photo by Gary Wilson

PAHLKA QUOTED: “EFFICIENCY IN GOVERNMENT IS A MATTER OF SOCIAL JUSTICE.” (Mayor John Norquist) It is at the often maddening interface with government that the inefficiency and injustice play out. Two examples (both now fixed)… At the Veterans Affairs website, you needed to fill out the application for health benefits, but the file wouldn’t even open unless you had the unlikely combination of a particular version of Internet Explorer and a particular version of Adobe Reader. Nothing else worked. In California, the online application for food stamps was 50 screens long and took 50 minutes to complete.

How did such grotesquely bad software design become the norm? Pahlka points to laws such as the “comically misnamed” Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980, which requires six months to get any public form approved, and the 775-page Federal Acquisition Regulation book, which insists that all software be vastly over-specified in advance. “That’s not how good software is built!” Pahlka said. “Good software is user-centered, iterative, and data driven.” You build small at first, try it on users, observe what doesn’t work, fix it, build afresh, try it again, and so on persistently until you’ve got something that really works — and is easy to keep updating as needed. Pahlka’s organization, Code for America, did that with the 50-minute California food stamp application and pared the whole process down to 8 minutes.

These are not small matters. 19% of the US gross national product is spent on social programs — social security, medicare, food assistance, housing assistance, unemployment, etc. Frustration with those systems makes people want to just blow the whole thing up. Pahlka quoted Tom Steinberg (mySociety founder): “You can no longer run a country properly if the elites don’t understand technology in the same way they grasp economics or ideology or propaganda.”

Government drastically needs more tech talent, Pahlka urged, and the user-centered iterative approach could have a broader effect: “It’s not so much that we need new laws to govern technology,” she said. “It’s that we need better tech practices that teaches how to make better laws. The status quo isn’t worth fighting for. Fight for something better, something we haven’t seen yet, something you have to invent.”

She concluded with what she learned from 8 years working with government at the city, state, and national levels: “Decisions are made by those who show up.”


The above is a summary of Jennifer Pahlka’s Seminar “Fixing Government: Bottom Up and Outside In”, presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s Seminars About Long-term Thinking. Jennifer Pahlka is the founder and Executive Director of Code for America. She served as the US Deputy Chief Technology Officer from June 02013 to 02014 and ran the Game Developers Conference, Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra.com, and the Independent Games Festival for many years. Previously, she ran the Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 events for TechWeb, in conjunction with O’Reilly Media.
To watch or listen to this Seminar, visit the Jennifer Pahlka Seminar Page. To follow the series, you can become a Long Now Member, download the Seminar app, or subscribe to our podcast. Members help to support this series and can access tickets to the talks, our live stream, and HD video of our full catalogue of Seminars. Long Now started these monthly talks in 02003 to build a compelling body of ideas about long-term thinking.