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Code for America's Jennifer Pahlka has argued for years that tech can help solve civic problems—and now, the White House is listening.

"I think procurement is hugely sexy,” says Jennifer Pahlka, sitting in the South of Market headquarters of Code for America, the nonprofit that she founded in 2009.

By procurement, Pahlka means the way that governments acquire goods and services—in this case, hardware and software. Traditionally, it's a molasses-slow process that favors legacy contractors and keeps the public sector years behind the curve. When civic tech does go online, the code is often proprietary, shutting it off to tinkerers who could improve and build upon it. (Recent case in point: HealthCare.gov, which debuted in October to widespread dysfunction.)

Pahlka sees an opportunity to intervene in this process. More broadly, she’s advocating for a future in which civil servants and techies work side by side; where civic data is “open” and available to all; where governments don’t shrink, but become “lean” enough to keep pace with innovation.

How? By sending in the geeks, of course. And, not incidentally, by making procurement sexy.

Each winter, Code for America deploys about 25 professionals in fields like programming, design, and research science to cities around the country, working with departments from police to public schools to gather data, render it computer-readable, and then build applications that make it human-usable. (Last year’s San Francisco fellows, for example, built Promptly, which sends reenrollment reminder text messages to food stamp recipients.) Most CFA fellows are a few years into their careers; many take a pay cut in exchange for a $35,000 stipend and an often difficult job. Sometimes they’re forced to scale back their ambitions in the face of institutional resistance to the cause of civic hacking.

It helps their cause that Pahlka has proved a steadfast spokesperson. In TED Talks and board meetings, her pitch has remained consistent: What governments really need, she argues, is not simply a check, but for the digitally literate to put some skin in the game—to serve their country by helping to build more responsive technology.

Perhaps the biggest affirmation of Code for America’s growing clout came this spring, when Pahlka was tapped as the White House’s temporary deputy chief technology officer for government innovation. Until next June, she’s directing a familiar-sounding program called the Presidential Innovation Fellows, which embeds tech folk in federal agencies for 6- to 13-month tours of duty. Todd Park, President Barack Obama’s top tech adviser, describes CFA as an inspiration for the federal program—and Pahlka as the godmother of a burgeoning movement. “We were given the confidence it wasn’t a suicide mission in large part because of Code for America’s success,” he says.

But all this comes at a factious moment in American governance—the age of shutdown, one might say—and Code for America has an existential question to wrestle with: What problems can’t an app solve? (Short answer: a lot.)

For her part, Pahlka admits that CFA was founded with a bit of naïveté. But she’s come to see it as a pragmatic, incremental, inherently partial response to some of our country’s most deeply entrenched dilemmas.

“You quickly find out that you don’t write an app and the world changes,” she says. “You write an app and it doesn’t even launch. The deeper impact comes from the experience of having a bunch of people who live in a certain framework experience another framework and become advocates for the idea that we can try things differently.”

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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