recommended reading

How to Hack the System to Change Government

Jennifer Pahlka

Jennifer Pahlka // Wikimedia Commons

Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of the Code for America initiative who is now working for the Obama administration as deputy chief technology officer, has been in government for 37 days -- 51 if you count weekends.

Pahlka is counting the days, because she has given herself a year to make a difference in pushing government into the 21st century from a technology perspective. At the Next Generation of Government Summit in Washington on Thursday, Pahlka shared the lessons of her first weeks in government and as head of Code for America, where she worked on civic-oriented data projects at the local government level.

“I know people say that in government, the easy things are hard, and the hard things are impossible,” Pahlka said. “Really? Was it easy to put a man on the moon?”

Pahlka works closely with the Presidential Innovation Fellows, a group of innovators and entrepreneurs who do short-term stints in government to work on specific projects. The group, she said, represents a collective “hack on the system.”

One member of the new class of fellows, Robert L. Read, managed in 27 days to develop a data visualization tool showing prices paid for a particular type of laptop across government.  “I know people -- not through their own fault -- who were still struggling to get their email set up on their 27th day,” Pahlka said.

The idea of the fellows program is to give participants as much freedom as possible to navigate through the maze of federal rules and regulations that can stand in the way of implanting new tools and approaches. “Many people in government wish they had a longer leash to do what they do,” Pahlka said.  The secret to success, she said, is thinking of government as if it were a person:  “You can’t change it unless you love it.”

“Respect the people,” she added, “but change the system.” That often requires questioning whether roadblocks are actually unavoidable. “If someone says you can’t do something, it may not be the law or regulations that prevent you,” Pahlka said. “It may just be memos written around them.”

Much of her initial work has focused on President Obama’s second-term management agenda, which is centered on the idea of leveraging technology to improve the performance of government.

“It’s been quite a wild ride,” Pahlka said, involving “an enormous amount of work by an enormous amount of people.” Still, she added, “these are the things I just absolutely geek over.”

Threatwatch Alert

Thousands of cyber attacks occur each day

See the latest threats


Close [ x ] More from Nextgov

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Modernizing IT for Mission Success

    Surveying Federal and Defense Leaders on Priorities and Challenges at the Tactical Edge

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • Effective Ransomware Response

    This whitepaper provides an overview and understanding of ransomware and how to successfully combat it.

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.