ON LEADING PODCAST • Episode #23 • May 22, 2024

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Episode #23

Jennifer Pahlka

On Revolutionizing Government for the Digital Age

By Lori Brewer Collins

Fostering Innovation and Trust in 21st Century Governance

Jennifer Pahlka is a trailblazer in the realm of government transformation. Named one of Forbes Top 50 Women in Tech in 2018, she has dedicated her career to bridging the gap between the public and private sectors, between citizens and their government, and between policies and the outcomes they intend.

In 2009, Jennifer founded Code for America, a non-profit organization that works with government at all levels to make digital services that are simple, accessible, and easy to use. The organization operates on the belief that government can work for the people, by the people, in the digital age.

Under Pahlka’s leadership, Code for America launched several successful initiatives. One notable project is the development of a user-friendly food assistance application, which dramatically simplified the process for individuals to apply for benefits. This project was the beginning of her journey to understanding the deeper causes of declining trust and faith in government, and to envisioning how we might reverse that decline.

She took a leave from Code for America to serve as U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer under President Obama, where she helped establish the United States Digital Service (USDS). This initiative aimed to enhance federal digital services, reinforcing her commitment to public sector innovation.  She also served on the Defense Innovation Board under both Presidents Obama and Trump. Today, she is as a senior fellow with both the Niskanen Center and the Federation of American Scientists and writes a popular substack called Eating Policy.

In her book Recoding America, Jennifer delves into why policies seldom have their intended effect and how a more agile, bottom-up approach can get better outcomes, sharing insights from both her own experiences and those of a wide range of other public servants. The book highlights her belief in the power of user-centered design and the importance of diverse perspectives in creating effective public services.

Jennifer’s work is fundamentally changing how the public sector works. She has shown that innovative, user-centered design can make government services more effective and accessible, but also that policymaking must stop being a separate domain, distinct from the work of implementing it. Her legacy is one of ensuring that government can better serve its citizens in the digital age. Jennifer continues to inspire a new generation to apply their skills for the public good, fostering a culture of innovation and collaboration that promises to transform government for years to come.

Key Moments

  • Storytelling transforms the playing field. You can’t combat bureaucracy with more bureaucracy, or “paper with paper.” Instead, you must counter it with heart, stories, and real people. This approach shifts the entire dynamic, giving you a game you can win.
  • Weeding is crucial. Think of our elected officials as gardeners, and the bills and policies they create as the seeds they plant. However, planting seeds is only a small part of maintaining a thriving garden. Gardeners must till the soil, provide sufficient sunlight, water, and nutrients, and, critically, remove weeds. Similarly, policymakers must eliminate outdated or ineffective regulations, the “policy cruft,” to ensure a healthy legislative environment.
  • To public servants everywhere: Don’t give up! You are the backbone of a fragile institution that we often take for granted. Our government functions because of your countless hours and immense effort. We must recognize that you are continually facing and overcoming immense challenges. Thank you for your unwavering dedication.
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