Code for America Founder Jen Pahlka warns in a new book that risk aversion on the part of civil servants threatens the development of usable government technology

Code for America Founder Jen Pahlka warns in a new book that risk aversion on the part of civil servants threatens the development of usable government technology Fisher Studios photo courtesy Jen Pahlka

Government has a policy over people problem, civic tech leader argues

In a new book, Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka argues that government implementers need more authority to avoid becoming risk-averse compliance agents.

An “implementation crisis,” Jennifer Pahlka writes in her new book, “threatens our democracy.”

“Even the process of getting a construction permit, registering a vehicle, or just filing taxes can erode faith in our system of government,” she writes. “We can’t afford this downward spiral of poor service leading to alienation and decreased political participation, which in turn leads to poor service.”

Pahlka is the founder of civic tech nonprofit Code for America. She served a stint as the deputy chief technology officer at the White House and helped found the U.S. Digital Service.

She argues in her new book, "Recoding America: Why Government is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better," that the standard solutions to government tech woes — more money, technology, oversight and outsourcing — aren’t working.

Pahlka’s diagnosis is this: a prioritization of policy over implementation leads to government tech that doesn’t meet the needs of citizens or the expectations of policymakers.

In what she calls a “waterfall system” — a term she applies to government writ large, not software development specifically — government and its associated tech are designed around the needs, risks and incentives of bureaucracy, not the user experience of systems or intentions of policymakers. 

She wants civil service reform, particularly around hiring, said Pahlka. She also writes about the outsourcing of technology in government, arguing that “you need to own the code, and you need to be able to change it to meet your needs.”

But Pahlka also wants changes around how the people government hires are able to operate. 

Those at the bottom of that waterfall, including technologists building the systems that implement policies and programs, need to have more power to make decisions, said Pahlka. She also wants more product managers specifically in government, who are tasked with “deciding what to do” — as opposed to project management, “the art of getting things done.”

“The alternative to the status quo is pretty fundamental,” she told Nextgov/FCW. “It is moving from a structure in government… in which information and power flows one way — down — to something that is far more iterative and collaborative, where we stop conceiving of the implementers as at the bottom of a waterfall.”

Building a concrete boat

While working to set up USDS during the Obama administration, Pahlka met a Veterans Affairs employee she calls "Kevin" in her book. Kevin was working on the Veterans Benefit Management System. At the time, the digitized veterans records system was struggling with latency, Pahlka said. 

As she was asking questions, Pahlka says she noticed Kevin being “deferential” to policy, program and other VA team members about the system.

“‘I have spent my career teaching my team not to have an opinion on the business requirements, and if they ask us to build a concrete boat, we’ll build a concrete boat,’” Pahlka remembered him telling her. “‘Because that way, it’s not our fault.’”

“At the time we spoke to Kevin, 16 veterans were committing suicide daily, an average of one every waking hour of the day. Many of them were still waiting for their backlogged benefits, including mental health support,” she writes. “Here was one of the people charged with helping them, a senior official at the department, embracing the disempowerment. He was proudly abdicating responsibility in order to avoid blame. It was a gut punch.”

In her book, she describes a government culture often bent towards rule-following. Civil servants also find themselves in an “accountability trap” as they’re graded for following processes by the administrative state and held responsible for user experience in the political arena.

A pervasiveness of legalistic thinking leads to “policy vomit” on government forms as a way of risk aversion, Pahlka writes. It’s a lack of design, she says, that makes sense to those inside government, but not necessarily to people filling out forms.

“This idea that what your job is in government is simply to find every possible requirement and fulfill every possible requirement is not how good software is built,” she told Nextgov/FCW. “The alternative there is making choices.”

Pahlka knows that this is a controversial take.

“There is no way to get around the fact that giving civil servants a little bit more room to interpret the direction that they’re given from above could have some negative consequences,” she said. 

“These are tensions that have existed in the design and culture of civil service forever and will always exist. The question is, are we at the right balance right now between them? And I think the balance has gone too far towards the Kevin side of, ‘you tell me to build a concrete boat, I’ll build a concrete boat,’” she continued.

“Product managers are able to say, ‘this has to make sense to a person.’ They're translating. They're designing the policy in a way that makes sense to a person,” said Pahlka. “I don't think it's sort of wresting power away from the establishment. It is in fact giving the people at the top… and the general public what they want.”