“Regardless of who is in the White House, we have work to do from the bottom up and from the outside in” – Five Questions With Jennifer Pahlka of Code for America

Like many of history’s historic friendships, Jennifer Pahlka and I met first on Twitter. I had heard of Code for America but wasn’t exactly sure what they did or how they did it. So Jen invited me over to their SOMA HQ for coffee and afterwards, well, my head spun because the scope of their work as a nonprofit is so massive. But Jen has been one of the leaders over this past decade of finding ways to marry technology and government. I made sure to donate some money to C4A post November election and Jennifer was kind enough to let me pepper her with some questions. Enjoy! And you can help. Donate, come work at Code for America, work in government, or join your local Code for America Brigade!

Hunter Walk: You’re founder and Exec Director of Code for America, which helps government services embrace the Digital Age. When was C4A founded and how is it structured – a non-profit with both employees and volunteers?

Jennifer Pahlka: I founded CfA in 2009, the year after everyone said that “the Internet had gotten Barack Obama elected President.” I wanted to know if that same Internet could not just make a difference in who gets elected, but actually make government work better for regular people. I’d been working on a conference called Gov 2.0 that explored that idea primarily with federal government when a friend reached out asking for help making apps for cities. Back then, very few people in the consumer technology world thought about working for or in government. I decided to start a service year program to let the people in the tech industry dip their toes in the waters of government.  It turned out that a lot of talented developers, designers, product managers, and entrepreneurs found that really compelling, and now hundreds of them have jumped in and started swimming. They’ve come in through Code for America, through the Presidential Innovation Fellows (which was modeled after Code for America), through 18F and USDS (which I helped start as White House Deputy CTO) and through dozens and dozens of states and cities who have opened up jobs and recruited tech talent in to work in an updated framework, one in which they can have enormous positive impact on the lives of people in our country.

At CfA, we have a medium-sized full time staff, most of whom are focused on making the $470B taxpayers spend nationally on programs for vulnerable people in our society work a lot better.  These teams are working on projects like streamlining the access to food assistance and job re-training or reducing unnecessary incarceration by making it easier to avoid bench warrants or to comply with probation. A few of whom work on organizing the 75 volunteer groups in communities around the country that work on these issues locally and spreading adoption of Code for America’s practices among government broadly.

We are a non-profit, blessed with an amazing board of directors that includes John Lilly (Greylock Partners and former CEO of Mozilla), Shona Brown (former SVP at Google), Stacy Donohue (Omidyar Network), Brett Goldstein (first person to hold the title Chief Data Officer in a US city) and, the father of the Gov 2.0 movement, Tim O’Reilly (who also happens to be my husband.)

More than a non-profit, though, we are a network.

More than a non-profit, though, we are a network.  We have enormous impact through the projects we take to scale that make our country’s safety net work better.  But our hundreds of alumni — the fellows, employees, and government partners who have worked with us over the past six years — are a truly powerful movement that’s growing incredibly fast. When we started, making government work better through technology and design was barely a thing people talked about. Today, if you go into most major cities, you’ll find people who’ve worked with us, or hired our alumni, or attended our conferences who are spreading the gospel and showing these practices working and getting outcomes. Right here in San Francisco, for example, CfA alumna Ashley Meyers is redesigning how the lottery for affordable housing works so that families in need aren’t doubly burdened by a system that’s nearly impossible to navigate. There are thousands of her around the country applying the best practices of metaphysical Silicon Valley to the services that the American public needs from its government today, and that’s another kind of scale.

HW: Talk a little bit about project selection. Do you work with a government entity at the local, state or national level? Do they need to “sponsor” a project? What’s involved?

JP: When we first started, we worked on pretty much any issue or area where we thought our particular approach could be helpful in local government. If an iterative, user-centered, data-driven approach could help get results, and we could get support for it (financial and otherwise), we’d do it by recruiting a team of fellows to tackle it through their year of service with us. That’s been amazing, but it’s ended up starting a lot of projects with enormous promise, and without the means to carry all of them through.  Seven of them have become startups that have spun out as successful companies. Many of them have been carried on by the cities, counties or states we partnered with.  And a few of them have spread naturally from one city or county to another.

One example comes from our first year of the Code for America fellowship program. The City of Boston had changed the public school selection policy to promote more kids walking to school. The process was now essentially a mapping problem; the primary factor was the distance from your home to various schools, with some other factors such as whether the child had a sibling in another school or special education needs. But to communicate this change to parents, the Department was still sending a 28 page printed brochure with descriptions of each school written in seven point type. The brochure contained a lot of information, but it did not — and could not — tell you which school YOUR kid could attend. Parents were beyond frustrated.


One of our fellows, Joel Mahoney, took on the job of making a website that let you enter your address, the age of your child, and the school(s) any siblings attended, and returned a map showing the schools your child could go to. He had part time help from one or two of the other fellows. It took him about ten weeks to launch a beta version of the site, which worked remarkably well, and was, as another fellow said, “simple, beautiful, and easy to use.”


Our city partners told us that if his project had gone through a regular procurement process, it would have taken at least two years and cost at least $2M.

Our city partners told us that if his project had gone through a regular procurement process, it would have taken at least two years and cost at least $2M.

That became a model for our projects for the next five years, and the project itself is now part of one of Code for America’s spinoff companies, OpenCounter. OpenCounter was founded when one of our government partners, Peter Koht, who worked for the City of Santa Cruz, teamed up with Joel, the creator of DiscoverBPS, to offer yet another CfA project to other cities.

But most projects don’t spin out. Our focus today is on spreading some of the successful projects nationally, especially those that aren’t easily spread by for-profit startups. Our work in food assistance, for example, has incredible national relevance, both in reducing the burden on users and reducing the costs of administering the program for governments and taxpayers. But the sustainability revenue we’ve found for that work is only available to non-profits, and it’s best done by an organization with both a long-term view and a hybrid model that combines venture philanthropy with government funding. We’re the natural ones to take this work first to all of California and then to the rest of the country, so we’re raising the funds we need to do that. It’s the most leveraged philanthropy you can imagine, because it unlocks government funds that help feed hungry families all year long, just by overcoming administrative hurdles.

HW: What’s a memorable C4A project that you never would have expected to come across when you first started?

JP: Imagine all the frustration that you feel at, say, the DMV. Now imagine what’s at stake isn’t your car registration, but your eligibility for a job or housing that you desperately need.

In 2014, California voters passed Prop 47, which allows people with low-level, non-violent felony convictions on their record to remove them or reduce them to misdemeanors. That’s important because if you have a felony on your record you can’t get a job, you can’t get student loans, and you can’t get housing. You are basically stuck in a cycle of poverty. This isn’t good for Californians and it isn’t good for taxpayers.

Prop 47 passed because voters wanted to help people out of the cycle of poverty. But only about seven percent of people who are eligible have even started the process and very few people have gotten through. Why? Because the process is not online. You have to go to a legal clinic between 9-11am on Tuesday; you have to find the right piece of paper, fill it out, and answer a lot of confusing questions. Next, you have to find your rap sheet—which is so hard to read that you have to take a class to learn how— and then, certify that your rap sheet is correct. After that, you file more paperwork and play the waiting game. The process takes about a year.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Our team built Clear My Record Clear, a simple way to submit your application online in just 10 minutes. Then we follow our users via text message, documenting the barriers they face, and working closely with our government partners to fix operational bottlenecks.

When I first started, I believed that if we passed a law that was good for people, the people would benefit. Now I know that that’s just the beginning.  Californians voted for Prop 47, but we can’t just leave it at voting. We have to get involved with the implementation of the law if we’re going to actually see it make a difference.

HW: C4A is a non-partisan organization but the tech industry tends to lean progressive and some would even suggest aspects of GOP platform, such as denying climate change, are “anti-science.” What does “non-partisan” mean in terms of how you approach your work and who is a good “client” for your services?

JP: CfA has always been fiercely non-partisan. It’s true we’ve worked with a lot of democratic mayors; it’s also true that I took a year leave of absence to work in the Obama White House. But we’ve also worked with Republican mayors and have been visited and praised by Eric Cantor, Newt Gingrich, Darrell Issa and other Republicans.  We are grounded in two beliefs that don’t belong to any party.  First, that government is what we do together, and it’s fundamentally possible for government to work effectively towards common goals in the 21st century.  Second, that it isn’t working as well as it should, in part because it’s so grounded in 19th and 20th century modes, and that it needs updating. Who is going to do that updating?  We the people have to do it. That’s built into the history of our nation. It’s not someone else’s job. It’s ours.

I have a sticker on my laptop, from a friend who works for the Defense Digital Service.  It says “No one is coming. It is up to us.”  It’s pretty clear it is in fact up to us.

Our work is a bit like those old ads for Miller Lite, where two people fight about whether the beer is great because it tastes great, or because it’s less filling.  You might love our work because it helps regular people interact with government with dignity, or you might love it because it’s orders of magnitude cheaper to build technology the way we do it. Fight all you want. Pretty much everyone agrees on this one. A good partner for us is someone who cares about one or both of those outcomes.  That’s a lot of people.


HW: So, this whole election thing. How do you anticipate the outcome impacting C4A in the coming years? In terms of government interest in technology adoption? Or funding and staffing of C4A?

JP: Yes, this whole election thing. So many feels. So little clarity.

Fundamentally, I think we have less visibility into the future than ever.  I’ve taken some solace in the commitment of the vast majority of the federal workforce to the ideals of our nation and to working to serve the American people, regardless of who is in the Oval Office (or Trump Tower, as the case may be.)  I wrote about that here and here.

But I won’t pretend I’m not scared by our President Elect’s rhetoric and his cabinet nominations.

But I won’t pretend I’m not scared by our President Elect’s rhetoric and his cabinet nominations. Both show a disregard for portions of our society that were already vulnerable and for the role of government itself as a force for good. It’s possible, however, that with folks like Peter Thiel working on the transition, that the administration could accelerate changes to the government technology ecosystem, especially the regulations that govern it. There’s no doubt that more change is necessary but there are a lot of questions about what direction that change will take and who it will benefit.

In terms of funding and staffing, we’re growing! Regardless of who is in the White House, we have work to do from the bottom up and from the outside in. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last six years, and that strategy is more important than ever now, in lots of contexts. We can keep helping government work better in cities, counties and states around the country. And we’d better.

Thanks Jen!

You can help. Donate, come work at Code for America, work in government, or join your local Code for America Brigade!

One thought on ““Regardless of who is in the White House, we have work to do from the bottom up and from the outside in” – Five Questions With Jennifer Pahlka of Code for America

  1. Hunter, I am so happy with your reaching out to me through the texts you’ve been sending for several months now. I feel more connected with your life. I was glad you didn’t think my asking about your emotional health re your lump was ‘drama’ but very honest concern. Your answer was spot on.

    Hunter, I had not heard about this organization C4A so is it due to their lack of marketeers not volunteering (Taproot ‘void’) or something else since they began 7 years ago. Does Jennifer do this 100% or earn income from something else?

    Love, Dad

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