Why I’m Going to the White House Today

Jennifer Pahlka
Jun 19, 2017 · 6 min read

Today, along with the heads of several tech companies, I will be attending a meeting at the White House convened under the auspices of the American Technology Council (ATeC). I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post explaining why, but I wanted to share a bit more about the decision with the Code for America community here.

This is not a decision I have made lightly. I personally believe that, outside of the issues discussed at this meeting, the policies of the Trump administration are dangerous and harmful to the American public, and that the administration has shown a frightening disregard for the principles and values of government, public service, and the rule of law. In my professional capacity, I see that the policies of the Trump administration are inconsistent with the values that our movement holds to serve all Americans equally with dignity.

Why Code for America Must Be at the Table
The stated purpose of the ATeC is to modernize federal government IT so that it can deliver the digital services that the American public deserves. The meeting has been convened to gather feedback and brainstorm “the what as well as the how” of this agenda. The principles and values of the movement for 21st century government MUST be in that room. Any discussion of modernizing government should put the fundamental premise of our movement front and center, and that premise is that government can work for the American people and by the American people — ALL the people. Code for America’s work to make the social safety net perform as it should in a digital age means that we represent those for whom government works least now, and those most in need of assistance. It also means that we know more than possibly anyone else in that room (besides our USDS and 18F colleagues) HOW to change notoriously change-resistant government programs to better meet the needs of their users. I’m attending because we have something unique and important to say among this group of tech executives and public servants.

We Must Claim Government as Our Own
This decision also speaks to and tests another core value of our movement: claiming government as our own, as our right and responsibility. As I said after the election: “Politics isn’t government, and governing isn’t someone else’s problem. It’s ours.” While there is certainly a political angle to this meeting, the agenda is the in-the-weeds operational issues — procurement reform, cloud computing, user-centered design — that rarely get attention but that connect directly to the ability of government to function in the service of the American people. I know well the ways in which the law, policy, regulation, and practices of our government make it hard to serve the public as it should be served. With all that’s at stake right now, and with an America divided, in many ways, over whether government should provide many of these services at all, now is not the time to shy away from this fight. We absolutely can build a government that works for real people, not just people with means and power, and do it at a cost and quality that match what we see in the market as consumers. If “we the people” don’t show up and prove that, our country has little chance of moving past the broken arguments that hold us back.

In Support of Our Movement, the American Public, and Our Public Servants
I am aware that many people I admire and respect will disagree with the decision to attend on the grounds that it sends a message that normalizes the Trump administration. I agree with them that most of the actions of this administration are NOT normal, and that we should constantly remind each other that this is not how American democracy should work. But the people behind the ATeC have so far been on the right track. And the message I am sending by participating is the assertion of the vision and values of Code for America and everyone who has given of themselves to bring that vision to life. I plan to attend in service to the brave volunteers, staff, fellows, and partners across the country who put these principles and values into practice in their communities every day, and most importantly, in service to our users, regular Americans trying to apply for food assistance, legally clear their records, and retrain for new jobs through government programs.

I’m also attending in support of those in government who show up everyday to do the right thing. I think of James Comey’s words to his former colleagues during his testimony:

Thank you for standing watch. Thank you for doing so much good for this country. Do that good as long as ever you can.

Public servants everywhere, in federal, state, and local government, show up and do their best to serve the American public even when the people elected to office make them afraid for the future of our country. The men and women of United States Digital Service, the Technology Transformation Service, and 18F fight for the adoption of a user-centered, iterative, data-driven approach to serving Americans, and have succeeded in continuing and even accelerating this work in cooperation with the new Office of American Innovation. Those men and women are now part of that tradition of public service. While most of them were new to government when we started these units a few years ago, many of them now know what it means to walk into a government building each day and see a photo of a President they did not vote for. This can be harder than it sounds. I have immense respect for them.

If the ATeC succeeds in its stated goals, informed by a framework that includes all Americans equally, it will make a positive difference in the lives of tens of millions. Will that redeem an administration that’s also pulled out of the Paris Accord and tried to prevent Muslims from entering the country? Of course not. Those actions and others like them are devastating to us as a nation. But as Mikey Dickerson said in his parting note (apparently borrowing from either Harry Truman, Benjamin Franklin, or the fictional President Bartlett):

Decisions are made by those who show up.

Government is supposed to serve the people, not the person who sits in the Oval Office. If I am to act in accordance with that belief, I need to show up and speak up for that principle, and for the ways we’ve learned to put that principle into practice.

This comes at a time when Code for America’s mission has never been more important. As budgets are slashed and critical programs come under pressure, giving governments the tools to do more with less can have an immense positive impact on those Americans who rely on these programs. It will not make up for the cuts, but it will allow these programs to do the most good they can under the circumstances. Our federal government lately seems like a building on fire; if we want to save it, we must run towards it, not away from it.

The movement for 21st century government is fundamentally about reclaiming government as a massive, powerful force that we the people have both the right and responsibility to own. If government is to be a force for good, we must take every opportunity we can to shape it. This is also true for the tech CEOs who will also be in the room today: they can and must speak up for the people for whom government works least now. I hope those CEOs attending today join me in making the digital services agenda about serving all Americans equally, with dignity.

To everyone in the Code for America community: Thank you for the vital work that you do every day to make government that works for all people a reality.

Code for America Blog

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