America, it’s time for a recode: Recapping “Recoding America”

Miss our discussion with "Recoding America" author Jennifer Pahlka? No problem! Here’s a recap of the event.
November 14, 2023

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the US were promised checks that never came or came late at a cost to their well-being. Some money was even stolen or wasted. This well-meaning attempt to support people—as unemployment skyrocketed, parents struggled to find childcare, and uncertainty soared—fell short, as is often the case. Why is our government faltering in delivery, even when there’s good policy?

It’s a technical question, a code issue—but maybe not in the way you think. While media commentators and tech CEOs blame the US government’s lack of digital prowess or the brain drain from the public to the private sector, policy implementation tools even fail when the government contracts the work out. Clearly, there is something more going on here that can’t be solved by improving tech.

That’s why in November 2023 we sat down with Code for America Founder and President Obama’s Deputy Chief Technology Officer Jennifer Pahlka to talk about her book Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better and the recode that our government really needs.

These are some of the top things we learned at the event:

  1. This book has technology in it, but it’s really about government. It’s about a core dysfunctionality of government, the separation of policy and implementation. Why? Because policy needs to learn from implementation to be effective.
  2. The waterfall software development model fits very well into the status quo of how our government works. But it doesn’t enable the implementation people to talk to the policy people.
  3. There are people in government who want to change this and are willing to forego process to make sure we actually get to the outcomes. A notable example is Yadira Sánchez Vega who was instrumental in implementing the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act.
  4. However, we can’t rely on heroism. We need systemic change that incentivizes people in the government to make things better.

Ultimately, you can’t just plant the seeds of good policy, you must also till the soil. We need to recode the American government in a way that makes sense for the digital age to ensure that when the government does leverage tech, people get the support they need when they need it.

As for the tech itself: it alone can’t solve our issues, but civic tech that is informed by process, context, and the needs of the public is still needed. And you can be part of that.

Want to learn more?