We spoke to Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America, about making government services more accessible and user-friendly, how civic technologists are hacking bureaucracy to get things done faster, and why it’s vital for governments today to embrace digital.
Talk to us about Code for America and what you’re doing there.
We started Code for America as a service year program. We really wanted to give people in the technology industry, people with great digital skills, developers and designers, a chance to not just make the consumer internet amazing, but to give back and build this institution that's supposed to help everybody in the country.
So we get people in the middle of their careers—the average age of a Code for America fellow is 30—to come work with local governments and help them take a different approach to using technology to solve problems for people in their community. Instead of really long planning processes and big procurements, we do things in an agile, iterative, data-driven, and most importantly, a very user-centered way. And when we do that, government starts to look a lot better to the people who use it.
“What we are happiest about is when the people in a city where we have been working feel like government truly works for them, meets, or even exceeds their expectations about how to get information and access services.”
— Jennifer Pahlka, Founder and Executive Director, Code for America
What has Code for America accomplished?
I think Code for America is making government more accessible, more usable, and more friendly. What we are happiest about is when the people in a city where we have been working feel like government truly works for them, meets, or even exceeds their expectations about how to get information and access services. That’s when they really feel like government is there for them.
Can you give us an of example of how Code for America works, and some of the programs you’ve seen success with?
In an early year of our work, we went to New Orleans, where Mayor Mitch Landrieu had asked us to help with the problem of blighted properties.
He couldn't stand in front of a house in New Orleans and tell you whether that property had been reported for blight, inspected, if the owner of the property had been notified, or if there was a hearing scheduled. All of that data was in dozens of different places, including spreadsheets, ledgers and notes.
So we sent a team of amazing Code for America fellows there, and they talked to everybody in the city about how they needed to access this information and how they would use it to advocate for better neighborhoods. And within just a couple of weeks, they had built something called Blight Status that allowed everybody in town to be able to look up any address in New Orleans. You could see exactly where the property was, if it had been reported, if it was about to be demolished, etc.
The app supported the city in shifting what was a very contentious and tense relationship between the people in the neighborhoods and City Hall, and turned it into a really productive relationship where they were working together to solve the problems in the neighborhood. That project was very near and dear to my heart because I saw people so excited about working with government again.
The more we work on programs like that, the more I realize how important it is that our government works in a much simpler way.
The term “civic hacker” has been attached to Code for America. Can you tell us a little bit about what that means?
Civic hacker is a term we're proud of. In fact, we sponsor the National Day of Civic Hacking, each year in partnership with the White House. It’s an interesting term, because of course "hacker" has different kinds of connotations for different people.
In Silicon Valley, people think of hacker as a programmer who's inventive, moves fast, and tries things out. But in a civic context, it isn't limited to programmers. We always say we're hacking bureaucracy. We're always finding different ways to get through different kinds of constructs.
For instance, the Code for America fellowship itself is sort of a hack. Mostly cities feel that they have to put out a very large bid for services when they need new software, and it generally takes a couple of years to complete IT projects. Because of complex application processes, procuring IT systems can cost millions and millions of dollars. When they instead procure a team of developers and designers who can do a wide variety of different projects over the course of a year, they have sort of hacked the system. Hacks in bureaucracy, hacks in procurement systems, and hacks in politics are often how we get our work done. That's the entry point for actually doing the programming and design.
How has your work at Code for America impacted the way cities across the U.S. are delivering technology solutions?
In the past five years, since we started this project, we've seen cities open massive amounts of data and figure out how to make it usable for civic hackers and others in the community so that they can build things on it.
For example, there is a project called Citygram that takes a number of different data feeds, and it lets anybody in a city type in an address or draw a polygon on a map and say, "I want to know if there are new businesses in this area, and in this other area I want to know if there is a traffic accident. I want one notification by text message and one by email." It's one thing to put data out there, and it's another thing for people to actually make it usable in their daily lives and feel like government is connected to them. You’re seeing this trend in cities across America—more open data, more open governments, and more accessible governments.
But we see so much more beyond just opening data. We see cities wanting to make websites that actually work for people that are written in a language that they understand. No government really ever has all the resources they need to meet all the needs of the community, so I am very impressed at how governments are starting to understand their community as part of that capacity. That's an enormous change.
It’s also important to make sure that government data isn’t just available to citizens, but that it actually goes into the platforms people are using every day. We have a ton of projects built around that idea. For example, a few years ago we worked on helping government get restaurant inspection data into Yelp. That's often where people are making decisions about where they're going to go to dinner. They're not going to a government website. And people in government are really embracing the idea that it's not about coming to government, it's about government going to where the people are.
And I think the more we do that, the more people are really going to believe that government is working for them.
How do APIs and agile methodologies play a role in your development process?
APIs are so important. In the first couple of years of Code for America, an enormous amount of what we did when we worked closely with people in government was to evangelize APIs. To talk about them, to help people understand the value of them, and to help governments get in a position where their data could be available through APIs. The realization that the API is the starting place is something we see across governments around the country now.
In addition, a lot of the value Code for America brings to governments involves agile. Not just the idea of it, but really working hand-in-hand with governments to run a process that is fundamentally user-centered, data-driven, and iterative.
There’s a growing awareness of the fact that the way that government has been doing software doesn't work. And that's why we're getting these big government projects with a 94 percent failure rate—for instance, healthcare.gov. Requirements are very often written as government needs, and they don't account for what the user is going to do. But when you take an agile approach, when you start with user needs, not government needs, and you iterate over time, you come up with software that actually works for the user. So this is the core of what Code for America is doing.
How do you believe applications will become more embedded in the way the governments operate in the future?
Government has been resisting going to the software world that pretty much everyone lives in today. They process all the records of federal employees on paper. For example, when you apply for a green card or another immigration status change, your application is largely processed on paper. And that paper is shipped all over the country, which is why people wait so long for answers.
The realization we've made, post healthcare.gov, is that government can't afford not to digitize. When you can't operate in a digital world, you can't govern. You can pass policies and laws, but when you can't implement them, you will lose them. And that's what almost happened to healthcare.gov. If we expect our government to work for us, we need the same people who are creating the amazing consumer internet that we use today—and the platforms that enable enormous innovation—to come forward and use those same skills and approaches in government.