Can Government Be Nimble and the State Be Quick?


NewCo Shift Forum 2018

Fixing government services isn’t rocket science. But it does require a fresh perspective and courageous public servants. Fortunately, Jennifer Pahlka is on the case.

Jennifer Pahlka from Code for America

Complaining about the government is easy. Doing something about it? Much, much harder. But that’s exactly what Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America and former Deputy CTO of the White House, has managed to do. In this “High Order Bit” — a short, impactful talk laddered to Shift Forum themes, Pahlka explains her life’s work. Take the time to watch this video or read the transcript, edited for clarity below. It’s both maddening and inspiring, and will leave you rooting not only for Pahlka, but for the kind of systemic change her work reveals.

Jennifer Pahlka: I’m going to jump right into a story. It in fact also covers a little bit why the California model might be a model for the rest of the country.

In October 2014 I had the cojones to call Marybel Batjer, she’s the woman who is the head of government operations for the state of California. That means she runs all of this, so like all of finance, all of HR, all of what we still call IT in government, though there might be a better word for that.

She’s pretty important person. I was upset about something, and I knew that she might be able to help me with it.

That thing that I was upset about was a child welfare services procurement. This was a giant project. It was about to go out to the bidders, the contractors who would bid on this $600 million procurement. It was a project that was expected to take about six years to build at least, starting at six years.

If you have some sense that government projects tend to run over, you can add a couple to that, if that makes sense to you. It was supposed to go out in about six weeks.

The reason I was upset about it is this. There are about 475,000 reports of injury, death, and life-threatening neglect of kids in California each year. There’s 100,000 kids in foster care or group care. Mayor Garcetti [also a speaker at Shift Forum] just talked about this a little bit.

By the state’s own admission — this is in a report to their own legislature — the child welfare service workers don’t have the appropriate tools or the ability to access all the available information they need to perform their jobs.

What do we mean by that? Let me make that real.

They are faxing each other. This is literally how, in Humboldt County, they’re getting information between the sheriff’s office and the child welfare workers. The county sheriff said “I think there were some things that maybe weren’t reported to us and other things back and forth that were not reported back to child welfare,” because they’re literally writing handwritten notes and faxing them to each other.

It’s pretty hard to avoid things like putting a child in the care of a convicted rapist, which happened, actually, in a different state, but this is the thing that happens when you can’t share information other than via fax.

I called Marybel, and I said, “I would respectfully request that you not sign this RFP. You have to sign it for it to go out to bid.” She said to me, “Why wouldn’t I sign it?” I said, “Because it’s going to fail.” She said, “Jennifer, do you think I don’t know that? The last seven big IT projects for the state of California have all failed.” I said, “Well, why would you sign it?” She said, “We only have one way to do technology in government. If you know of a better way, you better tell me.”

I said, “Yes. I think that there is a better way.” [laughter]

This is actually how we do procurement in government. This is one visualization of one of the systems, but they all are about that complex. In fact, there is very much another way and it looks…We visualize it this way.

You put user needs at the center, you build digital service delivery that expresses those user needs, and is tied to those user needs. Outside of that, you have the operations of government, and then the policies, but all driven by the user needs, not the government needs.

I’m going to return to what happened with Marybel at the end of this. I want to talk a little bit about what happens when you do it that way instead of this way. The metaphor I would share with you is, it’s like having a car with the steering wheel, but the steering wheel’s only slightly connected to the wheels.
At best, you’re not quite going where you want to go, and at worst, you’re actually harming people. That’s what’s happening with policy and implementation in our country right now.

It’s like having a car with the steering wheel, but the steering wheel’s only slightly connected to the wheels.
At best, you’re not quite going where you want to go, and at worst, you’re actually harming people. That’s what’s happening with policy and implementation in our country right now.

We have these enormous implementation gaps. Probably the biggest implementation failure you will all know is I happen to have a little bit of a front row seat for that. My privilege, I suppose, was to be working in the White House as the Deputy Chief Technology Officer.

I’d been there four months when we launched this thing, and it didn’t quite work as intended. We got wonderful headlines like, “ is slightly less terrible today — Adds plan preview feature that occasionally works.”

The reason it was starting to get better is that we brought in some people who do it that new way, and they were just bit by bit following what users were getting blocked on, fixing that one little thing, and then just doing that over and over.

They didn’t have a silver bullet. They were just following user needs and fixing what they could, bit by bit. The thing is, it actually worked.

I would like to remind you, because we all think of this is such a disaster, that in fact, we enrolled more people in healthcare during open enrollment that first year than they had thought was possible before the site failed.

It was actually quite a big success. One of the things that was successful about it from my perspective: I’d spent four months in the White House desperately trying to start something called the United States Digital Service. It was a very slow until we had this failure and then success at A lot of people learned a lesson that, “Hey, it’s probably a good idea to have a lot of good geeks around government.”

We were actually able to do what I hoped to do, which is to start United States Digital Service. It has a sister program you might have also heard of, called 18F. This is in the general services administration. It’s now part of something called the Technology Transformation Service because we’d like to give things a lot of names, a lot of acronyms.

It’s really part of this giant and growing community now, of people who are trying to do government technology that new way, and really get how much is at stake if we keep doing it the old way.

This is an emoji, by the way. You can do this on your phone. “Strong computer America,” it’s our motto.

A lot of people learned a lot of lessons from The person I think is most important that she learned the exact right lesson was the Head of Domestic Policy, Cecilia Munoz. Really, really wonderful woman. She immediately got it that this isn’t about better websites. This is about better governing.

What she said is, “Let’s actually start with users in everything we do.”

Let me tell you one more story, it’s an implementation gap that we work on at Code for America, and this is again with state and local government. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, this is a $70 billion program that you and I, and everyone who is a taxpayer in this country is already funding with our taxpayer dollars.

It’s the program most highly correlated with better health and education outcomes for kids. In California we call it CalFresh.

In California, we are only getting about half of the benefits of that. I don’t mean just the benefits of feeding people. I mean the benefits of helping kids with food so that we don’t have to have a more expensive intervention on that kid later. We are only getting about half the benefit because only about half the eligible people are enrolled.

Why would that be? There is a lot more to the story but this will help you understand a little bit. This is how you enroll online in most Californian counties. It’s 50 pages long, it’s over 200 questions.

Some of the questions are really crazy. Some of them are very insulting and assume that you are a criminal, that you have traded SNAP benefits for guns, ammunition, drugs or explosives recently. That’s not fun.

Yes, if this is the way you are asking people to enroll in a program, you are going to probably get relatively low enrollment.

One of the things we did at Code for America is to create an easy way that you can apply on mobile phone, it takes about seven minutes.

There is much more to the story about what happens when you start enrolling people this way and you follow up with them by text message and figure out what are the problems with both the operations of the system, not just the website but the policy.

In the interest of time, I’m going to tell you about a different lesson around how policy and implementation and technology need to work together. This is some work that Cecelia Munoz championed when back in Obama White House. I know, we’re all sad about that not being the case anymore.

There was a law, the regulation for which were being written. It’s part of The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act. We love it when there is an cool acronyms.

Here is how normally what happens. You’re having here to write the regs maybe a little bit less and the regulators will work on these regs for a year and at the end of which, they will throw the regs over a wall to a bunch of type of people who will make a website.

This particular law was about paying doctors more for better quality care. That’s actually a complicated thing to get right. The people from the United States Digital Service, under Cecilia’s air cover, went to these folks and said, “We’re going to do it differently this time. What we’re going to do is you’re going to write the first daft of your regs in about the fifth the time you normally would.

Then we’re going to do a really rough draft website that implements these regulations and let doctors try to use it. You’re going to watch what doctors do and we’re going to watch what doctors do. Then you’re going to iterate on those regulations and we’re going to iterate on the website together. We do that five or six times before you publish your final regulations.”

When the regulators where done with this, they said, “Oh my God, these are the best regulations we’ve ever written.” Of course, because we live in this world where policy has been educated guesswork with feedback loops measured in years.

We have real-time feedback in at least platforms that dominate our lives in milliseconds. In the thing that matters most, we’re waiting years to find out what worked, and then it’s so long ago, no one even pays any attention.

This is Tom Loosemore’s question, by the way. He was one of the original people doing this at the Government Digital Service in the United Kingdom. Of course, the answer is, “We don’t have to be that way.”

Nowhere is this implementation gap scarier and more important than in the criminal justice system. We have a terrible over-incarceration problem in this country. Of course it is in part because we’ve had bad policy that incarcerates people for stupid things. That’s actually true, but in fact, a significant chunk of this problem that is there because we’re putting people behind bars for no compelling safety reason.

In other words, they haven’t even really committed a crime, or they have committed a crime but they’re out on probation, and we make them jump through all of these hoops, and they get a technical violation, and they’re back in jail. Not a re-offense, a technical violation.

We started working with Salt Lake County two years ago. One of the things we’re trying to do is help them communicate between their probation officers and the people on probation, and other people who were held pre-trials. It’s a little bit of similar case.

We found that 120 case managers serving a couple of thousand people on probation were sharing one iPhone in the corner to text message with their clients. It’s hard to know what’s going on with your clients if you’re sending only mail and voicemails, which is how it’s been going.

We found that 120 case managers serving a couple of thousand people on probation were sharing one iPhone in the corner to text message with their clients.

The thing we do at Code for America is we help them fix that problem. It’s not that hard to build a web-based text messaging system that probation officers can use to stay in touch with their clients.

We thought we were going to do is just send them notifications. Like, “Remember to show up at your drug test so that you actually get that, you’re complying, you’re staying on probation. Remember to show up at court.”

What happened actually is that people started texting back and telling their probation officers, “This is what’s going on in my life. It makes it so hard to actually comply with the terms of probation.” So few people actually succeed on this program.

This is really what it feels like, is that the only way you can actually do this is if you’re like a ninja warrior. [laughter]

You’re told to be at a drug test, and a job interview, and at court at the same time. You can’t comply with that. What we’re dealing with client communications, this system, is first of all, we’re trying to make it easier for people to get through the system, so people can text their probation officer and say, “I have this conflict. What do I do?”

They can troubleshoot for them. We’re also using that data to prove that we have to change the system. We’ve got to change the policies, and we’ve got to change the operations that are setting them up to fail, or we’re going to continue to have this enormous over-incarceration problem.

I guarantee you, of course, it’s not going to solve the entire incarceration problem, but it is actually a much bigger chunk of the problem than you realize. This is the polite way of our team talking about the work: “Justice is getting the implementation right.”

The real motto of the team, since everyone’s cursing here, I feel comfortable. “No one should be in jail for bullshit.” We have a lot of people in our country in jail for bullshit.

Now, these are stories of making one particular government program work better, work the way it should. In fact, we need to think about crossing across the silos. If we enroll people in SNAP, we help people on probation comply with their terms, why are we doing this separately?

We know that if you’re on probation, that getting you through the systems is actually a significant determinant in you succeeding and not re-incarcerating, why are we telling you to come in and fill out a bunch more forms? We could just say, “Hey, yes, your drug test is tomorrow. And by the way, do we have permission to apply on your behalf for SNAP? Just text us back a ‘Y’.” We’ve got the data, put them in the system, get them the benefit.

We need to start thinking about government programs in a radically different way if we’re going to get the outcomes that we want. What this represents is a better user experience for sure. But if you understand how the back-end systems are happening in government, this also represents a pretty significant change in how the legacy system’s being modernized essentially.

Those legacy systems being modernized, in the long run will cost a lot less money than we’re spending today.

I think I didn’t mention when I showed you that 50 screen application for SNAP, that we, as taxpayers, paid $800 million to have it built. We pay $80 million a year right now to maintain that thing, even though very few people use it. Those are the kind of costs we’re talking about. We can reduce those costs, we can also get better outcomes and reduce the overall need for the safety net by intervening earlier if we can do things like this.

This is one of those tastes great, less filling things. Republicans like it because it’s cheaper. Progressives like it because it has better outcomes.

There are some people who don’t like it. I’ve been very inspired by John [Battelle], calling out companies in the past year, and reminding us that our corporations need to lead too. A lot of the vendors in the government technology ecosystem are totally on-board with the new way. They’re moving to agile development, they’re taking on smaller, agile projects, they’re doing the right thing.

And then there’s Oracle.

Oracle’s actually writing to the White House, saying, “Take down 18F and USDS. Don’t hire smart people in government technology. Don’t have people in government who actually understand how technology works, because that hurts our business. Oh and by the way, open source, that’s not a thing anymore.” They’re on record saying this.

I think this is corporate maleficence in the same way, really, that we’ve talked about some of the consumer platforms. All of these regulations you’re talking about, whether it’s about Facebook or those platforms, are going to have to be done by a government that does have some technological expertise and understanding. It’s not just about whether we regulate, it’s about how we regulate.

Having that digital competence in government is going to matter a lot. This is really not OK for a country. This is Anti-American. I just want to return, sorry, to the story of Marybel Batjer, and me asking her not to sign this procurement for the child welfare system so that you know how it ended.

She is really no dummy. I said, “Look, could you please not sign it?” She said, “If you know another way, come to Sacramento on Thursday.” That was her response. I said, “I will come to Sacramento on Thursday, if asked. Thank you very much.”

I brought Todd Park, who was the Chief Technology Officer of the United States, and Dan Hong, one of my colleagues. We said, “Look, this is how we did the United States Digital Service. This is how we do projects at Code for America. You can do it this way in government. People will tell you it’s illegal. It is not illegal. And it works.”

Within about an hour and a half, a key decision maker in the room turned and said, “OK, we’ll do it this way, but only if we can do every project in the state of California this way.”

That’s a pretty courageous thing to say. I mean, not only did he say that, but then he had to go tell these couple of thousand public servants who had been working on the child welfare procurement since 2000 — it was 11 years in the making — to throw it out, and do something different in six weeks.

One of the things I want you to take away from this, because I’ve showed you these awful interfaces, and you don’t feel proud of our government, is that these folks are amazingly courageous and wonderful, but they need our support. They need us to come to them and say, “No, you’ve got to do it differently, and we’ve got your back if you do.”

This has been an amazing journey for them. It’s still going on. There’s going to be a lot to say about it in the next couple years. What I want you to think about, not just those kids, but what is at stake when we leave government significantly behind?

Well, yes, it’s those kids. It’s also our ability to have a safety net that works, and we need a safety net with the current economic climate. We need a justice system that’s just.

I actually serve on the Defense Innovation Board, with Eric Schmidt and some others, and I’ve got a little bit of a front-row seat to how much this technological incompetence in government is making it hard for us to even defend our country.

At the end of the day, if we don’t believe that government works, we have the environment that we have today, I think what’s at stake is our democracy.

I would ask you to care about this issue. My friend, Brian Leffler says, “Not caring about the machinery of government is a choice.” Please make a different choice. Thank you.


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