Intro. [Recording date: March 23, 2017.]
Russ Roberts: What is Code for America?
Jennifer Pahlka: Well, we are a national non-profit, a network of people who believe that government is an important institution but needs to be updated to fit the 21st century. We think government services could work better, outcomes could be better, costs could be reduced; and we can find ways to serve those whose needs are the greatest; and we really have to think in new ways and make government work differently to do that. But that, if we can sort of all take responsibility and come together and do that, then it could be really the biggest source of societal good for a generation. It's a very important--I think that government works in a 21st century way and meets the needs of our country today.
Russ Roberts: I'm glad you are aiming low. No, it's very ambitious. But when you first started--which was how long ago?
Jennifer Pahlka: Well, let's see. We started in sort of 2010. And we started as a Fellowship program where we got people from primarily the consumer tech industry to come into government in small teams and partner with cities. And the first time we ran that, which was sort of how we kicked off, was January of 2011. So we've been around about 6 years.
Russ Roberts: So, in the early days--as you say, it was a fellowship program. Sort of a Peace Corps, or people likened it to Teach for America. Or you placed people into organizations or in this case government agencies to try to make them more effective. How long was that the main model? Are you still doing that? And what is your--what in addition does Code for America do now?
Jennifer Pahlka: We definitely still do the fellowship program; it's an important part of what we do. We don't just place them in government. We really create these small teams that sort of mimic the skillset of a startup. And then we let them--we place them with great innovators in government who want to try a different approach to solving problems, not just using technology but by using user-centric design and platform thinking. And they not just make products that sort of solve a problem for the city or the agency--so it's mostly been cities and counties, some states, leading up till now, or working with the Department of Justice now in the State of California, broadening out from just municipalities. But what they are really doing is demonstrating how we could do this fundamentally differently. And then government people's feedback--they generally are smart enough to know that there is a better way and that other ways are possible. They give them the model that they can follow so that it's not just our work that can have an impact, but the work that they can continue to do in these new models across all of these municipalities, all of these agencies, on their own. So we still very much do that. But some of the projects that came through these one-year, sort of service-year projects which these folks from consumer tech who wanted to sort of dip their toes into government for a year have shown a lot of promise. And we have realized that not just hoping that they will get adopted elsewhere through open source software--which is our model--but actually spreading them from municipality to municipality can have a really huge impact. And so we have a number of programs that we are taking to scale that operate in partnership, primarily with counties and states now, that have, the people in this country who have, really I think what is the worst experience with government and those who need access to government services like food assistance, Medicare and Medicaid. And particularly folks who interact with the criminal justice system. So, we do this fellowship. We also operate some of our projects that scale. We also spend a fair amount of time just organizing this large and growing community of people who sort of believe in this idea and want to see it come to fruition wherever they are, whether it's Bloomington, Indiana or the Department of Justice in D.C. There's just tons of people who want to change how government works to make it work better for everybody.
Russ Roberts: Give us an idea of the scope. So, early on, how many Fellows were out there, and how many employees are in the organization, roughly? How big is it?
Jennifer Pahlka: So we've got about a 50 full-time staff. We have been doing the Fellowship with somewhere between 12 and 25 Fellows per year. But what's really scaled us is not just taking these programs to many, many counties--we're in the process right now of taking our Food Stamp project to 58 California counties this year--it may be 57. But close to that. But the scale really comes from the amazing network of volunteers who do this, in about 75 cities, who aren't--they are just part of the community. They bring together the people from Miami or Philadelphia or New York or, as I said, there's one starting in Bloomington, Indiana. And just the people of that city will get together with the folks from City Hall and work on projects with them. And that, combined with all those amazing people in city halls and agencies and county welfare offices around the country--are really, the scale is the impact, not just through the Fellowship.
Russ Roberts: And is there a waiting list? Is there demand--is there enough of a reputation--I don't know if you've had enough success that cities are eager to have help and there just isn't enough to go around? Or is there enough to go around?
Jennifer Pahlka: Yeah, there's a lot of demand for it. What we had been struggling with is if we go work in a city or a county for a year and we create a piece of software, they don't always know how to maintain it. Or, we don't always know how to maintain it for them. We can't create 30 software projects a year and run those for them. In many cases we've been able to hand them off, and the city's [?] will run them or they've become their own startup. But, increasingly, local governments are looking for--they want to work with Code for America, they want to work with their local Brigades, which is the name for local community groups that do this; they want to work with Fellows. But as we've grown and the movement has grown, we are increasingly looking at ways that we can build things that are sustainable, not just demonstration projects. Demonstration projects have a huge value in getting people to change practices. But after 6 years of it, you can't have everything be a demonstration project. Enormous demand, and we're finding various ways to meet it through different programs and in acting, getting the community to act as the capacity so that it really can scale.
Russ Roberts: I like that word, 'brigade.' It has an air of military success, vigor, and it's better than 'militia' which has a [?] overtone. I'm sure you thought about that carefully. 'Brigade' is very nice.
Jennifer Pahlka: Well, we think of it actually as the Bucket Brigade--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, clean up crew kind of thing, too. But--
Jennifer Pahlka: Everyone gets together and lends a hand. That's really the--well, more than the military, it's sort of more that everybody pitches in concept.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I like that.
Russ Roberts: Let's give people an idea of what kind of projects we talking about. So, in your TED talk (Technology, Entertainment, Design talk), which we'll link to, which was back in 2012, you had a couple of very simple examples. You talked about adopting a fire hydrant. So, talk about that, if you'd like, or a related kind of app that some of the Fellows may have created and how it spread.
Jennifer Pahlka: In FireHydrant App, it's so popular, because they think of the TED talk. And it remains popular not necessarily because of the fire hydrant instance, which I'll explain, but because it's an app that allows people literally to lend a hand in their city in physical infrastructure, it fit a gap in a lot of ways. So, the history of this one is, there's been a lot of emergent outcomes. We have an amazing team. In our first year, Fellows who said, 'Yes, I'll come do this. I'm going to leave my tech industry job and join a small team that's going to work,' in this case with the city of Boston. And we had grand plans for what we would do. They all changed once our Fellows got in there. And one of the projects sort of became the model for future projects, which was not the Fire Hydrant App. The first one that became the model, actually, was this request by the mayor to deal with the fact that they had changed the rules for about how kids were assigned to public schools. And they were still communicating these changes to parents through a 28-page printed brochure. But what it really needed was a map[?], because they were trying to get kids to walk to school--so, they were assigning kids to schools within a mile and a half of their home. And we had a couple of Fellows go build this map[App?] where you could answer your address and the age of your kids and whether there were siblings in another public school, and it would return a map--list of schools that you were able to attend. And we found out after we spent about 10 weeks getting this up and running, which seems about right if you are a tech industry folk, person, that if it had gone through a procurement process, it would have taken about 2 years and about $2 million to build. And that really set us off on, 'Okay, this is really what we're here to do.' But we had all these other projects: because we took so much less time than they thought we would need, one of the other Fellows saw--he was there during--this was the winter of 2011 in Boston, when it snowed an enormous amount. Everyone called it Snowpocalypse. And one of the Fellows asked one of the folks in government, 'What happens to all these fire hydrants that are covered in 7 or 8 feet of snow, if they need to access them?' And they said, 'Well, we really just no longer have the resources to have municipal workers go dig them out.' And he said, 'Why don't we just have the people who live in front of them adopt them and agree to dig them out when they are covered? So that if there's a fire on their block, they don't lose 20 minutes when the fire trucks come.' And he just made this map and let people say, 'Yes, I will adopt this hydrant and make sure it's accessible to fire fighters.' And it was just sort of a great example because everyone just looked at it and said, 'Wait. I'm in Honolulu and the same thing I care about is obviously not snow on my fire hydrant, but I know that some of the tsunami sirens aren't working, and the municipal workers aren't able to go check all of those.' But we'll allow people to adopt them and report when they are not doing their jobs. It's now a dozen different things in a dozen different cities. But, I think a lot of people were really surprised that a). this technology is so easy to do--this was like a day-long project, the first instance of it. And that people want to help. People actually are completely willing to do something as easy as saying, 'Yes, I'll take care of this piece of physical infrastructure on my street.' We learned a lot from that.
Russ Roberts: And there was a game aspect to it which I thought was clever.
Jennifer Pahlka: Yeah. There's a lot of things from here that start out as games, actually.
Russ Roberts: Which was, if you didn't do your job, someone could adopt it from you, right?
Jennifer Pahlka: Yeah. There's social dynamics in everything that has to do with the Common. We have another app that came out a couple of years later, also a side project, not the thing that we went in to do, that started out as a game where you could play with the transit routes in your city. And it ultimately became a company that's spun out, because we found that in sort of small- to medium-size cities, the transit planners were actually using it to do their jobs. And they've changed some of the features and made it more robust, and now it's one of the hottest startups in San Francisco.
Russ Roberts: And what does it do?
Jennifer Pahlka: It allows transit planners to look at the effects of changing routes in their cities, very, very quickly. Something that was a several-day process to sort of model out what would happen if you changed a transit route now takes 10 seconds.
Russ Roberts: And, looking at the impact of that change on what? Traffic? Timeliness?
Jennifer Pahlka: Well, at a number of things. When it was just a game it was things like you could see on the side, 'Okay, so you as a citizen want the Mission 14 Bus, which runs right across in front of our houses here, to go a little bit further.' And so you change that; and so it would tell you--the cost impact, primarily. So, you could say, 'I want the Mission 14 to come every 5 minutes instead of every 15'; and 'I want it to go all the way to Sears St., because I go to Google a lot.' Or something. And it would add up on the side how much cost you are adding to the system. Now, of course, it's much more robust; and it's things like Title VI compliance. You can do much, much more quickly--it's called Remix, now--the company--and the Remix App. Whereas it would have taken--prior, it was weeks and weeks of people modeling out of any changes to a route to show that it was compliant with Title VI. Now you can sort of push a button and do it. Or you can drag a [?]--
Russ Roberts: What is Title VI?
Jennifer Pahlka: Title VI has to do with equitable access in transit. And beyond that, I would be out of my depth.
Russ Roberts: Okay. But it's looking for some characteristics of various neighborhoods in where it goes.
Jennifer Pahlka: Exactly.
Russ Roberts: So, this on the surface sounds like a wonderful thing. And part of it certainly is. Reminds me a little bit of the people who, within the public school system, will start a collection of money to do x, y, or z because the school doesn't have enough money. And of course one of the challenges here--I suspect you've thought about this--is the incentives it gives, both good and bad, to governments to solve the problem on their own. So, have you observed that dynamic? And what do you think of it?
Jennifer Pahlka: Well, I think that--I would agree that the point of all of this demonstration is to make government better. And that doesn't mean letting them off the hook, but it does mean demonstrating ways in which we can be creative and sort of 21st century in our thinking. So, when we talk about--we talk about sort of two sides of our mission that are inextricably linked. In fact, on our wall here we have written, in huge letters: 'Government can work for the people, by the people in the 21st century if we all help.' Now, the 'for the people' part, is just, the main way that we express that is just better services for citizens--better, particularly digital services because that's how people interact with institutions today, primarily through digital means. But, the 'by the people' part of it: think of the tsunami siren app and they hydrant app are really just one manifestation of that. There's a much broader agenda there that I think doesn't necessarily have to do with the notion that we're all going to shovel outside a fire hydrant, but the ways in which we work, the ways in which we insist on interacting with other institutions in our lives, can be applied to government; but we have to make that happen. So, having local community groups come together--like our brigades--and work with government isn't necessarily about letting them off the hook. It's certainly true that if you go into any City Hall today, pretty much, and say, 'You guys should be doing things this way,' or 'You should be doing things that way,' or 'It wouldn't be that hard for you to make an app to make this so much easier for people in your city,' they will tell you two things. They will say, 'We can't do it that way.' Now, many people are changing that. But sort of the conventional wisdom is: 'We're not allowed to do it that way. We're not allowed to build things quickly based on user needs. We have to go through lengthy procurement processes that mean that it's going to be 3 years before you are ever going to see anything and it's going to cost a lot of money.' And they'll also say, 'We just don't have the resources.' And so, when we talk about 'by the people,' it means a lot of different things. It means the people showing up and saying, 'There are different ways of doing this. We can help you, not just hold you accountable.' And sometimes when a local community group makes an app for a city, it's not that it's replacing the system that, the procurement system. It's not replacing what the system should have done. It's probably something the city in practicality wouldn't have gotten to do. It's not like we took money away from a contractor because they were never going to contract for this. They simply don't have the funds. But it's helping government sort of flex those muscles of seeing the other ways that things can get done, and then finding their own path to doing it in a much lighter-weight way that looks a lot more like what a startup would do. So, it's really just mixing it up. And, stop thinking about government over here and people over here, but how together we can come up with some new model.
Russ Roberts: I love that--I think it's a great idea. And some of the examples are really inspiring or just kind of cool. I guess the worry I have is that: Government doesn't seem to respond very well to these kind of innovations in the following sense. At least they take them. That's good. They don't just say, 'Oh, that's--we don't do that.' They will say, 'We can't do it ourselves but we'd like to [let you ?] use [?] yours.' So, I think that's a good thing. But what worries me is that they don't then say that, 'Well, now that we're doing it this way, we don't have to do all this other stuff.' And we could say, 'Give some of your money back.' There's no pressure, or there's not much pressure--there's a little bit of pressure, but there's not much pressure in government to say, restrain itself in its, say, mission-creep. So, there are things that government does well. And there's things that it does poorly. The things that it does poorly, you are maybe helping them do better. I worry they are just going to do some other things poorly. Because they don't seem to then say, 'Well, I guess we don't need this big a staff, because this is taken care of. We were stretched thin; but now we have this great efficiency.' Unlike, say, in the private sector where innovations like this tend to lead to lower prices or, you know, all kinds of different responses. I worry government doesn't respond very well to these kinds of innovations in that dimension. Do you notice that? Do you think that's an issue?
Jennifer Pahlka: Well, I think we're pretty early in this whole agenda, and there hasn't been, probably, you know, examples of this working at scale enough to be talking about--you know, returning dollars, whether to taxpayers or to other areas of government. But I think we're headed there. I think that there are different ways to think about this. To me, I think this notion of sort of big government or small government is less powerful than government that does what we intend it to do. And I think we have so far to go before we are showing those examples of [?]--we will get to that conversation. And different people will have different views on it. But I think we all want it to go there, whatever your views on government, you don't want your taxpayers, that your tax dollars, to the extent that you pay them, not getting the effect that you intend. So, personally for me, I'll give you an example. We work in a lot right now in food assistance. You made, you know, you may think food assistance is a great idea or it's a bad idea. I'll tell you it's, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which is a $70 billion dollar program across our country, is a program most highly correlated with health and education outcomes for kids. I think it's actually a program that you could argue saves a bunch of money, because if you've got a kid who's got breakfast in their stomach when they head to school, they are less likely to act out; you are less likely to end up putting that kid in Special Ed; they are going to perform better. There's all sorts of reasons why I tend to think getting people food is getting--especially kids when they are going to go hungry--is a good way to help everybody and keep our society running. In California, which everyone would think, because it has a reputation as being a very Blue state--in fact, there's many, many Red counties--we have the second-lowest rate of participation in SNAP. The only state with lower participation by eligible people is Wyoming. Now, a lot of people can't get on the program. We can talk about why. That's essentially what we kind of do here at Code for America, is sort of make it work as intended so people can get on. But the point is, we know a lot about the cost of administering the program. There's billions and billions of dollars that we are spending in IT (Information Technology) and human beings to administer this; and a lot of it, if you really look at it from the perspective of the user and the perspective of the eligibility workers and the county welfare directors and social workers--it is so much more complicated and time-consuming and technology used than it needs to be. If you take the couple of billion dollars that we are spending probably in California alone on expensive IT systems, many, many different phone calls, tons and tons of paperwork, and just put that into giving people food, that would be a better use of taxpayer dollars, from my view. And I care about that just as much as someone who thinks Food stamps is a bad idea. We're both looking at how do we make these systems just be much more efficient and do what the taxpayer says they should do.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I totally agree with you; and I think--you know, there are certain things that government does that certain segments of the population are never going to encounter. I've been fortunate; I've never been on Food Stamps, never been eligible for Food Stamps--at least I don't think so. I may have been when I was a student. But I've never gotten Food Stamps. I've never had to deal with that bureaucracy. I've never been in jail. I've never been arrested. I've never been on parole, or probation. So, that government bureaucracy that deals with that strikes me as really unpleasant and not particularly well-run. So, things that would make that work more effectively and humanely would seem to me to be a really great idea. Maybe we'll talk about that later, if we have a chance.
Russ Roberts: There are parts of government most of us encounter, though, like the Department of Motor Vehicles, that have become sort of a--you know, a late night TV joke. It's not even a late-night TV joke any more. It's not funny, because it's been told so many times. Or, the Post Office. Now, in my experience, they've both gotten a lot better over the last 25 years, in the states that I've happened to encounter them. And I've viewed that--I don't know if this is true; it's just a speculation--that the improved customer service that we get from the for-profit sector has put some pressure. People have certain expectations of when their phone call is going to be answered and what's going to happen when they encounter a person at a desk. Because we deal with bureaucracy in the private sector, too; and it has many of the problems that the public sector has; but it seems to run, on average, better. So we have those expectations. And I think the public sector has responded. Just to take a simple example: I can re-register my car online now and not have to make the trip to the dreaded DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles)--at least sometimes. And that's great. But when I do go there, say, to get my son his driver's license, it's a pretty unpleasant experience. Which includes getting in the wrong line--things that would seem to me to be fairly easy to fix. It's almost an apparent conspiracy to make sure you've left something at home. It's not transparent what you need when you show up. Had that issue for passport renewal for my kids lately. So, those kind of issues seem to be very amenable to some kind of process improvement--maybe technology, maybe not. I don't know. And I'm wondering if you guys have thought about those sort of big interfaces where people are encountering government across the citizenship.
Jennifer Pahlka: Well, I think you make a really good point that is really core to our work: which is, it isn't really technology. It's design. [?] process redesign.
Russ Roberts: Correct.
Jennifer Pahlka: And that's absolutely true. There's tons of technology in government. It's just that the language we use isn't built for government needs, not for user needs. And that--we've learned over the years that you can make a better website, but exactly as you describe: If the things that happen after you enter your information on the website involve you taking further steps, interacting with a system that is still obscure, hard to understand; you don't know what you're supposed to bring--
Russ Roberts: Too many click-throughs that would never happen in most other private sites--
Jennifer Pahlka: Well, I'll give you an example--it's a good example because it's very parallel to what you just described, not knowing what to bring, etc.
When you apply for food stamps, now if you are our program--so, it takes about 45 minutes online through the way California has been doing it, and it doesn't work on mobiles, and most of the people who need it wouldn't have access--you know, most low income people actually don't have access to broadband Internet at home, so they're going to the library. They would try to do the food stamps application online at the library; but the library computers time out after 30 minutes. And the application takes about 45-50 minutes. And it won't let you save your work. So there's all these sort of barriers and you don't take into account how people actually usually use it. The funds are--so, we have an application that takes about 7 minutes on mobile phone, very simple, very clear, written in a way that doesn't confuse people. And then you're in the system, going through the rest of the eligibility steps. And then it starts to look again, a bit like what you describe. So, we would text-message the people who applied through our app, and say, 'You were supposed to have gotten an interview by phone. Did they call you?' And we started documenting what people told us, and it was things like, 'Well, I got the letter telling me when my interview was, but it came after the date of the interview.' Or, 'I got a letter, but it was in the wrong language.' Or, 'I got the frog[?] prevention form, and I didn't know how to fill it out, so I just stopped the process.' And, you know, in these cases the data turns out to be really important in terms of having a conversation with people who administer these programs. For example on that frog[?] prevention form, our staff called the county that was sending that form out, and said, 'I don't think the form that you're sending is required by any law, policy, or regulation. I just would like to like to know why you are sending it to your clients.' And the County Welfare Director said, 'We don't send that out.' And she called us two weeks later and said, 'I just really want to thank you for letting me know that that was going out to our clients. I didn't know that. And I've gone and talked to the eligibility workers and they've stopped it.' And then you see a lower a burden on the people you see; the people in that county actually making it through that step; more people making it all the way to the end. And, I will stress that that response of 'Thank you for letting me know,' is actually the most common response that we get from government officials, by far. I'm not saying we don't have people who don't want things to change, are afraid of sort of the way we do stuff; that happens. But we are engaged in a very specific thing. And are able to provide data and do it in a courteous way. Almost all of the time they say, 'Actually, we want this process to work, too. We didn't have that visibility because we don't have the ability in government to create IT systems that are instrumented to know, and larger processes around these IT systems, that are instrumented to tell us what works and what doesn't. And so when somebody helps us and tells us that, we're very eager to fix it. And [?] reasons, I, you know, I really think people misunderstand, largely, the attitude of people in government. There are certainly the experiences that you mentioned. I have had, of course, myself at a DMV or Passport Office where somebody doesn't seem like they are really trying to help me. But I've also had so many experiences of sort of leaders in government--people who run these programs, who are just so eager for a different way of doing things. Because they went into public service to serve the public. And they just want more tools to do it. And they know that data about their users' experience is a great tool.
Russ Roberts: Just to bring in Adam Smith for a minute, which I didn't think I'd be able to do--but I'm sure my listeners will be happy to hear Adam Smith's name invoked. I'm going to bring in a different point than I usually bring in, for those who are tired of Adam Smith. But in a for-profit business, the owner, certainly, wants to figure out what would make the customer happy. They may not be good at it. There are plenty of private-sector software apps that are designed for the team and for the user--we know that there are problems. But then they get these signals from the market. And then they respond, or they go out of business if they don't. And even an owner who is passionately about customer service and desperately wants to figure out what customers want and help them, can have employees who don't care. But there's a sort of a set of feedback loops that, the better you are at empathizing with your customer and figuring out what would make them happy, the more likely it is that your business will thrive, and you'll keep your job, and so on and so on. And with the government, those feedback loops tend to be less robust. And so, part of what I see you doing, if I want to frame it as positively as I can, is that you're, sort of, you are standing in and providing the feedback; and I would say, even the incentive for change that might not otherwise be there when a single customer complains. And in some sense, single-citizen, in some sense, your profile and the fact that you've got a website and you can tell stories and all kinds of things--you can go to the media--you have a lot more power. And certainly your brigades, I think, have a lot more power than the average citizen in responding. And I'm curious--you can respond to any of that if you want, but I'm also curious if you've gotten some criticism for people who see you as sort of an unaccountable, non-governmental piece of the puzzle.
Jennifer Pahlka: I am going to have to think about that. I will say that I think you are absolutely right in your diagnosis: what we're doing often is just making those feedback loops--that we are making things visible that otherwise aren't visible. And very often just--when we can make problems that people have visible, we see very often a desire to fix them. And then we see people saying, 'But within the constraints of government, I don't have the same options to fix them that you guys do.' And, our answer to that has been, 'Yeah, that has been true. But it's true in practice. It's not actually true in law.'
Russ Roberts: It's habit. It's habit, right?
Jennifer Pahlka: Well, yes. Exactly. Habit is another word for it. We would say, of course, we're never asking anybody to do anything that is against the law. You take law, and regulation is on top of it, and policies, and all these things; and basically the way people practice a lot of the regulation around, particularly around how government applies and builds technology, which is a lot about procurement regulation, you can go back in there and say, 'No, actually doing it the way that's right for users is actually totally legal.' And people often don't believe that until they go see other projects that are running in that way, ask a bunch of questions and then see that this is completely justified. It's the conventional wisdom that needs to be challenged, that there's something wrong with this.
Russ Roberts: The other thing that strikes me as important that you contribute or can contribute--and I'm sure you've done some of this, and would probably want to do more--is benchmarking. So, if I'm a city government with a problem like fire hydrants or whatever it is, there is a temptation to sort of just say, 'Well, that's a really hard problem. We don't know how to solve it. I guess that's too bad.' And in the outside world, people would say, 'Let's see if anybody else has solved this.' And I think one of the things it appears that you are doing, and you can tell me about it, is sort a clearinghouse for innovation for municipal and county government potentially to make transparency not just for users trying to use services more effectively and the problems that are cropping up to become better known, but for municipalities--cities and counties--to have a better idea of what could be done to solve a particular problem, and to let that spread the way it would normally in a competitive market. And it doesn't always happen in a public-sector setting. Is that right?
Jennifer Pahlka: Yeah. Absolutely. Though I'll[?] say that in terms of things like performance management with data, we're a player in that space but I would have to give a shout out to folks like WhatWorksCities, which is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, that is just doing that in a very disciplined and rigorous way across the country. So, we're more helping folks build the capacity--and I used the word 'empathy' before, and I want to lift that up--to build services for users with empathy, and feedback loops. The sort of way that's most expressed is through the creation of something like a municipal version of the U.S. Digital Service, which I had a hand in helping create at the Federal level, where you get people in who know how to do this well--whether they are building it themselves or working with contractors, which is most common. But the folks, at What Works are just doing an amazing job of helping people create a program to use data to make better decisions across hundreds and hundreds of cities in America. And they just deserve a lot of credit for that work.
Russ Roberts: We had Paul Bloom as a guest a few episodes back talking about his book, Against Empathy. And I picked up that book with quite a bit of skepticism; and I found it extremely thought-provoking and mostly persuasive. And when I talked to him, I even got more persuaded. Part of it's just the challenge of being a host of a podcast: there's a tendency, if the guest is polite and kind, as you are, for example, and as Paul was, to just sort of root for them and find them a little more sympathetic than you might otherwise be. And sometimes not. But anyway, after I finished that interview with Paul, and time passed--and it's such an interesting book that I still think about it. One of the things that I thought about on the other side, in favor of empathy that didn't come up in that conversation is the importance of empathy in being successful in business. Or, in government service. Which is: It's really useful to be able to put yourself in the shoes of another person if you are trying to figure out how to make them happy or what they may want in a product or in a service. And so, the example you just gave--and when you said you want to "lift up empathy," I'm thinking some of our listeners might say, 'No, empathy is bad.' No, it's really--there are many places it's very good. And this is one of them. So I just want to make that point, because I regret not having thought of it at the time when I interviewed Paul; and it's certainly relevant here. I think one of the challenges of government is that the feedback loops for empathy with their customers, their clients, are not always there, and it's important to have them.
Jennifer Pahlka: Yeah, absolutely. I heard that interview; it's fantastic, by the way. And one of the things that we help folks understand is that, for instance, you could say, 'I've got empathy for my users and I know they want this feature; and so we're going to add this feature.' Now, you do that a thousand times, and you get software with a thousand features that no one uses.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Or three people want any one of them, and nobody wants all of them.
Jennifer Pahlka: Yeah. So our process is very much grounded in empathy, but with the skills of design to translate user needs into great software that works for everybody. And generally for it to work for everybody, it actually needs to have fewer features, less complexity[?] not more. And that's something I think government has not done well until recently--until more people with design skills have been using those skills within the government context.
Russ Roberts: I think that's a great point. You know, people often accuse me of being anti-government. I'm not. I'm very much not an anarchist, for example. I'm what I like to call a classical liberal--meaning I want limited or smaller government than what we have now. But I do think--one way to think about that is that I think government has too many features, across a bunch of different scope of activities than what you're referring to, say, in a particular app. But if the government tries to do too many things, it ends up doing most of them either poorly or in a mediocre way, where, if they concentrated on their core activities and did them well, I think we'd have a much better citizenship and happier country. Related to that, I want to take a quote that you gave--I though it was phenomenal--in your TED Talk from Tim O'Reilly--former EconTalk guest. You quoted him as saying, "Government is what we do together that we can't do alone." And a lot times, listeners ask me what's my philosophy of government. That's pretty much my philosophy of government. Where I usually differ with people is what we can do alone. at least, when I say 'alone,' I mean voluntarily--without coercion; without taxation. And my challenge to what you are working on and to what people who want bigger government than what I want is: there are just so many things that government does today--that's what government should do. Government should do the things that we can't do on our own voluntarily. And unfortunately I feel that it does a lot of things that we could do on our own and do them better. And then it does other things that--it's true we can't do them on our own, but they aren't good things. Like, invading countries that shouldn't be invaded. It's true we can't do that on our own, but it's something we shouldn't want to do together. So, how do you think about that? I mean, I have to believe--well, I know from your talk and what I've read about what you folks do: there must be some things you come across, you think like, 'This is just a [?]. This doesn't need to be a government activity any more. It's just a way to solve this through the Internet, say, or an app.'
Jennifer Pahlka: Well, there's a lot there.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Sorry. I kind of rambled.
Jennifer Pahlka: No, that's great. It's great. I'll start by saying, I guess I have a lot in common with you. My only act of civil disobedience in the past 15 years was getting arrested when the Iraq War started. And I was 8 and 1/2 months pregnant with my daughter at the time, so that was--I guess I agree with you on that. I think I would also very much agree with you about questioning what government should do and shouldn't do; though I obviously think that things like Food Stamps are a great thing that government should do. I think the question isn't whether they should do it or not, but what is the thing there that they should do that is really valuable. And you had Tim O'Reilly on; I should disclose to you, he's now my husband, and I've been very influenced by his thinking on this, especially the sort of constant[?] of government as a platform. But I'll give you just one example of it from work that derived from stuff I did at the White House from back in 2013, 2014. This is a project that the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) did. And I don't know if your listeners know what the USDS is.
Russ Roberts: I don't.
Jennifer Pahlka: So, USDS is a group of amazing, talented tech and design people, a couple hundred of them actually, that work in the White House. It's a unit of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that works on the digital things that are most important to our Federal government, particularly presidential priorities. So, I worked there under Obama, where the first presidential priority having to be digital was an emergency around HealthCare.gov. The team that came to get that website back on track was sort of the seed team for the USDS. Which, I had gone there to sort of help to get started. And my inspiration really was the government digital service in the United Kingdom, which has done a fantastic job of this--it's taken some hits most recently with the change in government there. But they also had in their principles[?] over at the GDS (Government Digital Service, Great Britain), great digital folks doing work, that you should really consider what you are doing. And one of their principles was: Do less. This is in a digital context. But an example of it is: Do you need to build a whole website? Or, can you get the data out there, you know, with great APIs [Application program interfaces] on them in such way that other people can build the interfaces to that data, that will, frankly result in a number of different offerings, accessing the same data for different kinds of users? And often, you know, great interfaces built by the kinds of people who know how to do this really well. So, one example would be the College Scorecard that the Domestic Policy Council initiated soon after I left. They did actually build a great website to help students understand, or prospective students understand the kinds of things they should consider when looking at colleges. And most importantly, they got that data out there in ways that people could use it. So, for instance, it's now the data that Google accesses when it tries to respond to a query from somebody saying, 'I'm trying to figure out if this college is the right place'--it's actually pulling data that the Federal government has put out there. And that's really, really powerful.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I think about--I want to go back to your first comment, about what you said about food stamps. Food Stamps--it's appalling to me that--and it's just one of many programs, that you point out, a lot of people are eligible for, but either don't know how to apply, can't apply, find it hard to apply. And so I don't--I certainly agree that we should do those better. Just like--there are people who don't think we should have driver's licenses. It's not one of my issues. I'm okay with driver's licenses. But, if we're going to have them, let's have the process run as effectively and painlessly and as thoughtfully as possible. The interesting question for me is: The challenge that we have of that habit, the way we talked about earlier--we were talking about how bureaucracies just sort of say, 'Well, we've always done it this way,' or, 'I can't imagine doing it better, differently,' or 'Gee, that's weird.' But there are so many things I wonder that government does now that maybe could be done privately, with the help of technology, and get outcomes that might be more effective for the people we are trying to help. So, this isn't about the way a lot of people often, I think, frame it as: 'I don't want to help people,' or 'Government needs to be smaller, period,' or 'My taxes are too big.' I'm just asking the question: Can we help hungry people, can we help children get educated, more effectively in a decentralized way rather than the way we do it now? And I was thinking, in the case of Food Stamps about Food Banks. And we had an episode on that a while back about how they improved the algorithm they used for collecting food and assigning it and what they offer. Food banks are kind of competitors for Food Stamps. I don't know what Food Bank directors think of as their job. Part of what I see as their job is to help people who don't know how to get into the Food Stamp system, for sure. But: Could they be bigger? And, could they be effective if technology was used in a creative way? And I think the biggest challenge for government is: They just never are going to think about that. They never are--it's really hard for them to sort of--blue sky kind of thinking just doesn't come naturally.
Jennifer Pahlka: Well, I would agree it's really challenging for them to think in that way, or more importantly really it's challenging to them to do things differently because they operate under a lot of constraints. I think I would not agree that they don't want to think in that way, that they're not--I think that government isn't full of people, I'm not saying the majority, but certainly tons of great innovators in government trying to think about things totally differently. Yeah, not just like, 'How much money is going to go to this program versus this program?' but 'Is this goal being met through these programs?' And if not, 'What's a better way to do it, given that it's 2017?' Right? Like, things work a little bit differently. I mean, on the issue of Food Assistance, though: A lot of people look at things like food assistance and say, 'Well, we're going to need to solve hunger through charity.' I think that's great. People should give money to their food banks. By the way: Food banks partner with SNAP--national food assistance. A lot of people who go to the food bank also, you know, will get a worker come over and say, 'Can I help you apply for SNAP?' In fact, those eligible in California now increasingly use, GetCalFresh, which is the thing that we have built. But the total--I think these numbers are about correct, about $42 billion a year is spent through charity on sort of essentially [?] issues. And whether you like this or not, this is true. $470 billion or more is spent on taxpayer dollars.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. And by that episode I was talking about was Canice Prendergast--we'll put a link up to it. We talked about food banks getting more effective. But, that's true, right--it dwarfs--public spending dwarfs the private spending. If the public spending went away, the private spending would grow. It would probably not grow to $470 billion, though, for a whole bunch of reasons. And I guess the question then would be: Would it serve its clients differently? Better? In this case, maybe not. I mean, I don't think--Food Stamps is not something I get really worked up over. It's not--I would like to see a private alternative. But it's not like, say, education, where with education I think the government spends too much and does badly, especially in poor neighborhoods. So, I don't want to get--we don't have to belabor the Food Stamp point. I think just the general point I'm making--and by the way, I don't mean to say that they don't care. I think they do care. I just don't think it comes naturally to them to innovate in a way that you might be able to or your organization might help them. And I think--
Jennifer Pahlka: Well, no--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, go ahead.
Jennifer Pahlka: Well, let me make two points. I mean, the reality right now is that we are spending that money and we ought to be spending it better. And I think we can. I think that a lot of people have lost faith that government services can be as easy to use, as cost-effective to build, as the private sector. And I believe it can. Because it's moving in that direction. It's just not--I want it to move faster. But I think, one of the reasons you and others say, 'I don't want it to come through government; I want it to come through philanthropy,' is because it looks ineffective. And if it was so effective to do it through government, would you have that view? I mean, you know, if it were--yeah.
Russ Roberts: True.
Jennifer Pahlka: So, that's the thing. And, you know, I would challenge two assumptions--and I think we have a lot of common ground here. But I would challenge two assumptions. One is simply: Most people will say that government will never do technology, design service, innovative synching; you know, redesign of services, or even as you said, like the fundamental questioning of how we should get to these outcomes as well as the private sector. And I think that you could look around right now and say some evidence, some of the best people in the consumer tech world right now are working for government. And doing this. And we just need to--I would love more people to look at those folks and look at the quality of the work that they are putting out. And the second thing I would say is, if you think about why these constraints in government make it so hard--and have made it so hard for government to do digital well, to do innovation well--it's primarily because taxpayers don't trust government, and have created--you know, very complex procurement regulations. All of these things that are basically the manifestation of taxpayers saying, 'I don't trust you, so let's put a whole lot of rules in place so that you can't--we can really, really regulate how the government is going to spend my money.' Which results, ironically, in it being spent often not that well. But the taxpayer has to own some--the taxpayer, the American people, have to own some responsibility for the fact that if we don't--if you don't trust that institution, and you build a whole lot of rules in, you are not going to get the outcome that you want.
Russ Roberts: The other thing you are doing, which is I think relevant to that point--and it's a point I am sympathetic to, is--you had the potential, and certainly you talked the game, which is good--of making government service honorable rather than shameful. And for whatever reason, there are countries where government service is considered honorable. And in America, it is less so, I would say. There are obviously exceptions. There are plenty of things people who are in government do with pride. But there is a little bit of a stigma, I think, culturally in America about bureaucracy for sure, and to some extent government in general. And it would be a better world if people who were drawn to government were proud of it. You wouldn't have to pay them as much, for starters, because they'd get some of their rewards in non-monetary ways. And you could rely on their motivation not just through the monetary incentives and oversight, but through their desire to do a good job. So, when someone who staffs a health clinic, say for poor people, we don't say, 'Oh, look at it--isn't that horrible? Why are they doing that?' We say, 'They're great. Isn't that wonderful. Somebody who teaches in a public or private school who is motivated and who cares deeply, we honor. The problem is we've developed a world, either correctly or not--people would disagree--but we've developed a world where a lot of those jobs are not so honored. And it doesn't attract the people who would want to do them honorably. So it would be a better world if that changed. And I do think, again, that if government did what was supposed to do and less of what it's become, expanded in its role, I think that would help us get there, too. So I think there's sort of two ways I'd like to see us get there. Your way, and maybe a little bit of my way.
Jennifer Pahlka: Yeah. Fundamentally I agree with that. I have--I completely understand why it is not always seen as honorable. I think fundamentally it's honorable, if you go in wanting to serve the public. I think part of what's hit the reputation of public servants that they simply don't have the tools to do it. So, I'll tell you--one of the most profound moments for me in this journey was, we worked in 2012 in Detroit. And we did a couple of great projects there--I won't go into in the interest of time. But as often happens, the projects were successful, but the impact on civil servants there was more profound. And this woman who had really honestly just been told that she had to work with us and had been skeptical, a senior leader in Detroit City Government, came up to me at the Code for America Summit, which is the big--actually, at the time it was pretty small--but the event that we do at the end of each year to sort of celebrate people who are doing kind of innovative work in government and show some of our own project. And she said to me, 'You know, I went into public service to serve the public, and I've been doing it for 28 years; and I have just realized that many years ago I stopped believing I could serve the public. And what your project did for me was make me believe that again. I now have the tools to actually do what I'm meant to do here.' And when you see people kind of light up with that passion again for public service, I think we can absolutely make this profession the most honorable profession in the country.