Defense Department digital experts were invited to speak at the recent CfA Summit, and some attendees took offense. Steve Kelman argues that civic tech should embrace such debates.
Former DIUx head Raj Shah was among the speakers at this year's Code for America Summit
Code for America is a nationwide voluntary organization, founded in 2010 to bring top digital expertise to bear on government projects. (The name and business model were inspired by Teach for America, which recruits new college grads, many from top-ranked universities, to work for two years teaching in disadvantaged communities.) CfA is at the forefront of a movement often called “civic tech” to encourage people with tech skills and interests to work, at least for a while and/or part-time, for projects for government. This is a very important role, given the problems governments have competing for tech talent given yawning gaps between government and the tech industry in salaries, job responsibilities, and the coolness factor.
There is a space for civic tech in the tech ecosystem for two reasons: One is the idealism of some young people in tech, who want a chance to work on something more meaningful than the latest photo sharing app. The other is the cultural shift away from one job for life, which means that more are open to a temporary stint helping government.
In some sense, CfA is a voluntary-sector counterpart to the U.S. Digital Service and the General Services Administration's 18F. CfA founder Jen Pahlka actually pitched and worked standing up USDS while on a one-year stint as deputy federal CTO in 2013 under Todd Parks. However, CfA currently works only for state and local government. Sometimes that tech work -- which can touch on Medicaid, SNAP (formerly food stamps), criminal justice, and workforce development -- includes work with federal agencies that oversee projects in these areas, but the federal government is not the client.
Since 2011 CfA has hosted an annual summit as a signature event. The most recent one was at the end of May, with around 1,200 attendees, of whom, Pahlka estimates, 20 percent were federal employees, including USDS and 18F. One of the sessions at this summit included two speakers from the Defense Department, Raj Shah (the first managing director of Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, who left DOD in February but spoke about his DIUx experience) and LTC Enrique Oti, who is the Air Force liaison for DIUx.
This was the first time DOD speakers had ever appeared at the summit, which normally centers on the social services and anti-poverty space. The invitation to appear came from Pahlka herself, who serves on DOD’s Defense Innovation Board, and had heard the pair give a presentation on a project DIUx was sponsoring to deal with scheduling and fuel economy in a combined military operations center in Qatar. Pahlka was ultra-impressed by the project, which achieved some of CfA’s general goals, such as producing working software at a fraction of the time and cost that such projects normally require, and using non-traditional, non-defense contractor partners. (The specifics of the actual project are not really the subject of this post, but they are sufficiently interesting that I intend to discuss them in my post next week.)
The day after the summit ended, a piece appeared on the website Medium, which publishes lots of tech-related content, called Code for America Summit: Is it still ‘civic tech’ when we help the US Department of Defense? The article is by Aaron Wytze, a master of global affairs student at the University of Toronto who also writes for a Taiwan-based news outlet. It led the next day’s email edition of highlights from Medium for people interested in government, which is why the piece landed in my inbox.
Including the DOD Qatar effort in in the summit, Wytze wrote, “broaden(s) the meaning of civic tech into eerie new territory” of war and killing rather than the traditional one of support and succor. The majority of U.S. fighter aircrafts involved in bombing and missile campaigns against ISIS, Wytze wrote, go out of the Qatar base.
In a 2017 report, he continued, “DIUx’s digital planning tools were discussed in relation to ‘Operation Inherent Resolve,’ the US bombing campaign to eliminate ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. The operation in question has had a very high civilian casualty rate, with Human Rights Watch stating that the US-led forces have ‘failed to take necessary precautions to avoid and minimize civilian casualties, a requirement under international humanitarian law.”
The post quoted two CfA employees who criticized the invitation on Twitter. “Not all software should be built better and faster,” wrote one. “Machines of war fall into that bucket.” Another tweeted that “civic tech engineers should not take any jobs that end up with bombs dropped on people. Why are we listening to this?”
Wytze quoted no supporters of inviting DOD; Pahlka said there were internal folks who supported the invitation and commented on this through private CfA channels, though none on Twitter as far as she knows.
This dispute recalls the recent controversy within Google about accepting a DOD contract to use artificial intelligence used to analyze drone video. The Washington Post has reported that Google has decided not to renew the contract when it runs out.
I would like to strike a (rare?) blow for civility here. On the one hand, those who don’t want to be involved in defense work should refrain from doing so. And Google, in making a decision for the organization, is perfectly within its rights to withdraw from a DOD AI contract. But I draw the line at suggestions CfA should not invite speakers from DOD, whose messages listeners are then free to embrace or reject.
Withholding invitations to speak is something that should be limited to extreme cases of people with clearly evil ideas, such as Nazis, Klansmen or advocates of terrorism. Even if you disagree with our (democratically determined) military policies, I don’t think that DOD activities come close to the line that merits exclusion. Instead, they are policies on which reasonable people can disagree.
Certainly the defense of our country’s freedom and independence qualifies as a central civic mission, including the use of tech in that defense. So my answer to the question of whether DOD activities can qualify as civic tech is, “Sure!”
We can and should debate whether U.S. policies in the world are right or wrong. But let’s have our community demonstrate in such debates the civility that is so valuable for society but is such a rare commodity today.