Don’t despair over Trump policies, civic tech leader says

Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka argues that Donald Trump's presidency has not diminished the civic tech movement and that its mission is as important as ever. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Despite any feelings of uncertainty or despair stemming from changes at the White House, innovators should not abandon the cause of improved service delivery for citizens, Code for America founder and executive director Jennifer Pahlka said.

Speaking at an event hosted by Reinvent in San Francisco on Jan. 19, Pahlka urged an audience of civic technologists and policy makers not to withdraw from their work, noting the progress made in recent years. Code For America’s instrumental role in assisting federal and state agencies through system and process modernization has proven a boon to government, according to surveys and anecdotes from agency leaders. Promoting a message of hope, Pahlka encouraged her fellow civic technologists and those considering entering the field to take solace in the irreversible changes embedded in government during the Obama administration.

“If you look at the federal government budget in chunks, it’s food assistance, Medicaid, veterans benefits, and those things need to happen and they need to happen way better than they happen today,” Pahlka said. “If the tech industry says F-you and walks away, the progress that we’ve made in making these things better is going to erode, or fall apart, and not because someone else brought it on us, but because we abandoned the cause.”

After the fallout of Healthcare.gov in 2013, a cadre of Silicon Valley experts jumped in to fix the ailing health insurance exchange. The process awoke government to new tools and design processes that in turn led to the creation of 18F, a federal contracting service that helps agencies develop, buy and share technology. Soon after, federal technology consultancy U.S. Digital Service was created. The two organizations went on to save and modernize a slew of outdated and inefficient systems. Some projects included a website revamp for the Federal Election Commission, improving access to benefits information at the Office of Veterans Affairs, and the creation of a college comparison tool that help students chose the right school.

A report from the Government Accountability Office published in August showed agency support for the two groups is strong. Despite positive reports and anecdotal praise, many in the civic tech community fear the Trump administration will shutter both organizations due to their connection to the Obama administration. Panelists also noted a fear that an interest in civic participation from progressive technologists might soon diminish as workers flee from a Trump White House.

Who will stay?

Pahlka called for a show of hands of federal tech workers in the audience who would leave because of Trump. A few hands went up, but a majority of others indicated they would stay.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but of course after the election everyone was worried that [USDS and 18F] would all get unwound, and it’s certainly not clear that that will happen” Pahlka said. “It’s possible that it will in fact get accelerated.”

Tim O’Reilly, founder & CEO at O’Reilly Media and Pahlka’s husband, expressed similar optimism during the event, though he noted that politics could interfere with the motivation of many progressive technologists working in government. Many working in technology today would not be eager to develop, for example, a database to track American Muslims, a project Trump has repeatedly said he is committed to building.

“If we go,’How do we get all these Muslims registered so we can roll them into camps,’ or, ‘How do we get all these people deported.’ There may be some things where we go, ‘No, actually we would like government to be incredibly inefficient with that,'” O’Reilly said.

At the federal level, Trump has instituted a temporary hiring freeze at all agencies. In an interview with FedScoop, Mallory Barg Bulman, vice president of research and evaluation at the Partnership for Public Service, said this is especially harmful considering IT workers older than 60 vastly outnumber those that are 30 and younger.

“The federal government has a really hard time hiring federal IT talent. And so anything that slows that process down, even I suspect the suggestion of a hiring freeze, slows that down moving forward,” Bullman said.

States may end up the unintended benefactors of the Trump transition. Pahlka said she knew of more than a few who have decided to work for states, not just due to the new administration, but also for a change of pace. She pointed to Code for America’s work assisting California with its new child welfare system as one example. This system is vital to handling the state’s more than 400,000 reports of child abuse each year. Its redesign has drawn contributions from 18F and the former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park.

Local government, too, may scoop up the occasional White House evacuee. Environmental Protection Agency Chief Information Officer Ann Dunkin departed before Trump arrived to take a position in Santa Clara County.

Code for America guided California to modernize its procurement system, breaking down a hefty RFP process into smaller contracts that could cut costs through competitive pricing and a higher success rate. The pivot has led some federal IT workers, like 18F’s former director of product strategy and design Jesse Taggert, to join the state’s Child Welfare Digital Service that maintains the system and is involved in the redesign.

“That to me is an exciting new front regardless of who is president, and of course, I advocate every day for people to work with city governments,” Pahlka said.

Firm relationships

Looking at the civic tech movement as whole, Pahlka said she doubted Trump or any other administration could put a stop to it. She said the culture of the movement, which calls for technology to be open and co-created with the help of citizens, is too deeply embedded in all levels of government to be eschewed. Citizens already have higher expectations. Population growth and budget constraints within government have made innovation a necessity for service delivery in many cases, and concepts like human-centered design have become best practices. Pahlka said the culture shift has set a precedent that will not be easily undone.

“One of the things that makes me so hopeful about where we are is that we have built a fabric of people, and that fabric is not about the fancy folks who’ve come in,” Pahlka said. “It’s about folks who have great consumer tech digital skills and who have come in and built authentic, powerful and meaningful relationships with folks who’ve been doing the work for the last 50 years.”

Colin Wood contributed to this article.

Editor’s Note: A quote was edited lightly and minor edits were to the story for clarity shortly after initial publication.

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Code for America, Jennifer Pahlka, Tim O'Reilly