Jen Pahlka is bringing the resources – talent, ideas, tools, energy – and operating principles of the tech world to the job of making government work for the people, by the people, in the 21st century.
Jen Pahlka is bringing the resources – talent, ideas, tools, energy – and operating principles of the tech world to the job of making government work for the people, by the people in the 21st century.
Jen is anchoring a significant and timely culture shift in city governments that inspires them to be more open to innovators and innovations. Code for America’s partners are increasingly able to harness agile, open source technologies that add huge value and cut costs, but more importantly they are able to tap the power of the community to make cities work better. Jen's entry point is a Fellows program that matches 3- to 5-person tech teams with cities that compete for the resource. The teams pair up with their city governments for eleven months, during which time they assess needs and design low-cost tech solutions that can be shared with other cities facing similar challenges. With the Fellows program now in its second year, Jen and her team have begun other engagement strategies aimed at three important groups: (1) innovators inside city governments, (2) open source champions and coders across the country who want to organize their own efforts as “brigades,” and (3) start-up entrepreneurs who can provide enormous value using modern tech tools, out-competing the class of rent-seeking vendors who are bankrupting government. Taken together, these reinforcing strategies will reboot government and usher in a lasting culture change that brings better design and functionality the government-citizen interface.
Jen sees that government – at federal, state, and municipal levels – is lagging well behind other sectors in efficiency and innovation, in part because other sectors have harnessed technology-inspired innovations. The result is not only a huge waste of resources – talent and taxpayer dollars – but also something less tangible and more erosive: a lack of trust and confidence that government can solve problems in smart ways. Most Americans focus on partisan politics and getting this or that political party into office through massive campaigns that drain millions of private resources. Most overlook that government is in essence a collective "we," functioning at a very pragmatic level to build roads, respond to health emergencies, and keep the school buses running.
Given the challenges of a the modern era, and particularly the municipal fiscal crisis driven by reduced tax revenue and ballooning pension and other costs, we the people desperately need government to foster a culture of urgency and innovation in addressing problems. Too often, innovative ideas, if they arise at all, are stifled in environments that favor the status quo. Innovative people who seek government jobs in order to have real impact quickly find themselves unable to get things done in siloes that are often reinforced by rigid budget structures, proprietary or locked data sets, and few opportunities for working to address impact through cross-departmental teams that can tackle problems in ways that really address root cause. Innovators in government are isolated, with few opportunities to know each other or work together to advance real change.
Government is a huge client to tech vendors, many of which operate with little competition and few natural drivers to create low-cost and well-designed interfaces with citizens. IT spending for the federal government in 2014 is estimated to be $117B with state and local IT funding coming in at an additional $60B – that’s $177B for the year. (Some points of comparison to more nimble industries that are pioneering new tech approaches: the video game market at $10B and iOS app market at $3B.) This is huge spending and poor quality results. One of the reasons for this is the relative dearth of vendor alternatives, particularly those that harness cloud computing and crowd-sourced input from citizens. While groups of civic hackers are springing up and generating great ideas and projects, they are not entrepreneurs and often leave the efforts partly-built rather than pursuing an idea through to product completion and launch.
Jen began in 2009 with a simple initial strategy: sourcing young tech talent and matching it thoughtfully with cities that expressed an interest in adopting open source technologies that might help them with expressed challenges. The Fellows program started with 3 cities – Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle – and 19 Code for America Fellows participating. The second year saw 8 cities in the program, sourced from 20 that applied, and 26 Fellows sourced from 550 applicants. Now the program is in its third year, and there are 9 cities and counties an 28 fellows. Candidates come in from across the country and world and bring experience in a range of skills – from coders to designers to urban planners. The application calls for 1-2 years of work experience, but most applicants have far more and the average age is 30. More than 40% of Fellows so far are women. Tech entrepreneurs and visionaries like Biz Stone (Twitter cofounder), Tim O’Reilly, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook founder), amplify the call to action – even at this time of peak demand for the best developers at prime rates. Fellows are paid a stipend – $35,000 per year.
The structure of the 11 months is as follows: Fellows spend a month together in San Francisco getting an immersive experience of being together and forming their cohort culture, hearing from tech visionaries and government innovators, and being trained on design thinking and lean startup principles. They are then split into small teams and spend a month with their city partners – learning more about what’s needed, who the players are, what the context is (budgets getting cut, imminent layoffs, new mayor, etc.). They meet with and interview 100+ city employees and use the conversations to figure out who the innovators are, and what they identify as the real opportunities for technology and other improvements. Their task uniquely equips them to work across functional and departmental silos and connect people and ideas as they learn more. They then return to San Francisco and are based there for the remaining time, with frequent trips back and forth to the cities. As they work together, they identify opportunities and challenges and connect these across cities. They evolve the work – for their partner city, for cities in general, and for the broader CfA platform – iteratively over the course of the Fellowship year.
Some of the more tangible outputs of the Fellowship year are apps that the team builds in response to articulated needs. For example, the Boston team created an app called DiscoverBPS (BPS = Boston Public Schools) that helps parents navigate the terrain of school choice. The Philadelphia team created an app called Reroute.it that enables better transportation choices and a side-by-side comparison of cost (including environmental cost). The overall team of Fellows in Year One created 21 apps to address challenges in their city.
Jen recognizes that the Fellowship year is an entry point with cities – it gets their attention – but that lasting change is the real pot of gold. CfA looks at 4 main factors when evaluating success from a city perspective: has the city initiated structural change (such as carving out a Director of Innovation paid role); has it worked with another city in a collaborative way (like sharing or collaborating on app development); has it worked with its indigenous tech community on events like hackathons; how many data sets has it liberated into open source? To cultivate city innovators, the CfA team hosts an annual conference that city innovators pay to attend. The second one was last year, with 300 changemakers participating. The event offers a rare forum for meeting other city innovators, and highlighting success stories across cities and topics that can inform the efforts of others. Various other members of the CfA community join in as well, but the main focus is city innovators, with whose leadership the longer-term culture shift rests.
As second-cycle Fellowship applications flooded in, Jen saw that the team lacked a strategy for capturing and harnessing top talent that did not fit the Fellowship program. So she and her team kicked off CfA Brigades, which offers a less intensive way to engage, and a chance for the organization to achieve a more national presence at low cost. Coders, open source advocates, and/or civic leaders apply to organize their city’s effort or “brigade,” and are responsible for organizing the outreach and cultivation of their community – forming a local identity for the group, and local relationships with the city leaders and civic hackers and the media, etc. Currently, there are 380 active brigade members. In the 8-10 cities where membership and leadership is especially active, CfA is crystalizing the efforts into brigade captain teams to support more sustainable structures.
Jen and her team began to see that while hackathons – and even the Fellowship program, to an extent – were showing cities what’s possible, they needed to demonstrate to cities viable solutions that could be obtained through service contract agreements with credible companies not just compelling ideas. From best practices in other fields, they created an Accelerator, which they are launching in the fall, to address this need. They expected a few applicants and got 235 – many companies are too early-stage for the Accelerator, but serve as a pipeline for the future. The civic businesses that are selected get $25K funding, and access to CfA’s top Silicon Valley network of talent, insights, and investors, and visibility in outlets like Huffington Post, Tech Crunch and through the networks of CfA’s Board members and advisors.
Jen’s parents – her father a teacher, her mother a nurse-midwife – were (and are) passionate about their work. Jen understood early on that they saw their work in the context of strengthening society: they strongly believed that quality education and healthcare lay the foundation for meaningful lives, and indeed their individual commitments to quality were often at odds with systems and institutions that were underfunded at best and incompetent at worst. Jen says that she inherited from them a fundamental belief in a need for public institutions, and a need for them to work better.
Jen’s family – two parents, and an older sister – moved around the country a lot during her childhood. This felt challenging and disjointed at times, but she took from the experience a cross-cultural agility of sorts. She grew adept at translating across communities and developed an ability to view her context from a position that was slightly outside of it. For example, during her middle school years, she was one of two scholarship kids in the elite girls school where her father taught – while she participated fully in the school community, she was also outside of it by choice and by stigma. She now gravitates to “borderlands” roles and counts these adaptive skills as being among her entrepreneurial strengths.
Following college, she worked for two organizations in health for a time and found that they worked less efficiently than they might. She took time off to travel the world, and spent a transformational year in South Asia. She returned to the Bay Area and took a job in running a conference for video game developers. She came to discover that she loved the chaos and creativity to which she was exposed and the culture of iterative development and tight user feedback loops that drove the industry. Her role was to organize the community and create annual meetings but more than that, a shared experience and identity among a group of people whom she discovered to be misunderstood. During her nine years in this community, she created an initiative that has continued – a space and resources for independent game designers to foster and showcase their emerging work.
Jen started working with Tim O’Reilly in 2005 to help create the Web 2.0 conference experience in its second year. The conference exploded that year, and in the years since, she grew to know and shape the game-changing talent and ideas at play in the tech field at a remarkable time in the industry’s evolution.
In 2009, Jen launched Code for America, cueing from a similar effort in education – Teach for America. It has become a full suite of approaches that bolster and guide a major system shift to which Jen is fully committed.