How Can You Bring Innovation To Government Services? Follow Users

Mar 30, 2017
Originally published on June 29, 2017 1:59 pm

Every recent president has promised to innovate the way government works, and this week, the Trump administration announced its plan to do the same.

The initiative is called the White House Office of American Innovation. Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, will lead a team that includes business executives with little or no government experience. The Trump team says its agenda includes "modernizing government services" and "creating transformational infrastructure projects."

Jennifer Pahlka, who founded of Code for America, a nonpartisan group that places developers and designers in local government, tells NPR's Ari Shapiro about the challenges of innovating in government.

Pahlka, who worked on tech initiatives in the Obama White House, says users are the best tool for identifying problems with government technology.

"One of the things that we've learned at Code for America over the six years of our existence is that if you follow users — the people who are trying to use your system — and actually watch what's going on there and use data to explain to others where the system is jammed up, you find that the people in government are very, very eager to fix those problems," Pahlka says. "It's just that they couldn't see them."


Interview Highlights

On what makes innovating government from private companies

Government is fundamentally different from business, in the sense that businesses choose their customers. Government must serve everyone, or at least in certain cases they must serve a certain population.

Many government services do have to work for every person in America. ... We think technology can really help that, but we have to understand that people have different levels of access to technology as well.

On if running government like a business is an achievable goal

I think I'm most concerned about what comes out of these efforts, regardless of how [Trump and Kushner] frame them. I think that there's a lot that can be done, building on what's happened in really the last six years both in the federal government and with states and municipalities around the country — that shows that a lot of these techniques or these practices, these principles (and we summarize them as iterative, user-centered and data-driven) these practices can make services better. And better technology generally costs less than what we're spending today, not more.

On how to identify potential issues by monitoring users

There's an amazing team that's been working on this for quite some time. My friend Marina Martin was the CTO of the [Department of Veterans Affairs] and one of the things she could observe is that the application for health benefits didn't work on most computers — you had to have a specific combination of Internet Explorer and Adobe Reader to open the application.

And because, you know, the box had been checked — it looked like it worked per the contracting requirements — it wasn't in the queue to be fixed. And the team at the Veterans Administration digital service showed folks at the VA homeless veterans trying to access the service on a computer, and realized it didn't work. And they've gone in and fixed it, and now it's a super, streamlined, very clear web app that works on any browser.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Every recent president has promised to innovate the way government works, and this week, the Trump administration announced its plan to do that. It's opening the White House Office of American Innovation. Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, is in charge. It's staffed mostly by business executives.

We wanted to explore the challenges of innovating in government, so we invited Jennifer Pahlka into our studio. She is founder of Code for America, a group that places tech fellows in local government. She also worked in the Obama White House. I asked her about how innovating in government differs from doing the same in the private sector.

JENNIFER PAHLKA: Government is fundamentally different from business in the sense that businesses choose their customers. Government must serve everyone, or, at least in certain cases, they must serve a certain population. Many government services do have to work for every person in America.

SHAPIRO: Seniors who are not web-literate, people in rural America, other folks who might have different levels of access or fluency.

PAHLKA: Exactly - and in different languages, all sorts of different things. And so we think technology can really help that, but we have to understand that people have different levels of access to technology as well.

SHAPIRO: So when Jared Kushner and his father-in-law, Donald Trump, say they want government to run like an efficient, well-run business, is that an appropriate or achievable goal?

PAHLKA: I think I'm most concerned about what comes out of these efforts regardless of how they frame them. I think that there's a lot that can be done building on what's happened in really the last six years both in the federal government and with states and municipalities around the country that shows that a lot of these techniques, these practices, these principles - and we summarize them as iterative, user-centered and data-driven - these practices can make services better. And better technology generally costs less than what we're spending today, not more.

SHAPIRO: Iterative, user-centered and data driven - so you do it in small increments. You see what people actually want, and you figure out what works and do more of that. Is that basically what that means?

PAHLKA: Yes. You're hired.

(LAUGHTER)

PAHLKA: That's right.

SHAPIRO: Is there something you can point to that worked really badly a few years ago that now is more efficient and effective and better serves the American taxpayers who are paying for it?

PAHLKA: There's an amazing team that's been working on this for quite some time. My friend Marina Martin was the CTO of the VA, and one of the things she could observe is that the application for health benefits didn't work on most computers. You had to have a specific combination of Internet Explorer and Adobe Reader (laughter) to open the application.

And because, you know, the box had been checked, it looked like it worked per the contracting requirements. It wasn't in the queue to be fixed. And the team at the Veterans Administration Digital Service showed folks at the VA homeless veterans trying to access the service on a computer and realized it didn't work. And they've gone in and fixed it, and now it's a super streamlined, very clear web app that works on any browser.

SHAPIRO: Veterans Affairs is one of the areas that Jared Kushner says he wants to focus on with this initiative - clearly still some distance to go.

PAHLKA: There is certainly a long way to go. And one of the things that we have learned at Code for America over the six years of our existence is that if you follow users, the people who are trying to use your system, and actually watch what's going on there and use data to explain to others where the system is jammed up, you find that the people in government are very, very eager to fix those problems. It's just that they couldn't see them.

SHAPIRO: You wrote a blog post the day after the election saying that the work of remaking government is not partisan, doesn't belong to any political party or one administration. Do you worry that people with talent and skills who disagree with the politics of this president will choose to stay away from the project?

PAHLKA: I think people need to know how heroic the work that gets done in government both by people from the technology industry who come in and by the civil servants who were there today is and how enormous the impact that work is on people who need help in this country.

It's not so much about what President you're working for. It's, who in the American public are you working for? And I think that we can still really honor that work even when many of us, including myself, are worried about some of the policies that the administration might be promoting.

SHAPIRO: Jennifer Pahlka is founder and executive director of Code for America. Thanks for coming into the studio.

PAHLKA: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.