How to Hack the System to Change Government

Jennifer Pahlka

Jennifer Pahlka Wikimedia Commons

Jennifer Pahlka, government’s new deputy CTO, on pushing innovation in the federal context.

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.”