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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Bringing more diversity to elected office

Sarah Horvitz

The Government We Need talks with Run for Something’s Sarah Horvitz about the changing face of local politics and how we can bring more diversity into elected office.

Topics discussed:

  • What does diversity in government look like, and what impact can it have on society?
  • How can younger candidates find opportunities to run and get elected into public office?
  • Who are the successful candidates that have gone on to serve their communities and pave the way for a more diverse and inclusive government?

Listen: How we can bring more diversity into elected office


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CivStart wants to help government leverage technology that serves the needs of vulnerable, underserved communities

CivicStart co-founders Nick Lyell, Anthony Jamison, Sarah Kerner
CivicStart co-founders Nick Lyell, Anthony Jamison, Sarah Kerner

CivStart is a new government-focused start-up accelerator that wants to ensure civic technology products “don’t get made in a vacuum — that they serve the needs of our most vulnerable and underserved communities.”

Co-founders Nick Lyell, Anthony Jamison and Sarah Kerner share their mission, and why they started CivStart.

What problem does CivStart want to solve?

In short, local and state governments are responsible for serving their communities in ways that have significant impacts on people’s lives, but have not always tapped into the best resources to do so. CivStart wants to help governments innovate their processes and tools by connecting them to effective new solutions.

 We look at what we are solving from two different viewpoints, based on our audience; state and local government leaders and startups.

There are a couple issues we are addressing here at CivStart:

  • Identifying startup technologies that are providing solutions which address the challenges and issues state and local governments face on a day to day basis as they plan for the future. Whether that is understanding where your vulnerable populations are during a disaster so that you can deploy assets strategically or providing affordable transportation options to your communities so that they don’t have to take multiple bus lines. Our goal is to find these technologies and offer them to government leaders so that they can ensure that their communities are healthy, secure and vibrant.
  • Helping startups scale and enter the market the right way. We understand that startups have a mandate to grow and to grow fast (as we are startup ourselves). However, the state and local market is incredibly unique and complex to navigate for many large companies, let alone startups. A lot of business in this sector is won through relationship. Government decision-makers want to know that they can trust you, so selling to state and local requires a different approach than what a lot of these companies are used to when cornering the market.  Startups need to know what the pressing issues are, and position their solutions in a way to address those challenges.

What was the inspiration for starting CivStart?

In our experience we’ve noticed:

  • Governments are often unaware of new technologies available to help them better serve their communities. 
  • Many new companies don’t know how to navigate the public sector market and build relationships with the governments they want to help. 

This inspired us to create a nonprofit that works with multiple stakeholders to bring these groups together and solve both issues.

What is CivStart looking for in its participating startups?

 Of course, we want the biggest and brightest startups to be apart of our portfolio. However, working in the space that we work in, we can’t just be focused on the next best idea, solution, or service; instead, we seek startups who are solving real state and local problems and that we believe can have a real impact on improving people’s lives.

We try to prioritize our focus on access and opportunity for underserved and unconnected communities through health, public safety & emergency services, transportation & infrastructure workforce development, economic and community development, gender equity, civic tech, digital and financial inclusion ventures. One of our main organizational goals is to have our cohort members promoting gender and racial/ethnic diversity within the tech community.

How is CivStart supporting your portfolio companies?

CivStart helps startups forge meaningful connections with leaders in the public and private sectors to turn compelling technology into viable, scalable, solutions for the state and local space.

Each startup is in our program for 24 months, during which we’ll offer educational programming, facilitated mentorships and advisory relationships, and help cohort members build their networks in strategic ways.

We empower technology entrepreneurs to work with governments towards positive localized social and environmental change.

What does success look like for CivStart?

Success for us in many forms.

The obvious measure of success is the growth rate of our startups. We fail if our startups do not win market share; however, being an honest broker of solutions for state and local governments is also a key indicator of success.

We want governments, and the people that work with them and for them, to know that we are thinking of how we can strategically serve their needs and challenges  when we engage with selecting startups technologies. They can come to us knowing that we put these startups through a program that emphasizes treating governments as partners and not just customers.

Learn more:

‘Government Digital’ with Canada CIO Alex Benay

Government of Canada Chief Information Officer Alex Benay

Government of Canada Chief Information Officer Alex Benay

Alex Benay is the Chief Information Officer Government of Canada and an open and relentless advocate for digital government innovation.

Benay is also the author of the new book, “Government Digital: The Quest to Regain Public Trust,” so we asked him to share his thoughts on the role of the CIO, Canada’s proactive move to technology modernization, and what it means for government to go digital.

What’s your role as Canada’s chief information officer?

The Office of the Chief Information Officer provides strategic direction and leadership in information management, information technology, security, privacy and access to information across the Government of Canada.

We provide support, guidance and oversight for all digital initiatives within the Government of Canada, and are working to a more cohesive digital strategy for Canada, including an enterprise vision for technology in the GoC, as well as supporting a digital-first service delivery strategy to meet citizens’ needs on any platform or device.

Both nationally and internationally, Canada is emerging as a global leader in digital government? Where are stand out examples we should be paying attention to?

From the My Alberta Digital Identity project (the Province of Alberta, Service Canada and TBS are working together to provide services via a digital identity to residents in Alberta), to the Canada Food Inspection Agency teaming up with Samsung to deliver food recall notices through their smart fridges, there are numerous examples of how government departments are working with partners to seamlessly deliver services to citizens.

In broad strokes, there are a few key policy areas we are looking to affect. These are:

IT procurement/spending

We are working to make procurement practices more agile, by shortening timelines, exploring the implementation of a tech spending cap, and connecting small and medium-sized enterprises and startups to government departments to leverage operational spending to support innovation.

Human resources

The digital economy has changed the nature of work. Government HR policies will need to adapt to better accommodate the ‘gig’ economy, while maintaining rights and benefits accorded to the traditional ‘full time’ employees. We’re working to make it easier for workers to move between the public and private sector, broadening their experience and bringing new perspectives and skills to public sector work.

Radical transparency

The entire Government of Canada system must get better at working in the open in order to do more with less, partner with sectors that possess expertise that we don’t have as a civil service and deliver services where people reside: online. Working in the open means more collaboration, more data shared via the Government of Canada’s open data portal, as well as relying on open source software when possible to deliver greater efficiencies.

Artificial Intelligence- Standards and Ethics

As mentioned previously, the government is currently working with public and private sector stakeholders on the development of ethical AI standards for Canada (both public and private sector) which will ensure that Canadian values are upheld and respected in all AI applications.

Why is ‘Government Digital’ important right now, and who should read it?

The digital revolution has affected every aspect of people’s lives, and governments need to keep up or risk becoming obsolete.

As Canada’s Minister for Digital Government, Scott Brison has said, “…governments cannot be content providing Blockbuster service in a Netflix world.”

Governments must look at leveraging technology to provide seamless services to citizens online, through multiple channels- be it their phone, social media platforms, digital assistance, or even the smart appliances in their home.

Digital service delivery does not care about systems, our hierarchies or our departments. The “Public Service” must learn to work together to succeed in serving citizens who are digital citizens themselves.

This book is for anyone working in the public sector, or any citizen who would like to see how governments can change and adapt to embrace the opportunities of the digital economy. It’s for anyone who’s tired of filling out forms in triplicate, and signing in to multiple user accounts to access government services from different departments.

Change is coming, and this book explores what the future of government will look like.

You differentiate between the old way and the new way. What’s the old way?

The world has problems, and governments have departments. This analogue, linear approach to service delivery needs to change.

The old way is having a citizen visit a service desk to apply in person for employment insurance, or to line up for hours at a passport office to apply for a new passport. The technology now exists for a citizen to use one login to access online services at a municipal, provincial and federal level. Various levels of government must now work together remove legislative barriers to information sharing, in order to provide seamless services to citizens.

And the new?

Governments are moving away from linear, analogue models for service delivery and embracing digital, exponential solutions.

As a nation, we need to think bigger and act quicker. In the startup community, a great deal of emphasis is placed on time to market. Similar thinking must now be adopted by governments.

We can no longer rely on policies and practices from an analogue era that mean it takes four to five years for change to happen. The digital revolution has drastically changed the pace of change, and governments need to adapt. Procurement timelines need to shift from three to five years to six to twelve months, and governments as a whole need to be more agile in their approach.

Internationally, Estonia is a great example of a country that quickly changed their legislation in order to prepare for the digital economy. From a national digital ID program, to encouraging global startups to make Estonia their place of business via e-citizenship, Estonia has established itself as a world leader in digital government. The economic benefits of this approach are easy to see- the small country with a population of 1.3 million currently boasts four ‘unicorns’ (tech companies valued over $1 billion dollars).

You’ve talked a lot about failure and even wrote a book on it? How and when is it O.K. for government to fail?

It’s become a bit of a cliché, but I do think it’s important to emphasize that failure should happen quickly and often.

Public servants who are quick to acknowledge and learn from failure are more likely to produce a higher quality product than workers who live in fear of failure, trying to cover up or airbrush mistakes, rather than frankly acknowledging when something isn’t working and changing it.

When you look at large-scale IT failures in the public service, it is often because problems should have been acknowledged very early in the planning stages, which would have mitigated some of the damage. By embracing a culture where failure is accepted as a part of innovation, the public sector can move away from linear, waterfall approaches to project management, and towards a more agile, and iterative model of product delivery.

You’ve established yourself as a cheerleader of sorts, but also openly and authentically talking about government innovation. What’s your advice to other technology leaders and, in general, an industry that’s typically reserved, behind the scenes and reticent to be as publicly vocal as you are?

As mentioned above, I advocate for a lot more transparency in the public sector. This means adopting a ‘user first’ approach to service delivery- designing services in the open, working with citizens to get their feedback throughout the design process, and relentlessly testing products and services before they are rolled out.

Leaders in government need to encourage their teams to collaborate with other departments, jurisdictions, the private sector and academia in order to ensure all perspectives are included to deliver the best service to citizens.

Government Digital: The Quest to Regain Public TrustGovernment Digital: The Quest to Regain Public Trust
Alex Benay
216 pages

How Marquis Cabrera avoided ‘being a knucklehead’ and became a champion of global government innovation

Marquis Cabrera at the 2018 Code for America Summit (Photo: Drew Bird)

Marquis Cabrera at the 2018 Code for America Summit (Photo: Drew Bird)

Marquis Cabrera and I first met last year at an Agile Government Leadership meetup in Sacramento, and I was struck by his breadth of knowledge of the government technology ecosystem and the innovation needed to holistically transform government.

Marquis is extremely insightful on many topics, a great thinker, conversationalist and intellectual that brings a sense of humor, humility, genuine purpose and passion much needed in government technology. His presence is a breath of fresh air.

Marquis shares his personal story and insights.

Let’s start with your personal story. What was your path to technology and civics?

Since I was 10 years-old, I have been coding and hacking. My adopted parents bought me a Dell computer, and I would write code in Notepad, and then ‘Click’ view as webpage.

My dad encouraged me to get engaged in extracurricular activities and to avoid being a knucklehead. As a student at Middletown High School in New York, I was an inaugural member of a four-year National Academy Foundation program: The Academy of Information Technology (AoIT). The program formation was a response by industry (i.e. former Citigroup Chief Executive & Chairman Sanford Weill) to the dot com bubble. The demanding AoIT curriculum included courses, such as history of the Internet, computer programming, web design, and multimedia production. We even learned how to disassemble and reassemble desktop computers. I learned about public data networks, graphical user interface (GUI) and Steve Case’s role in revolutionizing the Internet in his position with AOL. That is why I am honored to receive  a The Case Foundation’s Finding Fearless Award Winner and invited by Lenovo to speak about my AoIT experience at Lenovo’s largest U.S. Volunteer Day.

When fifteen years-old, I developed a computer program that produced guest and student passes with images that scanned in real-time to improve school district security for The Enlarged City School District of Middletown. Thereafter, I worked with our District Webmaster to manage our websites, and even became MHS’s Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps’ first Information Software Officer. This sparked my interest in Civic Tech!

There’s a perception that IBM is ‘Big Blue’ and represents a legacy approach to how government technology vendors operate. What is your role there and what is IBM working on that counters that narrative?

My grandmother worked for IBM. My grandfather used to drive and deliver trucks with IBM mainframes. Even you would agree, we have come a long way from there, even though you still see those CVS and Safeway branded IBM point-of-sales (POS) hardware in stores.

The most obvious answer is, yes, IBM has a legacy of transforming every-single-industry. People act like that’s a bad thing, like oh, “… you helped to put a man on the moon and enabled the existence of credit cards. And, oh, between 2000-2017, you employed almost 350,000 people year-over-year, not including subsidiaries, and was also one of the 1st companies to hire a women executive and person of color in our business history. That’s so legacy,” but really … that’s so FRIGGING AWESOME! Throughout history, IBM has provided jobs and economic opportunities that lifted up global communities and removed some from the cycle of intergenerational poverty (see video about diverse group of IBMers who helped build Texas practice). This is amazing and should be something you, me, all of us, including global citizens, should be proud of and thankful for – who doesn’t want a low unemployment rate?

A few years ago at the World Economic Forum, I heard former HP CEO, Meg Whitman, say something to the effect that: “I tell my clients about how hard our digital transformation is, because we have learned the pitfalls ahead of them, we can better help them to navigate.” Our internal digital transformation has no doubt been hard, but every company (including startups!)  must creatively destruct itself in order for its customers to reap the most benefits from its core competencies, thereby providing maximum benefit to society.

Today, IBM is a cognitive insights and cloud platform company. We’re helping sports teams create better drafting applications, transforming global trade to make it more efficient, and enabling citizens to take back control of their digital identity. But we’re also a world leader in quantum computing and implementing Blockchains. At a recent IBM hosted Blockchain for Arkansas Conference, Governor Asa Hutchinson touted the use of blockchain and said the technology could help secure data used by state farmers as they send their food along the distribution chain. We also just landed a major deal to transform the whole-of-government in Australia, using technologies, like artificial intelligence, quantum, and blockchain. This is SO exciting because my job is to drive innovation into our global government accounts with speed, so I work across all industries (Social Services, Public Safety, Defense, Cybersecurity, Tax, Insurance, Customs, etc.). I have been bringing the best of IBM to our public sector clients to improve the world, which is no doubt hard but rewarding. It’s been an honor and a privilege to represent and work for and help to elevate IBM.

Marquis Cabrera at the 2018 Code for America Summit (Photo: Drew Bird)

Marquis Cabrera at the 2018 Code for America Summit (Photo: Drew Bird)

You recently spoke at the 2018 Code for America Summit with a inspiring call to action. Can you share what you touched on?

In summation:

  • Public procurement is like the ugly sweater problem, for governments buy tech on behalf of residents / end users. But we must always talk to end users, even if we must get creative, because it matters to the political and social advocates, taxpayers, and, most importantly, beneficiaries of service benefit delivery.
  • At IBM, we launched Call for Code, which is a $30M sponsorship of David Cause’s efforts to activate citizen-driven innovation. The first theme is centered around Natural Disasters, so I shared our work in building CaliConnects to get on the California Agile contract vehicle.
  • Yes, you can create change, but we must put people at the center of our change. It matters that we include the mother receiving SNAP in the re-design of the program. It matters that we push for change because the homeless person on  the street matters. As Big Sean said, “This [shitake mushrooms – gotta keep it PC – haha!] bigger than you, I am taking on a new path!” I just hope that new path leads to exponential collaborations!

You’ve lived and successfully survived the startup life. What’s your advice to civic technology founders?

Join your local Code for America Brigade Chapter: Code for America has been an integral part of my life, and I really, really, REALLY love the community!  As a civic tech startup founder, we launched at Code for America’s Code Across, which was hosted at the MIT Media Lab. There, I met the CIO for the City of Boston and so many more government innovators, like Massachusetts Government Innovation Officer Tony Parham.  So – my participation at #CodeAcross really launched me into Civic Tech nationally and then globally.

Figure out your core competency: As a 25-year-old CEO of an award-winning venture, my peers always asked me to explain what was leading to my success, like I was something special. My siblings would tell you I am not special, I poop, bleed, get caught in my feelings some days, and do a lot of dimwitted things – basically normal AF.

Mentorship, in my opinion, is about helping someone figure out how to get the tools to achieve their dreams and to get more shots at finding their passion all the while providing perspective.  In working to mentor some entrepreneurs though, I have asked many a most critical question: How do you understand and hone your core competency while picking up new ones and recognizing your team’s core competencies?

My core competency is similar to that of Rogue, from the X-men, for she can absorb powers from her environment. But I don’t lose my power over time. Imagine in one moment being able to heal like Wolverine; blow fire and also ice from your two hands, simultaneously; move metal with your mind, like Magneto; and stop it from hailing, like Storm, all the while being able to go stealth mode. Point in case: The more skills you add to your arsenal, the more you can pull from to accomplish any mission, thereby creating an unstoppable combination of talent (Think: Steph Curry, Malcolm Gladwell — or one of my best friends who tripled majored in college and grad schools).

Use Google: When I worked for Wefunder, Mike Norman: “If you don’t know some ish, Google it and learn it. One of my first projects was producing a series of videos on famous investors, like Eric Paley, Fred Wilson, and Jeffrey Bussgang, but I like had no idea where to start. [Enter Google and Youtube and Reddit] But then I got better at it and created our About Us video when founding my social enterprise, Foster Skills. If you know how to search the internet using keywords and operators, you will always get the best learning references. I have benefited greatly from the democratization of information on the internet to better problem solve.

Life is an open book test, and it’s fun when you answer your own questions: People don’t understand why the internet was so powerful, it’s because it allowed students to “learn why much faster,” instead of just settling with their mom’s saying, “Y is a crooked letter!” The famous education advocate John Dewey balked at the education system because he believed kids must ask questions (a la why) to gain better understanding, but that wasn’t happening due to the classroom power dynamics. Now, Google has enabled those curious kids, who don’t want to raise their hands, to be able to learn at an exponential rate, for they must feed their curiosity to problem solve.  My personal philosophy is life is like an open book test, but you get to create the test, meaning you come up with good questions that you want to spend your life investigating; then be fearless about learning from the best, and get creative, if formal education is too expensive; but, most importantly, believe everything and everyone has utility, for then you’ll always be learning, you will never take any competition for granted because humility will be a cornerstone. In addition, increase your reference points, so you can think cross functionally; and always follow-up why with how, so that you can run simulations (i.e. in what scenario, would this be possible?) and make the across-everything-connections, and, ultimately, be consistently you’er than you. And to this end, remember winning is a process, which is why I love what Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote, “Win, go back to work, win again.” Winning is a byproduct of learning and doing, but to avoid misery, you have to genuinely love the process (and pain!) of learning and doing, especially if you want to contribute beyond yourself.

And your advice to investors researching the civic and government technology environment?

Invest in Women: In India, I heard Canadian Prime Minister talk about why we must invest in women entrepreneurs. Moreover, I heard Hotstar, which is the like the Youtube / Netflix of India, CEO Ajit Mohan talk about using his platform as a potential education mechanism. He learned that men used his platform more than women, and said that must change, if communities and families are to rise. This is why I was excited SheaMoisture haircare and skincare products founder Richelieu Dennis announced a $100 million fund for women entrepreneurs of color, and Google has championed the NewMe Accelerator.

Invest in Charismatic “Medici” Learners and Doers: Code for America’s CEO Jen Pahlka recently said: “May the kids save us.” My advice to investors is to find and invest in generation Z and unicorn millennials who are cross-industry life-long learners and have guts, meaning they have both failed and won at something, have held service jobs (waitress, librarian, aid), and can pattern their learnings. Harvard Law JD Candidate Wendy Chu and Harvard PhD Candidate Nick Deporzio are prime examples. In my opinion, these are the people who will transform entire industries. Think: Jeff Bezos!

Marquis Cabrera at the 2018 Code for America Summit (Photo: Drew Bird)

Marquis Cabrera at the 2018 Code for America Summit (Photo: Drew Bird)

And your advice to the civic and government technology community at large?

Often times, we forget how hard change is for the people behind the systems, processes, and technology. This is not because our public sector teams aren’t innovative, but it is’ because they have to play in restricted sandbox. Policy-making is a slow process. Digital transformation in the global public sector is hard. For example, how do you enable Dubai to go from paperless to blockchain? How do you enable a whole-of-government approach in Security? How do you enable North Carolina Department of Technology to host blockchain apps at scale for their agencies? How do you help Africa modernize their ports and prevent? How do you track and trace Invasive Species? How do you use tech to advance #MadeInAduDhabi?

We must ask: Are we truly solving ecosystem — not just end-user — problems, and is our solution working and / or causing pain elsewhere?

The global government tech industry is a multi-billion dollar market, so there’s room for all sorts of stakeholders to provide public benefit using tech around the world, including incumbent vendors. For example, we now have govtech companies, Aid:Tech and Voatz in our Global Entrepreneur Programs. It is my opinion that vendors should figure out ways to leverage our contract vehicles to support new govtech entrepreneurs. To this end, I only want to help (social) entrepreneurs grow their business, which is why I have worked with over a 100 startup founders! Also, I submitted a public comment on CCWIS act, for I believed government technology should be more modern and flexible and inclusive. Moreover, I commented on the US HHS Idea Lab Playbook, for they solicited advice from vendors, even though they have put a stake in the ground to create a more competitive marketplace. If we establish co-opetitions that advance the civic tech mission, you will begin to see yourself in others civic tech ecosystem player (and non-traditional-ecosystem players) missions, thereby gain access to additional resources to advance your mission and the the ecosystem. [Note: I wrote about Coopetition in a Harvard Business Review piece, so go read, if you want to learn more.] And, to this end, I love, love, LOVE civic tech, but my great friend Thea Sebastian recently reminded me: Technology cannot solve everything!

Who inspires you, both inside and out of civic technology?

Within civic tech, I am most inspired by the minds and experience of Ekistic Ventures’ Brett Goldstein, Salesforce’s Casey Coleman, Code for America’s Jen Pahlka, Denmark’s Casper Klynge, Abu Dhabi’s Dr. Rauda Saeed Al Saadi, and Canadian Digital Services CEO Aaron Snow are some of the most interesting movers and shakers in the civic tech space. And, I am excited to see what former U.S. Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil does next, for he’s been a great inspiration, especially having moderated my panel at the White House on AI in Child Welfare and advanced data-driven justice solutions. But, as a boricua, I am most excited by what Puerto Rico Global is doing with civic tech to help the island (Note: See my article about them in the Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy).

Outside of civic technology and work, so many people. I love true polymaths! Buckminster Fuller and Eli Lily showed the world that through tragedy can come incredible cross-industry inventions, so use your tragedies to inform your life’s greatest works. Martin Luther King Jr. is a reminder that community is the most powerful weapon in the world. And Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., not Jr. the Supreme Court Justice, is one my most favorite people in history. He is a reminder to always follow your heart and to champion diversity, even when hard.President Lincoln’s novel, Wisdom of Wit, is a reminder that we are all human.

To this end, my parents and siblings are a reminder to stay humble and human! We always forget that people are people. We all have struggles and victories that vary in orders of magnitude, but we share the same humanity – no matter skin color, race, belief, etc. The late Michael Roche, who is my high school’s best friend’s dad, annually invited me to his home for Seven Fishes and dance with at the Elks Lodge, and made me realize achievement and toughness in our community was an expectation, no matter your skin color, race, or religiosity. If you’re in need of a good book on diversity, President Lincoln’s novel, Wisdom of Wit, is a reminder that we are all human!

How can others connect with you?


To see Marquis’s Interviews of Denmark Tech Ambassador, Oxford and MIT Futurist, CEO of Oman Tech Fund, and many others, see Hacking Government column

Kiba Gateaux on how blockchain can facilitate peace

Kiba Gateaux (Photo: Brian Jamie)

Kiba Gateaux (Photo: Brian Jamie)

Kiba Gateaux is the founder of Blockchain for Peace, an initiative started by Peace Accelerators, a New York City non-profit using data and their technology network to “co-create a peaceful future for our planet as efficiently as possible.” The organization includes a community of more than 2,000 thought leaders, futurists, and creators that hosts technology, culture and social impact events.

Kiba shares his thoughts on the role blockchain can play in making the world a more “hospitable and prosperous place for everyone,” and how others can get involved.

How can blockchain facilitate peace?

In my opinion, peace is about working together and having everyone be in exactly the place they want to be in. (see my article about “What is Peace?”) Blockchain facilitates this because any blockchain can only exist by having a group of people working together to create a shared ideal outcome. You do not need to know who they are, their background, skills, capabilities, or any personal values. All a blockchain cares about is that all participants shares a common goal and are willing to put in effort to achieve it.

A lot of people see blockchain as a savior that will fix all of our problems. I don’t think it will solve anything, it is just a tool. The only way to change society is to change our people, not the technology that surrounds us. What blockchain, and other forms of distributed ledger technology such as Holochain or IOTA, do is help us facilitate the type of behavior that we would like to see in the world. What that behavior is depends on the person so we can just as easily use blockchain to entrench the current system (which is happening right now) as it can build a more peaceful one.

You’re hosting a Blockchain for Peace hackathon in New York City. What’s your objective with this?

Our events bring together creative technologists, impact investors, industry experts, and multimedia artists for a highly curated weekend of ideation, creation, and inspiration. This hackathon is about Law & Governance and will  be focused on local communities. Hackers will be making decentralized autonomous organizations, futarchies, participatory budgeting systems, and more over the course of three days. At the end they will present to judges and the most promising projects have the opportunity to be incubated and mentored further by Bushwick Blockchain Alliance, Peace Innovation Lab, or Future of Humanity. You can find more info on our blog post about the hackathon.

We use our events to recruit more people into the Blockchain for Peace initiative. Blockchain for Peace is a community resource center for social entrepreneurs, researchers, and impact investors to create a global open-source knowledge library. Our objective is to help the international peace community understand the global landscape, form business relationships, coordinate more effectively, and share critical information such as research reports, impact data, and best practices.

What are some ideas for using blockchain to hack peace?

Peace can and should be integrated into every aspect of life. Personally I don’t think blockchain should be, so finding the line where blockchain should stop is important. Master brainstorm doc

Some ideas:

  • Tracking supply chain to verify product origins and track emissions data
  • New forms of government that are evolutionary vs dogmatic, direct vs delegated, etc.
  • Open currency trading in restricted markets e.g. Iran, Greece (inherent in cryptocurrencies)
  • Social reputation systems that obviate the need for money by facilitating trust in peer-to-peer systems.

How can folks interested in blockchain and peace related efforts learn more or get involved?

Participate in our events, starting with the Blockchain for Peace hackathon, join our slack, contact Malik directly, follow Peace Accelerators on Facebook and Instagram or visit Peace Innovation Lab.

Hudson Hollister and government open data leadership

Hudson Hollister (Photo: The Data Coalition)

Hudson Hollister (Photo: The Data Coalition)

Hudson Hollister is a pioneer and hero of the government open data movement. As he steps down from his role as executive director of the Data Coalition, Hudson reflects on the organization he founded and shares his insights, appreciation and advice to the open data community at large.

How has the open data landscape changed since you first started the Data Coalition?

First, open data is part of the regular business of the federal  government now, in a way that wasn’t true in 2012.

We see this change in the increasing visibility of chief data officers like Mona Siddiqui at U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Kris Rowley at General Services Administration, and Dan Morgan at the Department of Transportation. Five years ago, CDOs, if appointed at all, were in charge of designing application programming interfaces for external stakeholders. Today, CDOs are part of the management team, and their work is more about organizing data for internal use.

Second, federal agencies better understand the need, now, to transform their documents into standardized data to reduce the costs of reporting and analytics. We are seeing bigger, more ambitious data standardization projects at the White House, in grant reporting, and in financial regulation.

Third, the phrase “open data” is not at all trendy any more! All these new roles and projects aren’t always tagged with that phrase. Which is fine by me–it is much better for our government and our society if open data management is just management, period.

What have been the highlights and major accomplishments of your time at the Data Coalition?

I am so proud of passing the DATA Act of 2014, the nation’s first open data law, directing the entire federal executive branch to begin reporting spending information as a single, unified, and public data set. When I started the Coalition in 2012, there was strong support for the DATA Act in Congress, but subtle opposition in the White House. If our Data Coalition members hadn’t supported such a vigorous campaign, the law would never have been enacted in the strong form it was. And I’m proud of the Data Coalition’s work to continue to support the transformation of spending information–which is by no means complete.

The DATA Act was our first beachhead. We have made good progress since then with the Financial Transparency Act (open data for all federal financial regulatory reporting), the OPEN Government Data Act (default policy in favor of open licenses and open formats for all government information), and the GREAT Act (open data for all federal grant reporting), all three of which have moved forward in this current Congress. And we have made progress in the agencies too. Just last week the Securities and Exchange Commission finally adopted the Inline XBRL format for corporate financial statements–which means a single, human- and machine-readable filing, a huge step forward for investors and markets. We pushed for Inline XBRL for over five years.

In 2016, we spun off the Data Foundation as a separate think tank. That is important to the Coalition’s campaign, too, because the Foundation provides in-depth research on the need for governments to standardize, share, and use their data. Research supports reform.

Finally, I’m proud of the Data Coalition as a trade association. We have more members now–nearly fifty–than at any other time. Trade associations must do three things for their members: help them grow their businesses, provide a seat at the policy table, and set a vision of change that is philosophically appealing, good for the world. Our growth shows that the Data Coalition is doing this for data companies.

What’s your advice to the next Data Coalition executive director?

I hope earnestly that the Coalition will continue to empower data companies to make our government more and more efficient and transparent. The next executive director will have a chance to find new ways to do that.

Last week, feeling nostalgic, I looked at the first slide deck that I used to try to convince IBM to join the Coalition, in February 2012, right after I had resigned from my Congressional staff job to start this thing. I hadn’t opened the file in over six years. I was shocked to see that the slide deck contained almost all of the policy ideas that we are still working on–open data for spending, open data for grant reporting, open data for regulatory reporting. Those projects are not done, and the Data Coalition will need to keep pushing them, but a fresh leader can certainly find new battles to improve government, beyond my old ones.

Who are your open data heroes?

There are so many public servants inside and outside government who are trying to make it easier to standardize, share, and use data. Almost always they could earn more notoriety or more money working on some other issue, or some other job. Data standards can be a boring, dry, thankless topic. (The applications that arise after standardization are thrilling, but only after years of spadework.)

Some of these public servants are well-known for other reasons, like my former boss, Congressman Darrell Issa; Senators Mark Warner, Ben Sasse, and Brian Schatz; and Reps. Derek Kilmer, Carolyn Maloney, and Randy Hultgren. But their open data work gets lost amidst other battles.

Others are very quietly changing the world: Katy Rother at the House Oversight Committee; Seamus Kraft at Article One; Kristen Gullickson at the House clerk’s office; Rebecca Williams at the White House office of the CIO; and the DATA Act team at the Treasury Department, led first by Christina Ho and now by Amy Edwards.

Aside from joining the Data Coalition, what is your open data call to action to others?

It has been the same since I first joined the staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission, a decade ago this month: standardize data first. All of the flashy stuff will be much easier after that. Hashtag blockchain.

Any perspectives or advice to others on the general government and civic tech landscape you’d like to share?

Don’t let political battles, even the really important ones, ruin the opportunity to build our democracy with civic tech! Every opportunity to get a reliable government data set standardized, published, and then protected by vigorous, frequent use is a win.

Connect with Hudson on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Serving California: Angie Quirarte

Photo: Angie Quirarte

Photo: Angie Quirarte

Angie Quirarte is a behind-the-scenes hero for the state of California, leading on issues such as public sector workforce recruitment and retention, public data, creating a user-friendly government, improving  internal government processes and more.

Let’s start with your personal story. How did you get to where you are today?

I grew up in humble beginnings and benefited from public services that I now work on to improve.

The morning of September 11, 2001 I was at the Mexican border with my parents and two younger brothers. The uncertainty of the promised American Dream was worth the risk of leaving our lives and family behind. I never imagined myself working in government; but now that I am here, I realize that this is where you can honestly make a difference.

I found my way to public service through the Capital Fellows Program as an Executive Fellow in 2013 after graduating from UCSB. As an Executive Fellow I was exposed to the highest levels of state government and worked on policy issues that strive to make government better.

I didn’t think I’d stay in Sacramento after the fellowship, but the work and the mission made me fall in love with public service.

What is your role with the state of California, and what are you working on?

I was recently promoted as the new Assistant Secretary for Digital Engagement at the California Government Operations Agency (GovOps). The Agency oversees the departments with functions that make government run, including technology, procurement, and the state civil service workforce.

Within the Innovation and Accountability team at GovOps, I primarily work on policy and pilot programs that help create tomorrow’s government today by delivering better digital services, promoting the use of data to drive decision-making, and putting Californians and users at the center when designing technology projects meant to serve them.

Over the last few years I have focused on building and sustaining the open data program for the state and most recently helped coordinate the creation of the new Department of Tax and Fee Administration within a span of six weeks.

My role is to identify pockets of innovation, pilot, implement and iterate!

What’s the state of open data in California and what can we expect in the future?

Open data has slowly evolved at the state level. When I first started no one knew what open data was or why it was important. The world was fastly publishing data and I was working on steering the state in the same direction.

As I learned more about our departments and what other governments were doing, I realized that the important thing wasn’t how many datasets we could publish. What matters is the quality of the data and what one does with it.

With this in mind we highly encourage and guide that departments that publish data onto must also have civic engagement. This not only validates the value of the data, but also creates a collaborative environment where government can partner with others to solve common problems.

I hope to apply more of this for the future of open data in California. We have to democratize the access of data to the people affected by programs that aren’t using it to drive positive change.

Can you share more about NxtGov and why it matters?

NxtGov is a network of public servants and partners that know government has the potential to work better for its people.

I founded NxtGov to bring pride into the profession of public service and recruit the next generation of government leaders. We provide a safe space for change agents that want to connect with others and provide professional development opportunities and community engagement events. We consult government agencies on things they should consider when recruiting and training the next generation workforce and actively coach students on the benefits of working for the state and recruit and onboard them into the state workforce.

NxtGov matters because we break the silos of government and empower our members to become change agents in their departments. We make a difference by identifying key issues affecting our workforce now and bringing decision makers to the table to address the problems as the arise.

Can you share more about the Eureka Institute and why it matters?

The Eureka Institute is a hub of the Innovation and Accountability team within GovOps.

We established the Eureka Institute to make sure that government has a space to constantly innovate. Our focus lies on innovating government by developing programs, pilots, training and tools that develop our people, improve our processes, and leverage our technology to drive better program outcomes.

Within Eureka we have the CA Statewide Leadership Academy, the CA Lean Academy, and CalData which includes the open data program. These programs are changing the way the departments operate and that matters because the Eureka Institute allows government to adapt to a changing world.

While most people would think that innovation comes from fancy technology and robots, I’ve come to learn that innovation is just another word for adaptation. Government bureaucracies must adapt their business operations in a changing world so that people can work collaboratively and leverage tools to better prepare for the government of the future.  

Who are your government heroes?

I am surrounded by many individuals at all levels who inspire me on a daily basis.

Working in public service you encounter people of all backgrounds, and I have a long list of people I’d love to recognize, but one of the most influential heroines is my boss and GovOps Agency Secretary Marybel Batjer. She was recently named as one of Governing’s Public Official of the Year, and she deserves the recognition. I’ve been fortunate to witness many leadership styles over the last few years, and she stands out for her kindness and ability to dive in. I strive to learn from her leadership and kind demeanor. Marybel constantly reminds us that we are here to serve the public.

How can others connect with you?

A few ways to fix a government

IBM Research Manager Charity Wayua’s “A few ways to fix a government” talk is an inspirational example of how government (and its partners) can — when tasked with goals and measurable results — leverage user and data analytics research to successfully create better results for those it serves.

It also accentuates the importance of empathy during the government transformation process.

In 2014, Kenya’s president tasked Wayua’s team with helping the country achieve a top 50 ranking in the the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index. At that time, it was 136 out of 189, however, three years later, Kenya nows ranks 92. For two years in a row, the country has ranked as one of the top three global reformers in the world.

Wayua, who leads IBM’s public sector research team in Kenya, shares insights into their process with an empathic and aspirational tone towards changing the way government works.


“But when we dug deeper, we didn’t find corruption in the classic sense: slimy gangsters lurking in the darkness, waiting to grease the palms of their friends. What we found was an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Our government was sick, because government employees felt helpless. They felt that they were not empowered to drive change. And when people feel stuck and helpless, they stop seeing their role in a bigger system. They start to think the work they do doesn’t matter in driving change. And when that happens, things slow down, fall through the cracks and inefficiencies flourish.”

“Now, guess what we started to see? A coalition of government employees who are excited and ready to drive change, began to grow and form. And together we started to implement changes that impacted the service delivery of our country.”

“It’s easy in this political and global economy to want to give up when we think about transforming government. We can easily resign to the fact or to the thinking that government is too inefficient, too corrupt, unfixable. We might even rarely get some key government responsibilities to other sectors, to Band-Aid solutions, or to just give up and feel helpless. But just because a system is sick doesn’t mean it’s dying. We cannot afford to give up when it comes to the challenges of fixing our governments. In the end, what really makes a government healthy is when healthy cells — that’s you and I — get to the ground, roll up our sleeves, refuse to be helpless and believe that sometimes, all it takes is for us to create some space for healthy cells to grow and thrive.”

The talk was given during TED@IBM, held November 2016, in San Francisco. More background on the project at the IBM Research blog.


Telling Detroit’s stories

Photo courtesy of Aaron Foley

Earlier this year, I visited Detroit for the first time, spending a quick 48 hours in downtown and areas such as the Artist Village, and local businesses Motorcity Java House, Good Cakes and Bakes and Artesian Farms.

I quickly fell in love with Detroit, the energy and sense of local pride, but felt I didn’t get the full story, and left wanting to spend more time taking it all in, hearing more about its history and people and future.

Aaron Foley is Detroit’s first chief storyteller, appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan in April 2017, to help the city go beyond formalized bureaucratic communications and public relations and share the stories that don’t always get heard.

A Detroit native, he is the author of “How To Live In Detroit Without Being A Jackass” and former editor of BLAC Detroit magazine.

Aaron shares his personal story, Detroit’s and why a role such as his is important for the city.

Let’s start with your personal Detroit story.

It really doesn’t start with me, it starts with my elders. I come from a very Southern family who migrated to Detroit like thousands of other black southerners who came to the Midwest and northern cities to work in the factories. My great-grandmother raised three children in the city’s North End and later the east side of the city. My grandfather grew up to get his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and worked in health-care management in various capacities in Lansing, the state’s capital, and here in Detroit. My mother was a longtime reporter and editor at the Michigan Chronicle, a Detroit-based black weekly newspaper. They (and countless others, to be sure) were of greatest influence to me, because of their passion for Detroit and Detroiters. I grew up on the west side being proud of who I am and where I’m from, but when I went to college at Michigan State University, I found myself having to constantly defend critics of the city who were misunderstood about what Detroit was about. I heard all the stereotypes you could ever hear about an urban environment, but no one knew about the Detroit many of us know and love. So I’ve made it my mission to educate people about what it’s like here, something I’ve done as a journalist for many years.

What is your role as the city’s first chief storyteller?

I oversee a multi-platform initiative where we gather stories and information from all across the city under an umbrella we’re calling The Neighborhoods. We believe the neighborhoods — there are more than 200 spread out across 140-ish square miles — are the spirit of Detroit, and we’re committed to telling the stories of who lives here. There’s definitely an information gap about what people know about what’s happening in downtown Detroit and what people don’t know about what’s happening in the more residential areas. It’s my task to fill in that gap with news and feature stories on our website,, and our cable channel for which I produce content.

How did this role transpire?

It’s something Mayor Duggan had been thinking about for a few years but didn’t fully realize until now. It’s something new for our city government, where we can utilize one of our cable channels and maximize it to its full potential, but also deliver content in a new way through our website.

Why is this important, for Detroit and other cities who might need a role like yours?

It’s important because I think there’s an opportunity here for people across to Detroit to see that not only can their voices be heard, but that the City of Detroit is making sure that their voices are heard. It’s another form of validation, but it’s a different form of validation beyond providing basic city services. All Cities have an opportunity like this, to really show that residents matter.

When you announced your new role, you said Detroit’s narrative is getting lost in translation? What’s the Detroit story we typically don’t hear?

We typically don’t always hear about residents who stayed in Detroit over the last decade or so. It’s no secret that the city has suffered a massive population loss, but for those of us that love the city so much, when do we ever hear from them? This is a way (but to be clear, not the only way) of showing “hey, thank you for loving Detroit enough. We’re going to do our best in return.”

Who is your local hero, the one person that is the embodiment of Detroit and why?

I’d have to say my late grandfather, Dr. Harvey Day. He beat all the odds — coming up from rural, segregated Alabama up here to the North End. When he was in high school, he helped charter the school’s first National Honor Society at (now-defunct) Northern High. He graduated early, went to the Army, came back and decided he wanted to be a nurse, but Wayne State University at the time didn’t believe a black man could be one. He broke that barrier, and then went on to co-found a scholarship for nursing students a year later. And he didn’t stop there. He got his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, and went on to turn around a troubled health system, then went on to work for the State of Michigan’s health department. After leaving the State, he co-founded a pharmacy benefit management corporation, and one of his last major career accomplishments before his passing was protecting the benefits of retired Detroit police officers that would have been lost after the city’s bankruptcy. It’s his level of commitment to Detroiters that I hope to aspire to.

I’m in Detroit for 24 hours. What’s the ‘Aaron Foley Tour?’

Where to begin? I love Mexican food, so I would start at Taqueria el Rey or El Camino Real. Then I’d hit up the Detroit Institute of Arts (there’s a massive local hip-hop exhibit on display there now), and maybe a quick tour of some of Detroit’s most architecturally distinct neighborhoods like Indian Village or Palmer Woods. Some of the best food for dinner is takeout; maybe hit up Uptown BBQ or Asian Corned Beef, and take it with you to Belle Isle and watch the sun set over the river. If you don’t want to get it to go, I suggest Chartreuse for dinner and cocktails.

How can others connect with you, what you’re doing and the city of Detroit?

Pretty easy. I’m all over Twitter (@aaronkfoley), or you can email me at To see the stories we’ve been telling, visit