The Government We Need: Code for America founder Jen Pahlka on how we can code a better government

Jen Pahlka
Photo: Code For America / Drew Bird

Government has historically been challenged in effectively leveraging technology to best serve the people. There are numerous, well-documented cases of public sector mishandling of technology projects, from the very public failed launch of to the many unseen, ineffective IT implementations that occur on a daily basis.

The Government We Need talks with Code for America founder Jen Pahlka about how technology can be a force for civic change.

Listen: How we can code a better government


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Hack civic hacking

(Note: These views represent mine and not Spike’s. Big thanks to him for providing initial feedback on this. He doesn’t agree with everything and says we can still continue meeting for drinks.)

I’m fortunate to live close enough to legendary civic hacker and Open Oakland founder Steve Spiker and can easily send or receive a last-minute text to meetup for drinks, which usually happens Friday night after we’ve put our kids to bed.

We met this past Friday and started with the personal — family, work, music — but it always turns to a long discussion about civic technology — the people, the pulse, the future.

Spike gave me an Open Oakland update and the latest on the Code for America Brigade, which I coincidentally read about Saturday morning on Government Technology.

Hearing from Spike, reading the article and seeing some of the recent posts leads me to believe there’s a lot of energy being expended on figuring out how to make civic hacking, specifically Brigade, sustainable and perhaps there doesn’t need to be.

I know I’m simplifying this, but it’s not clear to me why civic hacking needs a substantive financial model. In many ways, it appears to be an impediment to grassroots growth.

What’s happening with the Brigades is important context for civic hacking as a grassroots movement, because the movement itself should retrospect and re-consider its role in the civic technology ecosystem.

By re-thinking its purpose in the context of a structured organization and defining success metrics, Brigade and those who identify as civic hackers may change their expectations on whether heavy funding in the traditional sense at this phase of the civic innovation pipeline is necessary.

To date, civic hacking has loosely defined outcomes, if any. This is fine if you’re tinkering, but if you’re looking for financial support, you need to prove you’re solving real problems. In order to do that, you must have success metrics.

If structured civic hacking organizations want to show a model for sustainability, here are a few questions to ask:

  • Can what we’re working on be easily deployed and scale across all governments?
  • Is there a business opportunity to productize and offer as an enterprise government solution?
  • Can this be turned into an issue specific non-profit focused on solving civic or government problems?

Here are a few metrics to consider:

  • How many new, disruptive startups have come out of our work?
  • How many governments have adopted this project or product?
  • How many new issue-based organizations have emerged?

It’s important to recognize that civic hacking is an incubator for your “exit strategy” — building the next great government technology business, landing a gig inside government or simply meeting awesome people. Civic hacking is how I met Code for America Brigade founder Kevin Curry before it was even an idea. Civic hacking is how I landed my current venture that hopes to revolutionize city government digital services.

The Brigades are a critical component of the civic technology ecosystem, but at the grassroots level, passion and self motivation should be the source of funding. For those that don’t “exit” and prefer to tinker, there can still exist a semi-formal, global network. It just doesn’t have to be heavily-dependent on financials.

I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent civic hacking for free, but I can tell you that return on investment has paid huge personal dividends, both in the people I’ve met, the experience I’ve gained, but also in the simple satisfaction that I’ve helped people and cities.

Years ago, I had the idea for a city government WordPress theme and started hacking away at one. I shopped the idea around to a number of the organizations that, at the time, were giving money for civic hacking projects, and no one was sold. So, I teamed up with a world-class developer, Devin Price, and together, a brigade of two funded by no one, we did it ourselves.

Today, GovPress now has 4,000 active installs and by any measure is one of the most successful, least celebrated civic hacking projects on the planet.

My point with GovPress is that I didn’t wait for an organizational structure or funding to live out my civic hacking passion. Sustainability didn’t drive me or slow me down. I accepted this was a short-term project that would either die on the GitHub repo vine or be wildly successful.

For me, GovPress turned into my personal inspiration for ProudCity, which I co-founded in January with three others that had been, in their own way, civic hacking the same problem I was trying to solve. We’re launching small cities on the platform and getting ready to announce a well-known, mid-sized Northern California city. Government Technology named us one of five companies to watch in 2016.

My non-funded, unsustainable civic hacking project turned into my American dream. ProudCity was my exit.

This sounds very Silicon Valley, but it applies to any organization looking for funding, whether you’re a startup or nonprofit. In the technology ecosystem, there are opportunities to pitch your idea to gain interest for an idea or product. The idea that solves a problem (or has the potential to) gets funded. In the case of the civic hacking community, it attracts more civic hackers (or co-founders). As the product grows in viability, it will exit to a fundable venture, whether it’s the startup or nonprofit solving a real problem.

As was the case with the early environmental movement, there were sustainability hackers advocating for an entirely different approach to managing the planet. At some point, those early leaders went on to start businesses or join governmental or issue-based organizations that have changed our world in scalable, impactful ways.

At first they were tinkering, but then they evolved into the bigger change we needed.

If it’s community you’re looking for, you don’t need funding. If you’re serious about executing but don’t want to make it a lifetime commitment, build your own GovPress then move to your next great thing. Don’t let funding or a sustainability model slow you down.

For its part, Code for America has done a huge service building Brigade, and the idea that local community developers can hack their cities and positively impact and inspire government from the outside. By enabling the foundational infrastructure, it has created an incredible service for those who aspire to impact civics in a big way. Other than a very limited staff role commitment on Code for America’s part, I’m not sure there’s a need for much more or that we should even should expect it.

By defining success metrics and accepting that civic hacking is simply the beginning of the civic innovation pipeline, those in the Brigade ecosystem may find that all its fundamental operating structure needs are:

  • a centralized GitHub organization for effectively collaborating on projects
  • a Slack instance for community
  • a guiding set of principles and general operating guidelines
  • a recurring “demo day” to bring visibility and move projects through the innovation pipeline

All of this most likely already exists within Brigade.

The Brigade structure is a tremendous opportunity to be the platform for the civic innovation pipeline. If it was re-imagined as an incubator or innovation lab that fed the civic technology pipeline, its value add could be better tracked and funded.

The original objectives around civic hacking — opening data, increasing public sector use of open source and showing government how it can leverage both to expedite technology innovation — have all been adopted to varying degrees. This doesn’t mean there is no longer a need for civic hacking. It just means that those who closely identify as such need to re-imagine, find new relevance and recognize scalable impact and more exits are a role it can help foster.

There’s no question civic hacking is a critical component to the civic technology innovation ecosystem, but altruism, passion and self-motivation are requisites for entry, and you shouldn’t need funding for that.

The world is becoming more decentralized, open and instant, and traditional organizational structures are becoming less and less applicable, especially for technology activists.

For those of you who identify as civic hackers and are unaffiliated with political, governmental or corporate constraints, you have the good fortune of not needing to adhere to bureaucratic, organizational rules that stunt open, immediate impact and innovation.

You have the good fortune of bringing the much-needed positive angst sorely missing from the civic technology movement. Embrace that having an entree to bigger opportunities is priceless.

Use all this to your advantage, hack civic hacking and open up more exits for the civic change we need.

GAO needs a better digital strategy. Here’s how 18F and USDS can help.


The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report on the fiscal and administrative state of 18F and the U.S. Digital Service, both established to make federal government digital services work better for users, and it appears the agency could use some help from the two on its own website,

Here are four ways GAO’s digital operations must be rebooted to meet the needs of today’s web user, and how 18F and USDS helped us better understand all of this.


The GAO website is not secure for users visiting

As 18F has emphasized, HTTPS protects visitor privacy with a secure, encrypted connection and is an important practice for .gov domains to adhere to.

The move to HTTS for all .gov websites began more than a year ago, yet still remains unencrypted.

Fortunately for GAO, 18F and USDS created a number of HTTPS resources for governments and agencies having difficulty understanding its importance and quickly adopting it.


The GAO website is not mobile-friendly.

Whether it’s a phone, tablet or laptop, doesn’t adapt to the device you’re using. As billions of people around the world are now using mobile devices to access information, it’s requisite that all government websites are mobile-friendly so their services are accessible to everyone.

Fortunately for GAO, 18F and USDS created the U.S. Web Design Standards that makes it easy for anyone creating government websites to build mobile-friendly sites (including accessible color schemes, which GAO does a mediocre job on).


Alex Howard notes that GAO has a separate mobile version (launched in 2010) of its website and an app (launched in 2012). While these were great technological enhancements at the time, they no longer meet today’s standards around responsive design and streamlined development practices.

Rather than building one site that adapts to all devices, GAO has created two development environments and duplicated development costs.

While an app is certainly mobile, it doesn’t qualify in this case, as it’s a secondary outlet to the website.

Open data

GAO does not have a comprehensive open data strategy.

While the site provides a great list of RSS feeds, not all reports are in data-friendly formats (all are, however, in PDFs). There also appears to be no public application programming interface (however Sunlight Foundation has created one via its Sunlight Congress API).

Unsurprisingly, GAO’s report on 18F and USDS isn’t available through an open, accessible, digital format.

Fortunately for GAO, while not directly created by 18F or USDS, but done by many who now serve in each, there is Project Open Data to help it get started on executing an effective open data strategy.


GAO doesn’t participate in the federal government’s Digital Analytics Program.

As the agency that provides oversight on federal government activities, it would be great to have more transparency into its website analytics.

Given that is already using Google Analytics, and familiar with its tools, this is easily resolved with a simple snippet of code provided by DAP.


I get nervous when policymakers take a myopic approach to assessing technology, especially in a politically charged environment like Washington, D.C., where there are behind-the-scenes personal and business relationships that impact motivations around critiquing new initiatives like 18F and USDS.

I especially get nervous when an agency charged with overseeing federal government technology practices fails the digital test.

If GAO is serious about modernizing its own digital strategy, 18F and USDS can surely help.

Feds want to build better digital ‘front doors’ to government

Federal Front Door


Borrowing from Code for America’s Digital Front Door project, the federal government is riffing on the concept so that it can better assist those seeking government services.

The Federal Front Door, “an initiative to improve public-government interactions across the board,” is led by USAGov and 18F, who have been interviewing Americans “about the good, the bad, and the ugly of interacting with their federal government.”

From GSA:

“This project won’t necessarily build new front doors; it’s about learning ways to improve our existing ones. We won’t be rolling out lots of new websites for interacting with the government, but instead we’ll be figuring out ways we can simplify, streamline, and improve people’s interactions with the current ones (especially ones that interact with multiple agencies).”

USAgov and 18F released a report (and methodology background) of its findings.

The gist of the findings:

“People want the government to treat them with respect. As they interact with various agencies, they want clear communication, insight into the processes they’re entering into, and the ability to quickly and easily access the information they need.”

Get 10% off Code for America Summit registration with GovFresh discount code

This year’s Code for America Summit is September 30 to October 2 in Oakland, California, and friends of GovFresh get a 10 percent discount.

Register using this link:

As always, the schedule and speaker list is incredible.

Also, if you’re attending Summit and want to connect, email me at, and let’s schedule some time to meet.

GovDelivery expands government communications offering with Textizen acquisition

Textizen co-founder and then Code for America Fellow Michelle Lee post Textizen signs around Philadelphia. (Photo: Code for America

Textizen co-founder and then Code for America Fellow Michelle Lee posts Textizen signs around Philadelphia. (Photo: Code for America

(See disclosures related to this post)

Government communications platform GovDelivery announced today it has acquired the civic engagement text messaging service Textizen to “promote citizen action, engagement, and behavior change.”

Textizen enables governments to launch mobile campaigns soliciting input via text messages with administration, dashboard and visualization tools that allow for monitoring and subsequent engagement.

Textizen started as a 2012 Code for America project in Philadelphia and subsequently participated in the Code for America incubator program. It was also a Knight Foundation as a Knight News Challenge winner.

“The Textizen team has demonstrated that it can use interactive text messaging technology and creative problem solving to help improve government and engage citizens,” said GovDelivery CEO Scott Burns in a prepared statement. “Textizen’s capabilities allow us to help government succeed in the critical area of driving individuals to take action.”

GovDelivery has produced a government-focused text messaging guide and will host a webinar on August 19.

GovDelivery recently acquired open source software-as-a-service provider NuCivic in December to expand its government open data offerings.

Submit your applications for the Code for America Technology Awards

Code for America has opened up applications for its inaugural Code for America Technology Awards to honor “outstanding products and implementations of government technology.”

Applicants must meet CfA’s Government Technology Principles and the following specifications:

  • Currently used by at least one U.S.-based government agency
  • Available for other government agencies to use. For example, it could be available through well-documented open source code or available for purchase through a vendor.
  • At least one team member or representative must be available to attend the Code for America Summit and accept the award.

Winners will receive three tickets to the Code for America Summit on September 30 to October 2 in Oakland, Calif., where the awards will be announced and presented.

Application deadline is July 13. Details at

Boston, St. Louis civic tech teams get $200,000 to improve the lives of low-income people

Civic technology teams in Boston and St. Louis were awarded $200,000 each to leverage data and technology to improve the lives of low-income residents as part of the new Civic Tech and Data Collaborative sponsored by Living Cities, Code for America and Urban Institute’s National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership.

The Boston team will focus on connecting youth to summer jobs and the St. Louis team on making it easier to navigate the criminal justice system.

“Every day, city residents navigate a maze of systems to complete basic tasks like accessing government services or paying traffic tickets,” said Urban Institute President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Code For America Director of Community Organizing Catherine Bracy on the Living Cities blog announcing the initiative. “These tasks, inconvenient for everyone, can be so numerous, burdensome and time-consuming for lower-income people that they can amount to a job unto themselves.”

“When it comes to addressing poverty in America’s cities, our pace of change is too slow, and the scale too small,” said Living Cities President and CEO Ben Hecht in a prepared statement. “We want to prove that the disruptive power of data and technology can be harnessed to achieve dramatically better results in the lives of low-income people, faster.

Financial support for the initiative is provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Read the full announcement and press release for details.

How you can get involved in the 2015 National Day of Civic Hacking

Photo: Luke Fretwell

Photo: Luke Fretwell

The 2015 National Day of Civic Hacking will be held on June 6. To date, more than 70 events around the world have been scheduled.

The global hackathon, targeted to “urbanists, government staff, developers, designers, and activists,” is organized by Code for America and Second Muse.

Here’s how to get involved:

Sofman joins SmartProcure as government sector EVP

Former Code for America Chief Program Officer Bob Sofman has joined procurement startup SmartProcure as government sector executive vice president.

SmartProcure offers participating governments a database of acquisition information to compare products and services purchased from other government agencies across the United States. Vendors can use the service to analyze competitor pricing and government purchasing trends.

“Governments spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year purchasing goods and services using a cumbersome and often inefficient procurement process,” Sofman said in a prepared statement announcing his new role. “Government agencies often purchase similar products and it’s not uncommon for the same product to vary dramatically in price. Knowing who these vendors are and the prices they charge ensures governments are making the best decisions with taxpayer dollars.”

Sofman was Code for America interim executive director while founder and executive director Jen Pahlka served a year as U.S. deputy chief technology officer.

SmartProcure, founded in 2011, was named a GovFresh 2013 civic startup of the year.