Recoding America is an insider’s take on why government is so bad at digital technology. Jen Pahlka uses case studies from her own career to outline the specific forces and incentives that cause government tech projects to under-deliver, falter, and/or fail.
I’ve witnessed many of the dynamics Pahlka points out from my own position within local government, and I broadly agree with her critiques. She clearly articulates some concepts I’ve been thinking about for awhile. My favorites were:
- Complexity favors people with power. Richer folks have the means (lawyers, money, time) to navigate and take advantage of complex policy changes. I’ve seen this play out in the assessment space; wealthier property owners are more likely to appeal their assessment and/or apply for obscure tax exemptions.
- Policy cruft is a barrier to implementation. Every time a well-meaning policymaker adds another requirement or exemption opportunity to a law, the implementation gets that much harder. Keeping policy simple and low-burden makes it more effective. In the Illinois property tax space, a huge amount of cruft exists from legislators creating provisions in state-level law specific to their local community or constituents.
- Incentives when building matter. Current implementation strategies and oversight mechanisms measure adherence to process, not actual outcomes. This gives bureaucrats a way to de-risk and vendors cover for their crappy work.
These are really useful ideas, but they aren’t packaged super well. My main complaint is that I have no idea who the audience of this book is supposed to be. It spends a lot of time explaining technical details, but does so in a way that is simultaneously not deep enough for a technical practitioner, but too deep for the average policy leader. I think Pahlka probably tried to make a good book for everyone, rather than a great book for a single niche group, but the result feels a bit disorganized and overly broad.
The broadness is especially apparent in the conclusion, which contains a resounding call-to-action with very little actionable advice. Pahlka wants government to adopt the USDS model and use agile, but delegates specific action items to the book’s companion website (which to Pahlka’s credit, does contain specific to-dos for basically every likely audience member). It’s a strange model and a bit of a let-down; the book does such an excellent job outlining problems that moving the “here are my solutions” part online makes it feel incomplete.
Ultimately though, this is a good book that everyone in the policy space should probably read. It has some excellent and well-articulated ideas. I just found myself (perhaps selfishly) wishing that it ended with a little more focus.