FRANCISCO — Jennifer Pahlka captains a brigade of
16,000 volunteer programmers who are using technology to
make government better, one city at a time.
six years after she founded nonprofit Code for America
to improve clunky government websites, Pahlka has left a
trail of civic innovation that reaches from Oakland City
Hall in California to the White House, where she helped
build the U.S. Digital Service, an elite new
technologist team for the federal government.
group also helped spark the "civic hacking"
movement, in which residents gather to use public data
and code to solve community problems.
sat down for an interview recently in the old brick San
Francisco leather factory where her organization is now
recruiting its latest crop of paid fellows to work on
civic tech projects around the country. The interview
has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s driving the civic hacking boom in places such
as the Bay Area?
There’s still a really strong set of values in the Bay
Area that say: "Hey, the tech industry has created
a lot of value and wealth, but there are people who’ve
been left behind." A lot of the work we’re doing
is asking why it’s so easy to get lunch delivered in
literally 10 minutes here, and yet we spend $80 billion
a year on food stamps programs, and to sign up online
there are over 50 screens, hundreds of questions, an
interview, and then you’ll get enrolled and you’ll
gulf between the user experience of somebody using a
service like that and what we can get on our phones is
huge. A lot of people sense that we must close that gap
to live in a society that matches our values. Another
reason is that the opening of government data, for a lot
of geeks, it’s like kids in a candy store who say,
"Let’s play with this data and see what
happens." It’s fantastic.
How was it that local government fell so far behind in
the digital revolution?
Not just local government, but government in general has
lagged. A lot has to do with what we the people have
insisted government be. We’ve asked government to be
very careful with how it spends our money, to not take
risks, to check a lot of boxes, and to make decisions
for a very long time frame. We’ve also made government
make fairness the top thing. That’s a great value, but
what it results in, at an operational level, are
compliance processes like procurement that have to
happen in a rigid way. It’s not a good fit with how
technology is built and bought in 2015. Blaming
government is an easy thing to do, but we’ve made
government that way.
We hear so much about venture capital being spent on app
makers who are trying to solve the inconveniences of
high-income San Franciscans, but you have had successes
with fellows who have raised money for civic-minded
startups. How are they able to do that?
When I first started, venture capitalists were not very
interested in government for the reasons one would
expect: a lot of paperwork and long sales cycles. But we’ve
shown that it’s an enormous market: about $180 billion
in federal, state and local. There are so many people in
government looking for new tools. Venture capitalists
are much more open. Not only investments from Andreessen
Horowitz or SV Angel, but there is now a $23 million
fund, the Govtech Fund, dedicated exclusively to
government startups. As more high-profile tech people
say government is where I can make my biggest mark, we’ll
see an increased talent pool and increased investment.
What are some examples of Code for America projects that
just didn’t work?
We’re pretty proud of our failures. Our first year, we
worked in three cities. Boston was thrilled, and those
projects are still running. Philadelphia did great as
well. A lot of its outcomes were about culture change
(such as using text messages instead of town halls to
field input in lower-income neighborhoods). But in
Seattle, we tried to build a platform for neighborhood
civic engagement that didn’t work. The team was
fantastic, but we learned that the best civic engagement
is about specific things, not about general engagement.
Now, every project we do very clearly meets a real user
How has living in Oakland shaped your work?
Living in Oakland became incredibly poignant for me when
we started working in Oakland in 2013. When I first
moved to the city, there wasn’t even an IT director,
much less a chief information officer. When our Code for
America project — the Open Oakland brigade —
connected us with Libby Schaaf (then a city
councilwoman, now mayor), we realized we had found a
forward-thinking politician who understood civic data
and what it means. She championed our project working on
open records requests. During Occupy Oakland, there had
been thousands of requests for public information. They
were not able to respond well — not because they were
trying to hide the information, but because they had no
way of tracking or fulfilling them. They had a system in
place, an Oracle system, and absolutely no one used it
even though it was really expensive.
So what did Open Oakland do?
We built something called RecordTrak, which is how most
talented startup technologists would solve the problem.
It looks great and it’s easy to use. Now, about 9,000
records requests have gone through it. It felt wonderful
because in Oakland, the relationship between the people
and City Hall had been at an all-time low. Not because
people were bad, but because of poor tools and bad
process. Libby was good at articulating what she thought
had happened, that a city staff who were constantly
reviled and considered to be incompetent had gone
through a process where they felt proud of their success
in finding a 21st-century approach. The fellows didn’t
build a tool for them, they built a tool with them. The
city went from feeling embattled to feeling empowered
and one of the cool kids. "We do this tech thing
Libby gave a talk about it at our Code for America
summit in 2013, I was backstage in tears of joy. I was
crying because I didn’t ever think that the work I did
would have such a big impact on the city I live in.
Founder and executive director of Code for America
position: U.S. deputy chief technology officer
Lives with daughter and fiance Tim O’Reilly, founder
of O’Reilly Media
things about Jennifer Pahlka
eight chickens in her Oakland backyard
to the White House weekly last year and led the creation
of the U.S. Digital Service as the nation’s deputy
chief technology officer
the East Bay Mini Maker Faire, which attracts 7,000
people each fall
job out of college was at Children’s Home Society of
California, a social services provider
the Game Developers Conference for eight years