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Government Techonomy Events

Can Government Learn to Fail Fast?

Code for America's Jennifer Pahlka (Photo: Paul Sakuma)

Jennifer Pahlka fully acknowledges all the difficulties that come with bringing tech to government, yet she is still determined to deploy technology for civic good. In fact, we have little choice, the founder of Code for America said at Techonomy 2018.

“We have to have great digital competence in government if we’re going to face the 21st  century together,” said Pahlka, who formerly worked in the White House CTO’s office and helped create the U.S. Digital Service.

Talking with PCMag Editor-in-Chief Dan Costa, Pahlka shared insights on how to achieve a better organizational structure, one that facilitates dialogue between the government at the federal, state, and local levels, constituents, and our nation’s technology leaders.

Part of the challenge is raising our standards. As Costa put it: “Our expectations are low. We get the government we deserve.”

It’s not that we need our elected officials to necessarily be writing code, though. What we do need is for them to be able to recognize the value of an “iterative, user-centered, and data-driven process” and know how to oversee it.

“We need a set of elected leaders that are just willing to understand what’s at stake,” Pahlka said.

She added: “You have this issue of technology oversight living in a bunch of different places and then technology policy sort of sitting next to that, and people get very confused between the two. The worlds of, ‘How do you deliver better services to the American people at a lower cost at a better quality?’ have a lot in common with, ‘How we’re going to regulate self-driving cars or drones?’ But they’re actually two different businesses.”

The tech industry, she notes, makes bridging the gap more difficult with a patronizing attitude toward non-tech people.

“The issue is partly in how the technology community has framed it,” Pahlka said. “It is very easy to make people feel stupid about technology. It’s not necessary. I don’t code but I have a basic understanding of how the digital world works. That is something anybody can have.”

But this requires rewiring the way government thinks. “Silicon Valley is super famous for saying, ‘Fail fast.’ Congress does not like failing fast,” she said. “We’ve got to really retrain everyone.”

And that includes the public.

“You know who is the worst oversight? Us. The American people have to start thinking differently about this,” she said. “It’s just so easy to beat up on government all the time.”

Watch the discussion:

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