Government and Tech Should Collide

Josephine’s Approach to Government Relations

A lot of ink has been spilled about how tech companies should (or more often, should not) approach working with government. Unfortunately, the tech industry has learned some tough lessons through a series of high profile mistakes. But there is now a growing wave of tech innovators that seek, rather than spurn, civic collaboration, and hope to build truly positive relationships with government and improve the models for change.

Our homemade food platform Josephine is working to create more inclusive opportunities in food for underserved communities, increase access to healthy food options, and contribute to a more diverse and inclusive tech culture. We know we cannot achieve these goals without the help of our partners in local, county and state governments. So we are proactively and collaboratively working to adapt food industry regulations through pilot programs in several states and have co-drafted a new home food permitting bill with health regulators (AB 626), which goes to vote next week in the California Assembly.

Here is how we have approached our work in Sacramento and how we intend to collaborate with any government that wishes to work with us.


The Need for Food Industry Regulations

We believe that regulations are good and necessary. In fact, food safety presents perhaps the best case for why regulations are needed. Many food industry laws were written to keep consumers safe from the risks inherent in the opaque supply chains and profit incentives of our industrial food system.

As my colleague Emily (one of the public health professionals on our team) wrote recently:

“We began needing regulations and oversight in the food industry because the food system was industrialized and taken over by big corporations. As we moved from farms to factories, food processing and preparation quickly became a “jungle”, as Upton Sinclair wrote back in 1906. Our current conception of what is “safe” has been shaped by regulations that are designed to be bandaids on an increasingly bloated and broken system.”

So our patchwork of food laws developed in response to large-scale production, newly developed preservatives, additives, and packaging, foodborne illness outbreaks, and a general lack of consumer transparency. It’s clear that as food-related technologies continue to develop, they must be constrained and directed in ways that continue to serve the public interest.

So what does ‘constrained disruption’ look like — for both innovators and policymakers — in the 21st century?

We Don’t Want to ‘Break Things and Fail Fast’

In the tech world, ‘break things and fail fast’ has become the innovator’s mantra. Breaking is the best way to learn! And we can iterate, and improve, and “fix” things so quickly that… well no, there are real-life consequences.

Because every time we ‘innovators’ redesign a process or push a new product feature, we create a cascade of consequences. Both good and bad. Visible and invisible. Intended as well as completely unexpected. The consequences can be particularly problematic when what’s being broken are regulations initially implemented to protect the public interest.

In the early days of the internet, these challenges may have been easier to ignore. In part this was because consumer technologies first focused on solving luxury “problems” for a narrow set of already-privileged users.

Johns Hopkins University blood delivery by drone trial

But as digital technology is applied to civic problems, the stakes are changing too. The consequences of a break-things-fail-fast experiment are far greater for a drone delivering blood than a drone delivering burritos. Building technology for early adopters who need your change is higher stakes than building technology for early adopters that maybe kinda want it.

So how do we appropriately constrain innovation when impacts often can’t be fully understood until after-the-fact?

We Want to Learn from Government

Our democratic institutions are very different from the tech sector — they have long and well-studied histories, evolve slowly from the direct input of ‘users’ (e.g. voting, taxes), and often start by solving problems at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. Barack Obama recently shared his perspective:

Government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with. (October 2016)

Obama is right. Indeed, the same “broken institutions” that technologists are so eager to “leapfrog” often mitigate the true messiness (or downside risk) of disruption. For all its flaws, our government represents a collective good-faith effort to keep the lights on.

But with Silicon Valley now taking on some of the world’s most challenging problems, how do we ensure new innovations actually serve the public interest?

Towards a Healthier Tension

If the “break things and fail fast” approach ignores real human costs, we must admit that there’s grave danger in the status quo as well. Short of war or revolution, political institutions are rarely able to lead on even much-needed disruption — so failing, outdated processes live on, even when much-needed changes are readily available.

It seems that we need both change-making power (technology, activism) combined with consequence-constraining guardrails (law, government).

We should encourage this tension as necessary for solving complex issues with real human consequences. But to do that we’ll need:

  • Transparency: Both tech and government need to be more transparent about what they’re trying to accomplish. Is a regulation protecting ‘public safety’ or established industries? Is a tech solution actually serving the public, or just a small group of stakeholders?
  • Accountability: Both tech disruptors and government must react to real-time feedback on outcomes. Consequences should be swift and significant for failed promises.
Before settling its lawsuit with the city of San Francisco, Airbnb resisted constraints on its hosts (NY Times, 2016)

Our Company Lives this Tension

All of this sounds good in principle, but as we’ve built Josephine, we’ve encountered the challenges of pursuing a more “civic tech” approach.

We are building technology (a food sharing platform) that helps solve a number of messy problems —like lack of income and food access in underserved communities and significant food safety and criminalization risks for existing informal food producers. We know that when one of our experiments fails, we might be failing an entire family or neighborhood.

So we are trying to go the extra mile when it comes collaborating with government to serve the public interest. At times, our very public approach to disruption has gotten us shut down, but mostly it’s led to some very frank conversations with regulators and elected officials on the other side of the table — who often want to find the tools or authority to work with us.

We’ve now made significant progress in collaborating with government in several states — on both legislation and pilot programs — which share several key characteristics:

  • An Upfront Framework : We are working with government and nonprofit partners to identify shared goals before starting our work in new communities. For example, one of our proposed pilots was co-designed with a Mayor’s Smart Cities team and will roll out programs through several community development corporations
  • Working in Coalition: It’s impossible for any organization to effectively solve complex problems in a vacuum — especially from within the Bay Area technology bubble. So we are hosting Town Halls, launching public surveys, and engaging with an array of experts. The ivory tower tech model is broken and we want to do better.
  • Stipulating Data Sharing and Accountability: Both our legislative and pilot programs stipulate data sharing that sunlights the impacts of our programs. Our collaborators and the public should know whether we’re holding up our side of the bargain, and have recourse if we aren’t. Time-bounded pilots (like our 18 month data-sharing proposal in one city) or assessment periods (like our 2 year independent assessment proposal for AB 626) are good ways for both sides of the table to get comfortable.

We know that we do not know the answers, but we are slowly hearing from everyone from public health experts, to long-time food business owners, to thousands of informal food operators, that we are on the right track. Our petition to legalize home cooking in CA garnered 25k signatures this month.

But we know we, and the tech industry as a whole, have a ways to go. And we need real partners to work alongside.

If you, or a government official you know, would like to see examples of pilot programs we’re working on, better understand our legislation in California, or discuss a potential partnership, please drop us a line.

In order to work on the world’s messiest problems, we’ll need to find pathways toward collective action. For us, this starts by acknowledging we need all the help we can get.

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