April 11, 2024

Author of “Recoding America: Why Government is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better”

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #129

On this episode of the Bring It In podcast, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder, Sam Caucci, sat down with Jennifer Pahlka, former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer under the Obama Administration and helped found the US Digital Service. She’s also the author of Recoding America: Why Government is Failing in the DIgital Age and How We can Do Better. Pahlka highlights the need to reassess government functionality in the digital era, emphasizing that technology serves as a lens to reveal bureaucratic inefficiencies. She discusses challenges in government technology adoption, including risk aversion and outdated policies hindering innovation.

Pahlka stresses the importance of human-centered design in policy-making, advocating for prioritizing the needs of citizens. She shares anecdotes demonstrating the impact of outdated regulations on real people, underscoring the necessity of storytelling in policy advocacy. Pahlka addresses the future of work, advocating for empowering lower-level employees to exercise judgment and initiative for better outcomes. The conversation underscores the urgency of reforming government practices to better serve society in the digital age.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Jennifer shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Our bureaucrats are getting better at listening to the people who are affected instead of those who just have the loudest voices.”
  • “We can’t drain these lower level jobs of any judgment.”
  • “We need to be asking ourselves, what do we actually need today? Instead of just piling on to what was before because what’s come before isn’t serving as well.”

Sam Caucci: So Jennifer, I guess jumping right into Recoding America, Why Government is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better, do you mind sharing a little bit about yourself and what made you write the book?  

Jennifer Pahlka: Sure. First of all, thanks so much for having me, Sam. You know, I kind of fell into government work.

I was working in tech, and we were talking about this idea of Web 2.0 about, you know, 10 years ago, and someone said, hey, what about Gov 2.0? And got, you know, very involved in that concept and started an organization called Code for America. Which initially just sort of brought tech talent to work with city governments for a year.

And went to the White House and started something called the US Digital Service, which was similar. How can we get the right talent, you know, to work on the right problems in government. So, you know, after 10, 15 years of doing this I really wanted to explain to the world what I saw, which is that it’s, you know, technology is really like a lens through which we can see problems of bureaucracy. And I think it’s really important that we work on those problems of bureaucracy, especially right now, as we have really, really big policy agendas and, you know, and national challenges in front of us.  

Sam: You know, when you read the book, I think something that jumps off the page is that, you know, government is not the best at tech.

And I’d like to hear, maybe you can–

Jennifer: And you got that out of it did you?

Sam: Yeah, I think that jumped off the page. So I guess, can you, for those who haven’t read it yet, why is that so? 

Jennifer: I think it’s so, because we have this sort of essentially better safe than sorry approach at every step of the way. And, you know, it’s easy to blame bureaucrats for that.

But it’s probably more helpful to look in the mirror a little bit and say, why have we created a culture in which the people who work in government are so strongly incented to always take the better, safe than sorry path? Now there’s a lot of opportunities to take that better, safe than sorry path because we have all of this  policy cruft that bogs down how government can move.

So, for instance, if you, you know, want to make a new app for helping people apply for food assistance you know, for example, it’s not as easy as just going out and hiring, you know, hiring some developers and designers to make that app. We make people jump through so many hoops, so many different layers of paperwork and compliance and process that it just gets really, really hard. 

Sam: And, it feels like I was looking at it also through the lens of, as a even as a startup or early stage technology companies who are trying to build products to  bring about impact or, or help solve some of these challenges feels like policy often sometimes blocks innovation when it comes to,  you know, I could speak to, you know, when it comes to workforce and wage and hour rules, there’s a lot of technologies that are popping up that are trying to help workers, but if they’re not allowed to use their own device for it, or they’re not allowed to do it off the clock for it.

There’s a lot of policies i t feels were written maybe before the internet was even created that–

Jennifer: Yeah.

Sam: –stands to challenge, you know, innovation at the startup level.  

Jennifer: Yeah. And I think we have to ask ourselves, why is there so little political will to update these policies that are holding people back? I was talking with some of the other day who still has to get, you know, print everything out.

You know, everything’s faxed based. It’s still really true in health care, too. And it’s not because people are stupid and don’t know there’s the internet and email, it’s because it’s in the regulations. And, you know, I think in a lot of ways, regulations have gotten a bad name because we’ve let them get stale, which again, like, you know, whose job is it to update those?

And, you know, I think government workers are getting more and more aware of the fact that there are burdensome and not burdensome ways to implement regulations that are going to affect people’s lives. You know, it’s primarily businesses, right? And you can have a regulation that has a really positive intent.

But if you implement it in such a way that it’s just impossible for people to comply, it just takes thousands of hours. You’re not going to get the benefit of that regulation. And, you know, I tell a couple of stories in the book about that, like in healthcare they’re rolling out a new program in Medicare, and doctors are very frustrated with how burdensome it is to interact with Medicare.

And this new burdensome program, you know, there are ways to make it easier. Like, Congress has exempted doctors who take very few Medicare patients, but the agency is interpreting that regulation to say, make everybody go through it the first year and then decide who is eligible to be exempted.

Well, that’s just going to drive those doctors out of the program. But you can see when public servants take that extra step to say, no, I know that I’m just supposed to, you know, do what the regulation says, but let’s push back on that and say, we can exempt doctors based on the prior year data and let those off the hook.

They don’t have to go through all of this. That kind of pushback and this is done really by the tech people who say, no, I’m going to have a voice in how you’re going to write this regulation because it really has to work for the people it’s supposed to work for, in this case, those doctors. If you make orders for the doctors, it’s going to be easier for them to take care of the patients.

That’s the kind of transformation that I’m really excited about. It’s not necessarily that they wrote better code, it’s that they made sure they had a voice and how regulations were implemented to make it easier.  

Sam: Yeah. ‘Cause to your point on writing better code, if the rules are seen as unchangeable or you know, not willing to be able to fight the fight to bring about change, then you create an environment where venture capital and private equity dollars go into technology and they just continue to build  bad majority.

Tell me if I’m wrong. They’re just continuing to build bad code on top of bad code because you’re building for the way the system is not where it maybe should go.  

Jennifer: I think that’s exactly right. We need to be asking ourselves, what do we actually need today? Instead of just piling on to what was before because what’s come before isn’t serving as well. 

Sam: For folks that are listening that are–, they maybe don’t see themselves in the C suite, but they’re, you know, talent leaders or people leaders and they are, you know, responsible or a part of the operational function for people within a company. What do you hope reading this book for those folks will inspire as far as action? What are the things they can do in order to try to, you know, affect change when it comes to policy and government? 

Jennifer: It’s very hard to have a voice. But I think our bureaucrats are getting better at listening to the people who are affected instead of those who just have the loudest voices. But it is still incumbent on those of us who understand what’s actually needed. So, a lot of the book is about essentially human centered design, and it’s just a call for people to remember that there’s going to be a lot of stakeholders in any process. 

But there’s ultimately the stakeholders that matter most. Who is this program or policy meant to benefit? That’s who it most has to work for. And then secondarily, you can sort of take care of the needs of the other stakeholders. But those stakeholders are going to have to stand up for the voice of the user.

And I think anybody in a position of cultivating talent has the opportunity to really understand the needs of the people that they hire and train and support and speak for them in policy processes. 

Sam: Yeah, and sometimes you gotta– I was just at a hill day. And sometimes you have to start at, you know,  what is a search engine? 

When you talk to a policymaker, I found that, you know, assuming someone knows, you know, a few steps ahead maybe isn’t necessarily true when you’re talking to some policy folks. 

Jennifer: And it really helps to make things real for people. Very often when we use words like, you know, a search engine or we’re talking about, I don’t know, the use of an app or anything, you’re gonna miss, you know, people aren’t gonna really understand it.

I tell stories in the book of, for instance, a time when some folks at the VA were trying to get change in a form that veterans needed to use to get benefits, and they kept being told by the VA, well, this form is fine. Like all we know we have all the paperwork and it shows that all of the requirements for this application were fulfilled.

You know, close the books. We paid the vendor. We’re moving on. And so they couldn’t do anything except that one of the requirements in that form, in that project, was that it work on a particular Bruce, a combination of Internet Explorer and Adobe Reader. And all the computers inside the VA were set up that way, but almost no computer out in the real world was set up that way.

So the app just didn’t load for anybody outside the building. And what they did was, they, you know, they lost the battle when they tried to just explain this because the paperwork said this, but when they did screen capture and audio of a veteran trying to get on the benefit and talking about how many times he’d tried before, and he really became a real person through this little video and they brought that to leadership.

That changed everything. And I think so often, you know, when we’re going to the Hill or we’re talking to regulators, what we need to do is tell stories of real people or even show real people and show the barriers, you know, explain who that person is, or let that person speak for themselves. These are my life circumstances.

This is what’s going on for me. This is my need. And this is why this thing is not meeting that need. You don’t, you know, you don’t need to know what a search engine is or even ever use a computer, but you’ll get it. If there’s a real person in front of you and their story hits your heart.  

Sam: Totally. I mean, I think that I totally agree. Last question for you, Jennifer, and thanks for taking time. You know, a lot of what we’re, you know, talking about and I think that a lot of what you’re, talking about in your book, the conversation and the points are being brought up have very much to do with, you know, this future of work moment have a lot that overlaps as we think about policy. I’m interested, what is your hope for the future of work?  

Jennifer: You know, I think mostly about the work that bureaucrats do. And really I think a big message of the book is we can’t drain these lower level jobs of any judgment. That’s what government so often tries to do is say the further down the hierarchy you are, the less judgment that you, you are supposed to exert.

You’re supposed to just do what the people above you have told you to do. My argument is that doesn’t work to make good government. That doesn’t work to make services that work for people. But I think it’s also true that it doesn’t work to allow people to have fulfilling, meaningful jobs where they feel like they are bringing themselves to work and actually, you know, making the difference that they want to make.

And I do think it just comes back to dignity that that can be in a public sector context or any other context. You know, are people empowered to be able to see a problem? And really help fix it. There’s a great line in the book from General McChrystal,  who said, you know, to his soldiers, I don’t want you to do what I told you to do.

I want you to do what I would have done if you knew what you were doing. If I knew what you know, right? It’s like if I were in your shoes and I was on the ground because that’s the thing a soldier on the ground knows something that a general back at HQ doesn’t know. And when that soldier gets to act on that and make a difference instead of just following orders that frankly have become outdated right to your point about these regulations being outdated.

If they actually have the–, if they’re empowered to do so, not only do they have better jobs, but the public gets better outcomes.  

Sam: Jennifer, thank you for taking time.

Jennifer: I really appreciate it. It’s a lot of fun. Thanks so much, Sam. 

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Workforce, Jobs, Government, Leadership

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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