The last time I communicated with Jen Pahlka was in the early days of the pandemic: May 2020. No longer locked down but still heavily masked, I visited the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers Market and bought some fava beans. In the years before the pandemic, Jen had brought her own harvest of fava beans into the Code for America offices and shared them with any staff who wanted them. That had been my very first experience with fresh fava beans: shelling and boiling and shelling them a second time. Now, again with fresh fava beans in hand again, I thought of Jen amidst the pandemic turmoil. I sent her a short email hoping she was well. Jen never replied.
Jen’s book, Recoding America is a good book. It is a laundry list of scenes and vignettes of the greatest hits of government technology, albeit in language of elites discussing elite things in a bloodless elite way. Paired with a more hands-on manual like Cyd Harrell’s A Civic Technologists Practice Guide it covers the ground of the past decade.
That decade is an interesting one. Jen and I shared roughly the same tenure at Code for America: 2011 - 2020 for her, 2012 - 2022 for me; both of us with a gap in the middle. Of course, she was the founder and CEO, whereas I was a fellow, and then an engineer, then a manager, then a director. So we saw a lot of the same things, though from different vantage points on a different journey. In addition to my formal duties, which had a finger in every program at Code for America (if not an arm and leg) there were two activities that were initially happenstance but ended up turning into personal programss of mine:
First, I reached out to new hires, especially new people managers, and offered to have a casual 1:1 and welcome them to the organization. We would chitchat and the message I would work to impart was this: the dissonance between Code for America’s competent external brand and its lived internal chaos could chew people up and was ripe for gaslighting. Instead, those new hires should remember they deserved to be here, they should trust their experience and competence, and truly everyone is winging it (some nicer and more self-aware about it than others).
I’d tell them a story about a prior illuminating executive AMA with Jen where she had shared a philosophy: instead of drawing a bullseye on the wall and trying to hit it down the center with your programs and activities, you can simply throw stuff at the wall and draw the bullseye afterwards around what sticks.
Second, my desk overlooked the executive conference room, which was a glass fishbowl with a couch. It was not infrequent for people to leave that room in a mess of hot tears. When they did and I saw, I’d send them a Slack message and gently offer to buy them a coffee at the Blue Bottle around the corner from the office. There was no ulterior motive; working through it with my leadership coach, a protege of financier Carl Icahn: I simply operationalized giving a shit about people.
Compared to writing a book or leading an organization or serving as a government executive for a year, as Intel CEO Andy Grove might observe: my activities were not high leverage. They also fall outside the bullseye drawn around the stories of the book.
We’re all heroes of our own story. The book briefly touches on an employee who describes himself as “the new guy” because he’d only been a claims processor for 17 years, far less than his more senior colleagues, and still not enough to be capable of processing the department’s most complex claims. His offhand comment is a foil for a deep dive into classifications and processing bottlenecks and mythical man months, but not much else about him as a person. Or what I imagine is the multitudes contained in that brief remark. Is it self-protection, a humblebrag, an invitation for further dialogue about those 17 years, or the years ahead? I’ll never know because the focus shifts back to the administrator and her institutional processes.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a professor advises a student who is hopelessly writers-blocked; the student wants to write about the history of the United States, but is gently redirected to first focus on one brick in one building on the main street of their college town. Writers block broken, the student cannot stop writing, successfully building towards their initial wide vision.
The first brick of this book is possibly the few people “who had all once been part of the team that keeps Google up and running, then had come to DC to help get healthcare.gov back on track.” Easily overlooked in a footnote, they now run a private consultancy for government. The book frames their work as a series of high stakes technology and leadership interventions but not their personal stories, motivations, finances (business and personal), deal flow, engagement philosophy and practices, their loves, losses, missed opportunities, sacrifices, shames, human complexities, ironies, paradoxes. There is no crying, no dying, no problematic influencers, no sketchy investors nor strange bedfellows, no grudgefull quitting, no harassment, no union busting. Nor ziplines, chickens, joyful tears, pirate flags, PDF-form frostings from the sexy-cake shop down the street, nor fava beans for that matter.
In reviewing why too much law and policy ultimately ends up in the courts, Recoding America references a criticism by Ezra Klein: “liberals are too often missing or too timid to claim: a vision of what the law is for.” Recoding America similarly fails here to share a compelling vision of just what civic technology is for. It describes the work of pushing the rock, but without a destination in mind. Every over, under, and through of the bear hunt, without describing the bear. A road built by walking… a division of men gathering wood for a ship… you get the idea.
In all, if you care about civic technology and want to know the major story points: read the book. I am hoping it moves the Overton Window on the stories people will tell about civic tech. Please, someone write our movement’s _Sex and Broadcasting, the humanistic tome of my prior career in community media and community technology. (Sociologist’s Karina Alexis Rider’s “Volunteering the Valley: Designing technology for the common good in the San Francisco Bay Area” suffices in the meantime.)
Lastly and memorably, Jen recounts serving on a task force addressing pandemic unemployment insurance. Writing with a vague yet startling honesty that haunts my own recollections:
The state should not have needed a task force to tell the EDD what it already knew, and it shouldn’t have needed us to secure permission to act on it. These things are never said out loud—neither the permission we had nor [administrator] Paula’s lack of it. But when we were gone, so was that permission. And soon after, for reasons that were not clear to me, a new backlog began to accrue.
This passage brings into focus the qualities that characterize my own experience with civic tech: power, permission, access, the parasocial qualities of professional relationships, and the fleeting closures of our ongoing experiments to live together in liberal democracy. I hope Jen is doing well, and though I didn’t write this explicitly in my last email, I’d love to hear from her.