Hosted by Ambassador Jean Arthur Régibeau of Belgium and IFE Founder and CEO Coach Kathy Kemper, the book launch of Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better by Jennifer Pahlka was held last week at the stunning Belgium residence. Top officials from the Administration and Capitol Hill, industry and legal leaders, and technology policy experts gathered for lively conversation regarding government digital services, modernization efforts, and more.
As guests enjoyed authentic Belgian beer, Ambassador Régibeau and Coach Kemper each provided welcoming remarks, emphasizing the investment in the technology policy community, as well as the deep history of partnership between Belgium and IFE. Claire Martorana, Federal Chief Information Officer at OMB, Executive Office of the President, then warmly introduced the author herself, Jennifer Pahlka. Newly inducted into the ranks of published authors, Ms. Pahlka is also the founder of Code For America and is formerly the Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
In her opening remarks, Ms. Pahlka stressed the importance of bringing policy and implementation together. She reviewed some of the threads in the book, including looking at the way other countries approach digital infrastructure, as well as looking at the recent climate provisions passed in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. A dynamic Q&A followed, during which Ms. Pahlka highlighted the theme of investing in the folks who implement and deliver technical services. Diia, an e-governance app built by and for the people of Ukraine, was repeatedly cited as an example to strive towards due to its incredible success in meeting the Ukrainian peoples’ needs in wartime.
The evening then transitioned into a dinner salon, graciously hosted by the Ambassador and his friendly pet dog and cat. As guests enjoyed a lovely meal including Belgian fries (not French!), the need for digital modernization of government services was intensely discussed. One anecdote that stood out in particular was Ms. Pahlka’s discussion of California’s marijuana-related expungements. Despite the good intentions behind the law, the process to request an expungement required filling out multiple confusing forms, shuttling them between offices, waiting for court dates, and more, all resulting in a nearly impossible process. A staggering figure invoked was that in San Francisco County, although tens of thousands of people are eligible to apply for expungement, only 23 people had even begun the process, and zero had successfully received expungement. As Ms. Pahlka underscored, this arduous process ought to be as simple as changing entries in the database with a single query. Unfortunately, as a result of the archaic process in place today, the folks who cannot get their records expunged are disenfranchised.
Another important topic of discussion was the need to improve the user interfaces of digital government services. Guests learned that a single negative experience with government services can prevent citizens from engaging with the government at all in the future, which has concerning implications for access to benefits and voter turnout. Guests also noted that people have grown used to sleek, easy-to-use interfaces provided by private-sector applications, and that the threshold for a positive user experience may have increased. In short, the government needs to catch up – especially because there are many positive, helpful services provided by the government that citizens need to be able to access.
The evening concluded over a delicious apple-based dessert and coffee, with promises to continue the conversation. Already sold out in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, Jennifer Pahlka’s book will surely continue to spur important conversations among lawmakers, policy experts, and technologists in the pursuit of modern and helpful government services.