundamental right, we should all have a fundamental right to a bank account.
Amy: That’s incredible. I love each one of the people’s perspectives here on the panel because we’re all looking at different perspectives and at the end of the day, what it is is really the systemic issues that we are tackling. It’s so refreshing to hear a panel of people who are going back and saying, “We need to redesign things,” which is lovely to hear. One of the things we wanted to do here is since this is the last panel of the summit, is to think ahead. We just looked back about where we were in the past year. Let’s look ahead, let’s look at the next five years.
We just started with the new president and a new administration and let’s look at the year, what can we do now so that we can have better outcomes in about five years. I wanted to hear from each one of you, what is one or two things that we can do as a community, as a group of people who are trying to make the government more equitable, what can we do in the next five years to create better outcomes? This time I’m going to go in the opposite direction. I’ll go with you, Wendy, to circle back around and what you were just talking about.
Wendy: Of course. Well, I think that as soon as anybody is born, you get a social security number, a birth certificate, and a financial account, but aside from that, one of the things that I recognized is that a lot of these problems have been tackled by the academic community, through the lens of behavioral science, and we need stronger partnerships. As we’re creating and redesigning these systems, not only do we need the voice of the community, but we also need the voice of the academic community, because so many people have great intentions and good intentions, but we actually have years of experiments where we can tell with rigor and academic science to say, “This intervention works and this intervention doesn’t.”
For example, all of us think that financial education moves the needle in terms of increasing or improving financial outcomes, and over 200 studies and a meta-analysis of 200 studies shows that actually financial education only explained 0.1% of the variance in financial behaviors. Not zero, but very close to it. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. The third thing for me is that many of the financial behaviors we want people to do, like opening up a savings account, increasing their 401(k), retirement allocation, getting life insurance, all of these things take time, time that we honestly do not have, especially if you’re living in the margins.
To get life insurance, you need to set up a doctor’s appointment. You need to figure out which is the right premium for you and all of that takes time. Through this conference and throughout, I am encouraging and challenging businesses and governments to give people not just a sick day, but a financial day, because we need time to get our financial house in order. If we don’t have that, it’s really hard for someone who’s just treading water, managing their life, managing their children, managing the two jobs that they may have to then try to get their financial house in order.
Amy: Yes, that is definitely incredibly insightful, next steps, things we can do right now. Thank you for that. Chris Kuang, let’s know what you have to say. You might have an announcement to make. [chuckles]
Chris: Yes, a little bit, and I would say just building off of my last response and talking to some of the systemic problems that in the pandemic surfaced and that we were just talking about. I’m a firm believer that government has the incredible power to create meaningful change on the scale that we need, coming out of this. That’s why I’m so excited to share that I’m actually joining the federal government this month to do just that, build more pathways for people into public service and especially a pathway for junior tech talent to work on high-impact projects and key priorities across government.
It’s what we’re calling a digital core, and inspiring more people to serve, we’re hoping to create a two-year fellowship for people just starting out, an early career complement to something like the US Digital Service or to 18F that we hope will launch hundreds, if not thousands of mission-driven technologists into public service careers in the next five years. I think the time is right now because young people are ready to serve, they’re ready to engage. Last fall we saw the highest youth voter turnout in recent memory.
We saw activism and organizing. Amanda Gorman, I think, just put it really beautifully at the inauguration when she was saying being an American is more than a pride that we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it, and I think there’s a moment now where we can bring young people in to serve. Together with my colleague Caitlin Gandhi- and she brings a wealth of experience from Teach For America, building talent strategy and people analytics.
We’re going into the general services administration where we’ve built significant momentum crucially with TTS director, Dave Z, and the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, and we’re really energized by the administration’s action on building back better. We’re really looking forward to doing the work. We’re still doing the legwork on what the digital core will look like, but I’m hopeful that it will be an explicit call to public service for the next generation of technology leaders to do what we’re all talking about here, which is build an equitable government for everyone.
Amy: Wow, that’s so incredible. I love that you’re going to be bringing all of that great knowledge of doing Coding it Forward into this work as well. I’m just so excited to see what you all come up with in the next five years, see where you are in the future with that. Thank you. Antionette, let me know your thoughts for this question.
Antionette: Yes, I want to build off what Chris was talking about. I think there’s a lot of power from youth, particularly youth of color. My organization directly works with Black and Latinx youth to have them think about how do they design healthy and racially equitable communities, but we also work with institutions because we recognize that there’s actually two parts of the coin. You can’t just work with the folks that have that lived experience and not also work with the folks that have more access to more centered power.
What does it look like to actually have youth being active team members, decision-makers in any process that we’re looking to integrate, and recognizing that youth have been architects of change throughout the history of this country and throughout the history of the globe? I also want to challenge everyone in this space to really question, “Am I centering my professional pedigree? Am I centering my academic background over my living expertise?” Because there tends to be also these barriers where we have us versus them mentality where, oh, I’m going to center my title and not recognize that when I say community members, I’m actually a part of the community itself?
Then if I look at that role of being embedded in the community, I also understand that whatever intervention is addressed or came up with, it affects me too. How do I hold myself accountable versus having more of a paternalistic approach or sometime a fishbowl perspective of being outside, looking in. Then the last thing I will put is investment, investment, investment. We need to recognize that when we ask community members to show up, especially community members that don’t have this as a part of their job, we’re asking them to give up their time.
We’re asking them to give up the resources and we’re not really questioning what are the barriers of access and what are the barriers of power sharing? Then also, how are we not supporting sustainability within communities versus experimentation, which has led to a lot of trauma and harm. Though I could go on for days, but I want to be mindful of time. We have two more folks to talk, but yes, there’s a lot we can do. I recommend everyone start with self, and how do I build my own humility and recognize how I may be upholding and how I can also dismantle and redesign.
Amy: Thank you. That makes me think of MLK, his belief in beloved community and bringing people together. Thank you for that, Antionette. I’m going to go back to Kathy. Tell us what your thoughts are. I think it’s very much aligned, and you’re taking this to your work within formerly Digital Service, but your next steps. Let us know your thoughts.
Kathy: Yes, I am part of the US Digital Service. Yes, yes, yes to lived experiences and not building anything albeit policy or digital products with a paternalistic view that we just know what people need. Thank you so much for bringing that up. That’s something I want to touch on as well. How do we build responsibly, and what that looks like, and how it takes a whole movement to do so. From the person who builds the literal form where you sign up for something, to even recognize small details, like having a required zip code, or credit card field on a form that would automatically now make it possible- not impossible for someone to sign up for something.
In the engineering world, that’s a 30 second change but in a flip of a few lines of code, we’ve now made it not possible for people that either sign up for a service, or do something. All the way up to like hiring people who understand how to build in that way. Building team culture, to foster that kind of community to center everything we build around the people for whom we’re building with. Not for, as you said, one of the USDS values actually is to build with, not for, so how do we build alongside communities.
Even better, Dr. Jasmine McNealy actually reminded me of this the other day, how do we not just figure out how to build for communities, but how do we empower those same communities, as well not just take on this idea that we have to always build for community. From the people who build those forms, building those teams, all the way up to the highest executive level, who puts out executive orders and policies with a lens on justice and equity built into that. The processes that are required to do that, and it takes all of these steps along the way.
Also I know this session is on government and equity, Andreen Soley who leads public interest tech at New America to think of public interest tech in general as something that goes with the person. You might be in the private sector, you might be in the government, you might be in a nonprofit, you might be in government adjacent. Each of those roles, you might be building something that also is in the public interest, or is related to government.
You might be working for a big tech company, but at this point, some of the stuff you build are very much going to touch on humans and government in some way. To have that lens of equity, and justice, and community and everything that others here have said, and wherever you are, and what you build. It’s great if you are in government, but even if you’re not to know that what you build, especially if it’s tech, may likely be at that scale. We all have that responsibility. As someone who spent over a decade in the private sector too, we all have that responsibility to think of all the people for whom our products affect.
Amy: That was wonderful, just having true compassion and empathy for the people on the ground and helping design with, not for. I appreciate that. Michael, final thoughts that you have on this this question.
Michael: Wow, there is so much wisdom in what everyone has said. Kathy, I love that, I haven’t heard that line before about building with, not for. I’m going to put that on a poster somewhere. For me, I think thinking about Antionette what you said, and Chris, your efforts to bring new people in the government. It also makes me think about how important it is to diversify who gets to do the building or who gets to be the person re-designing the system.
I think one of the statistic I’m never going to forget is there’s this political scientist at Stanford named Nick Carnes, and his research shows that even though 50% of Americans are working class, the percent of Congress that was working class has been stuck at 2% for 6 decades. It’s literally a flatline, it’s never changed. I’m sure it’s the same or similar in tech, or philanthropy or the private sector or whatever. We’re not going to change that in five years but as to your point, Wendy, that’s not a leaky pipe, that is a disaster.
In the next five years, you know, I think a lot of people are open and thinking about new ways to structure their work. I think making sure we’re not just consulting with, but hiring, promoting, empowering people directly who have lived experiences with many of these systems that have failed is something I’m trying to re-affirm in all the work I do. That’s my closing thoughts.
Amy: [chuckles] Thank you, I think that brings a lot of these thoughts together and in a bigger way, moving beyond just designing with, but to the place of can we get a world where the world is designed by people in the world as well. I think there’s lots of steps we need to get there. We’re not going to get there in five years, but we’ll see where we go, where we can go with it. Please thank me in- please join me in thanking this incredible panel of experts that weighed in on this concept of equity. Congrats to all of you.
I think you’ve really identified where we can go from here, and if we get it right, and the next right step we can do to put this work into action. Many of you are already living this, but I’m just really grateful for you to be here with me today. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights. Also thanks to Code for America for leading the way and convening all of these people from academia, from policy, from government together to talk about this incredibly important topic. Thank you, and enjoy the rest of the time.