Making Government Work: The Next Ten Years (and some news)

In July 2009, over beers with a friend who worked for the City of Tucson, I asked “what if there was something called Code for America that could get people from consumer tech to help government?” The idea obsessed me, and I started working on it that afternoon. In a few months, that will be ten years ago.

Code for America has come a long way since I asked that naive question.

We started with a fellowship program, sending in small teams of developers and designers to work with city governments to address problems with simple, lightweight technology and design. We made a splash, showing in dozens of cities how much is possible when you take a user-centered, iterative, and data-driven approach to building government services. After a few years though, we realized that for the problems that really matter, a year-long fellowship wasn’t enough.

We set our sights on a bigger goal: making government work as it should for all Americans, by all Americans, in a digital age. We decided that when government truly works for people, the services it provides will be simple, accessible, and easy to use, and will get measurably better outcomes. And they will cost less. We decided that we can and must serve everyone with respect and dignity. And we realized that if we could all come together to make this real, it would be the biggest source of societal good for a generation. To solve all the daunting challenges we face as a nation and a planet, we will need smart, capable government that has the trust of its people.

Because we can’t do this alone, there are three pillars to our work:

show what’s possible by making government services so good they inspire change;

help governments gain the skills and the talent to do this themselves;

build a movement of all Americans who believe we can do this together as a nation and are willing to help.

To paraphrase Jane Jacobs, government has the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, it is created by everybody.

It’s working. GetCalFresh is closing the participation gap in SNAP in California, together with our partners across the state. It has proven that what we call civic tech can operate at huge scale (almost a million people) and can set a new bar for government service delivery. Clear My Record then leapt right over that bar. Rather than requiring applicants to fill out complicated applications to receive a status they are entitled to by law, we’re helping state and local agencies to automatically clear eligible criminal records using bulk data and a basic algorithm. Government that works isn’t about taking the government we have today and just pushing those old processes into bits and bytes. It’s about rethinking how government SHOULD work and figuring out how to do that fast enough to actually meet the need. We’re on the path to showing how to make a safety net and a justice system that truly delivers on our nation’s values. And if this approach works on our safety net and justice systems, it’ll work across the breadth of government.

Our work also includes promoting the others inside and outside government who are showing how good public services can really be, with the goal of making the principles and practices that drive this work accessible and understandable to everyone. That’s what next week’s Code for America Summit will be about — 1200 courageous public servants and civic technologists inspiring each other to challenge the status quo and supporting each other through difficult change, bringing the principles and practices of delivery-driven government to their own city, agency, county, department, office, state, or community.

That’s what we’re betting on: show the new way works, help others adopt it, and build a movement to keep up both the pressure and the support for more of the above. We’ve spent almost ten years figuring this out and showing it works. And now, as we contemplate the next ten years, we need to do it 50 times faster and a 100 times bigger, because too many people in our country are sick of government not working for them.

So here’s my news: to help run this play 50 times faster and a 100 times bigger over the next ten years, we are starting a search for a new Executive Director. I’ve been thinking for some time about how I can contribute the most to the cause at a greater scale. I’ve been inspired by entrepreneurs like Reid Hoffman, and the process of self-examination that resulted in him eventually hiring Jeff Weiner as LinkedIn’s CEO. On the non-profit side, I’ve been inspired by Mitchell Baker’s handing Mozilla’s reins to John Lilly, who is now our board chair. In both of these cases, and many others, these founders were able to find the right leadership to take the organization to the next level, while remaining in a position to do what they do best and get the most satisfaction from.

I get enormous satisfaction from this work and have no intention of stopping it. But am I the best person to run an increasingly large and complex organization? And can I do that well while writing a lot (I’m graduating from blog posts to a book!), serving on the Defense Innovation Board, and helping out with the other related projects that need to be connected into the Code for America network to increase our collective impact?

Sure, it’s possible that we could just add to our leadership team and I could stay at Executive Director. But as Reid so wisely said:

To be a successful growth-stage CEO, you need to be ready to manage a 1,000 person organization and devote substantial time to time consuming things like running meetings and other business process. You can’t just do the exciting stuff like making the final call on product and speaking at conferences, while shuffling off everything else to the mythical COO.

We may not (yet) be a 1,000 person organization, but think about Code for America’s footprint: In addition to the 75 full-time people we’ll have this year, there are our community fellows and the 25,000 people active in Brigades. And there’s huge growth coming our way as we rise to the occasions of clearing all the eligible criminal records in the country, redefining the safety net, giving everyone in the country the tools they need to transform their own governments, and building a nationally visible movement. A successful growth-stage leader who is passionate about our mission, holds our vision, and can effectively lead the business processes we need at scale is exactly what we need. Reid calls these growth-stage leaders co-founders, even though they join several years into the company’s journey, and I think that’s exactly right. Our new executive director should be a co-founder of Code for America.

My successor will have all the duties and authorities appropriate to the role, but I will not be leaving the organization or the cause. On the contrary, I will be doubling down on the mission, focusing on the areas where my involvement will have the greatest impact. I will remain on the board and, in that role, continue to advise the new executive director on strategy and help shape the organization’s narrative. I will be an active member of the board’s fundraising committee and help represent the organization and the larger movement to the press and public, where appropriate. And I will be writing the aforementioned book to elevate the visibility of our mission to a national audience. The exact size and shape of my involvement will be the topic of thoughtful discussion among the final candidates for the job and the board, with the goal of clarity for the board, leadership, and staff, and the advantage of playing to everyone’s strengths.

So what’s next? We’ll kick off the search at the Summit next week. Our trusted search partners at On-Ramps will be there to learn more about the community. We have not set an end date for the search, because we are committed to taking whatever time is needed to find the right person for this important job. In the meantime, I will remain as Executive Director with the support of our amazing team and board until the position is filled and through whatever transition makes sense once the new leader is chosen.

I could not be more excited about kicking off this next stage of Code for America’s growth and impact in the world. I am grateful for such an incredible team whose amazing work has put us in the position we are today, and who will only accelerate their efforts in the coming year. I am grateful to have the best board any founder could hope for, whose wisdom and constant support makes all this possible. And I am grateful for the everyone in the Code for America community. The work you do and the passion, empathy, and drive with which you do it brings meaning and purpose to my life. Here’s to the next ten years of remaking government for the digital age together.

Please reach out if you have questions about what’s next. And of course, I hope to see you at the Summit next week!

Code for America Blog

Writing and thinking about government that works for people, by people, in the 21st century.

Jennifer Pahlka

Written by

Founder and Executive Director of Code for America. Mom. Keeper of chickens.

Code for America Blog

Writing and thinking about government that works for people, by people, in the 21st century.