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Build government back – better

jen_pahlka

The onset of pandemic exposed deep flaws in many national governments’ plans for crisis response. Jen Pahlka of U.S. Digital Response, a nonpartisan group offering tech help to local governments, shares what she’s seeing now – and what a modern government could do in the future.

“Government matters – and we’ve neglected that machinery.”

— Jen Pahlka
About the guest:
jen_pahlka

Jen Pahlka is the former U.S. deputy chief technology officer, founder of Code for America, and cofounder of U.S. Digital Response.

About the host:
bob_safian

Bob Safian is the host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, and the editor-at-large for Masters of Scale. He’s the founder of The Flux Group, a media, insights, and strategic advisory firm. He was previously editor-in-chief of Fast Company, where he won the National Magazine Award for Magazine of the Year in 2014.

Transcript of Masters of Scale: Build government back – better

JEN PAHLKA: What’s going on in our country is unprecedented, and government is suddenly asked to operate so much greater speed and greater scale, it’s a little mind boggling. 

There’s a world in which government becomes more agile, more responsive, more scalable. We’re talking about scale here, right? Government is the original scale. It’s a third of the economy but it’s being asked to scale in ways that it hasn’t in the past.

We got in this situation because we neglected to modernize our government infrastructure. We can’t make those mistakes in the future. 

Public servants are rising to this occasion. They’re always helping and now they’re having to help even more. They’re looking at this situation and saying, “It’s our job to help the American public now, we’re going to get to work.” 

BOB SAFIAN: Hi listeners, this is Bob. Welcome to Masters of Scale: Rapid Response. Today I’m talking to Jennifer Pahlka, former U.S. deputy chief technology officer, founder of Code for America, and most recently, cofounder of a new organization called U.S. Digital Response

Jen has long been a believer in the power of technology and design thinking to accelerate the effectiveness of serving citizens.

Now that need has been amplified, and Jen responded — working with two other former deputy CTOs — by setting up a new, free facility to give government entities real-time help, real fast.

In just a few weeks time, those free services, delivered by some 4,000 volunteers, have been snapped up by states and cities all across the country: enabling things like pandemic unemployment insurance to be accessed by those who need it. 

As Jen puts it, we need to modernize how government operates, to make it more user-centric, iterative, and data-driven. 

If that seems impossible — that agility and government just can’t go together — then listen in. 

Because what Jen and her colleagues at U.S. Digital Response have been demonstrating is that any kind of an organization can improve, at a speed we didn’t expect, with the right people, the right systems, and the right attitude.

[THEME MUSIC]

SAFIAN: I’m Bob Saffian and I’m here with Jen Pahlka, founder of Code for America, and former U.S. deputy chief technology officer. Jen has repeatedly led the way nationally and locally, working to bring the power of technology and the most modern problem solving techniques to government — which has often lagged behind the private sector, particularly Silicon Valley. 

With the rise of the Coronavirus, governments have faced a new wave of challenges and Jen turned her attention once again to helping out, co-founding a new organization, U.S. Digital Response. Jen is coming to us today remotely from California as I ask my questions from my home in New York. Jen, thanks for joining us.

PAHLKA: Hi Bob. Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to see you.

SAFIAN: So I am fascinated by the idea of U.S. Digital Response, where it came from, how it came together and what it’s doing now and where it’s going to go. But first I want to start by asking you about pre-COVID days and the launch of Code for America. That was in 2009 in the midst of another crisis, the great recession. Where did Code for America spawn from? Was it prompted at all by the great recession? 

PAHLKA: It wasn’t exactly the great recession. It really came more out of the notion of opportunity than crisis, but certainly that was the setting for it. And I think one of the reasons that local governments were open to it is that they were in a time of crisis. But for my perspective, it came out of realizing that we had just had what we, remember what we called Web 2.0, back then?

SAFIAN: Yeah, those were the days.

PAHLKA: Those were the days. The headline really was that Web 2.0 had helped elect a new president, if you remember mybarackobama.com and all of the ways that people then were using the web to organize in ways that they had not been able to before. That’s what we were all excited about with Web 2.0. The fact, not just that we had this new president but that people come together in a very different way to get him elected. And I was working on the Web 2.0 events at the time. And it was really the observation that a couple of years into that meme it became much more about brands — and to me the interesting part was how it could change society.

And somebody I was working with at the time, a guy named Tim O’Reilly wrote a post about government as a platform, which I found really fascinating — I now happened to be married to that guy. But Code for America came out of the notion that we could really bring some of those principles and practices to the business of governing and that the place for it to start was at the state and local level.

SAFIAN: I mean there’s an agility that is part of the operating of technology based, and let’s say they’re not just tech companies, but companies that embrace and organizations that embrace technology as a tool, a weapon to allow them to adapt more. And obviously right now that’s becoming more and more imperative when you are in the middle of a crisis like this.

PAHLKA: Yeah. It’s really more, if you don’t mind, it’s really more an ethos than it is the companies. And I think what we’ve brought to bear is the practices and the ways of thinking and the approaches that come from people, the people who built Web 2.0. The ways that people use those sites and those services, that’s what’s coming in. And I think it’s really consistent with how we think about government. Our government is supposed to be by, for, and with people. That’s really one of the founding ideas of Code for America.

SAFAIAN: It seems very logical and simple. As I recall, not every local government that you went to said, yeah, “This is exactly what I want to do.” It was also foreign and there was resistance to it.

PAHLKA: There’s always resistance, we shouldn’t be surprised by that, and I don’t think we should be demoralized by it in any way. Change is hard, and in fact, we should be excited about it because we created a government that’s hard to change for good reasons. You don’t want government wildly careening all over the place. You want it to be thoughtful and I think actually you want it to be slower than the private sector for pretty good reasons.

This particular moment in time is not a good time for it to be slow. So we’ll talk about that in a COVID context. But yes, resistance by government to change is part of the problem, but also it’s just the work and what you really need is enough people who are willing to try something new to spark change. And I think 10 years ago, we got enough people to start and now it’s a thread that everybody is pulling now and it’s really starting to change the fabric of government.

SAFIAN: So in 2013, you went to the White House, right and you worked under a was then the CTO-

PAHLKA: Todd Park.

SAFIAN: Todd Park, and you spent a year there and you launched something called the USDS, the United States Digital Service. Can you explain for people who don’t know what USDS is, where that came from and why you were turning your attention in that from activities with local governments to federal, to the executive branch?

PAHLKA: Yeah. USDS in part came about – other people had similar ideas at the same time, but in part came about because when I was running Code for America, I got to know the folks in the UK who had started something called the Government Digital Service. If the names sound familiar that’s not a coincidence. And I happened to be over in the UK for an event and Mike Bracken, who was running GDS in London at the time, invited me and Tim O’Reilly to come visit.

And I walked in the door of that place and my mind just exploded. It was a couple hundred developers and designers who were taking something like 4,000 different government websites across UK government that were very confusing and tended to have a lot of information that was unnecessary and hid the information that was really needed and were on 4,000 different kind of content management systems and backend infrastructure and creating one single usable, clearly written, fantastic user-centered website for the British people.

And they were just doing exactly what you should do if you were going to make a usable interface to government for people. And they were doing it with modern technology. They were doing it with modern practices. You could literally see in this place this wall of sticky notes of legacy website content and then a wall called “the wall of done.” And while you were there, you would just see people get up from their chairs and take a piece of paper and move it from the legacy page to the wall of done. You could literally see this happening in real time and these-

SAFIANL: They weren’t just talking about it, it was happening quickly, moving quickly.

PAHLKA: It was moving quickly. They were doing it in exactly the way you’d want to do it. This was in the center of government, it was literally reported into the cabinet office, and they were doing things across every department of UK national government. It was not at the edge, it was in the center, and it was doing big, important things. And when I happened to literally have just walked out of the office of the GDS suddenly going, “So much more is possible than I had ever realized.” At that moment I got an email from Todd Park saying, “I’m coming to California to see you, please clear your calendar.” 

And I was like, “Well, I’m not in California, so that’s not going to work.” But I talked to him by phone and he asked me to come to DC to run the presidential innovation fellows program, which I was super honored to be asked, but I told him, what we really need to do is something like the Government Digital Service but in the U.S. And I had a one year leave of absence from Code for America to work on this project in the White House.

SAFIAN: The USDS as I recall, it’s based on getting folks from places like Code for America and other places in Silicon Valley and elsewhere to do a tour of duty. It’s not that you’re joining the government full time, you could be taking a leave from where you are and coming for a set period of time to bootstrap as quickly as possible, getting certain things done. I realized there were some people who signed on for longer, but that was the framework.

PAHLKA: We use the term tour of duty because we think it’s probably really healthy for people to come in for a couple of years and serve their country and then go back. But we increasingly have people who are coming in and staying for their careers there. So we started bringing people in just to do a two week, what we would call discovery sprint. I did two of them. One at the veterans’ administration on Veterans Benefit Management System, which was really an interesting project. And the other one was on the E-Verify program at the United States citizenship and immigration services. And these people just came in for two weeks, but of those people, a couple of them stayed on and then, in fact one stayed on as the CEO in the White House for a while. So yeah, it can be short term, but we also really love it when people come to stay for a longer time.

SAFIAN: When they get hooked by the mission and by the activity and the goals, right?

PAHLKA: I have had so many people come in saying, “I just want help for two weeks, I don’t want to continue working in government.” And then say to me, “I can never go back because what happens here matters so much to people who need help. And the impact I can have in government is so much greater.” And they may go back for a while, but I see bunches of them then raising their hands again and say, “You know what, it’s time for me to do public service, that’s what I really love.”

SAFIAN: Now you did go back to Code for America. Not exactly the private sector in that way, because you’re going back to helping state and local and county governments. And then early this year you announced that you’re passing the torch, stepping aside as executive director. From an observer’s point of view, it seems like, okay, she’s easing back a little bit and then COVID hits and suddenly there’s this new idea. So tell me where U.S. Digital Response comes from, the founding story of that is, whether there was another trip to some other place or how did that come about and what are you trying to hopefully doing with it?

PAHLKA: Well, you’re correct. I meant to be taking a bit of a break right now. In fact, the office I’m talking to you from, my husband helped me set up. It’s this really lovely space in which I’m meant to be writing a book. I have not been writing the book because we came back from Washington DC, I want to say on March 12th. We were supposed to have been there for the Code for America Summit, which was canceled due to COVID, and spend a couple of days getting ready for sheltering in place. And on March 15th, which is a Sunday, I got a call from DJ Patil who was the very first U.S. chief data officer and a great change agent and just somebody who jumps in to help whenever it’s needed.

And he said, “I’m going to help the state of California, but what are you going to do? Can you come up to California and help?” And I said, “I think that’s probably the wrong role for me. Why don’t we work on helping other states and counties? They’re going to be stretched by what’s going to happen.” And actually what DJ said to me that day really drove home how intense this crisis was going to be, how devastating it was going to be, how much pressure it was going to put on every level of government. And if you know how stretched government is on a good day and you know the bad day that’s coming, it becomes sort of impossible not to offer your help.

I didn’t know at the time if people would accept our help, but I called some other friends — two other former deputy CTOs and said, “We should probably start using our networks to reach out and at very least spread best practices. So if DJ is going to be doing interesting stuff in California, let’s be the vehicle for telling other people in other states that they can reuse and borrow those approaches.”

My other colleague Ryan Panchadsaram had put up a form for tech people to be able to help out. He did this, in fact, because he was on the rescue team for healthcare.gov and that’s how they did it then too. They just said, “Who can come help?” And I think he put that up on Monday, March 16th – and we had 1,000 people who’d replied and said they wanted to help out by that weekend, and these are very qualified people.

It was just a Google form. We were not then an organization, we are as of today, still not an organization. We are an all volunteer effort. We are now thinking about how to sustain this over the long term, which may mean we move towards something more formal. But this is the internet at its best, communities wanting to help at their best, it just started circulating. Then over the course of that week we created a website that explained what we were trying to do and had a link on it for governments to request help and for technologists and others with skills that are relevant to raise their hand and offer help. And we’ve been matchmaking since then.

SAFIAN: So the U.S. Digital Response volunteers, these are primarily technologists or they’re not just technologists and coders, it’s a broader group?

PAHLKA: It’s a very broad group. We do have a lot of people who have technology, data design, user experience, user research skills, people with communication skills that have been very well deployed already. We have people with supply chain management skills, even healthcare, lots of people understand the healthcare world just given the stress that that system is under. So we’ve really been able to meet the needs of most of the requests that have come in from the government because of the broad range of people.

A lot of the people who do have technology skills have come from the private sector, but also many of them are these incredibly talented technologists and product managers and user researchers who’ve already worked in government and done government digital services. So they walk in really understanding how this is going to go.

SAFIAN: So the website says something like you have 4,000 volunteers. And so I assume these are all folks who are offering themselves to do whatever these governments need help with for free.

PAHLKA: They are.

SAFIAN: Which is a pretty good offer, I guess for a government. Here you have people willing to help you for free.

PAHLKA: What’s great about them wanting to help for free is that we can move much faster because of that. If you’ve got to figure out how to pay somebody, you’re talking about in normal times, possibly months. In a crisis that certainly can move faster. But I’ll give you an example, very early in, one of the requests that came in was from our friends in the office of innovation in the state of New Jersey. And at first our friend Ross Daikin just sent over a file that needed the data scraped out of it and put back in a different format. And one of our volunteers got it that evening and gave him back the data the next morning. So that’s faster than government normally works. 

SAFIAN: And the process for a government getting matched to talent is happening organically through a similar Google docs matching system. People just raise their hand and say, I’ll take that. How does the matching work?

PAHLKA: I think this works because we have a fantastic experienced and disciplined core team. Our core team are also all volunteers and about half of our core team comes from government and half comes from the tech companies. Our CEO, Raylene Yung, is a 10 year veteran of Facebook and Stripe. And many of the folks who’ve come in from technology are actually in her network or people that she knows. And we’re quite intentional about it.

So we get a request either through the form or through email from a government saying, “This is our problem.” We try to think about problems, not exact specific solutions. So then we often get on the phone with them and say, “Okay, explain to me what’s the circumstances, what is it you’re trying to solve for here? What infrastructure do you have already to solve for it?” So we do a little intake and that’s our government’s team. And then they write up a job to understand what’s really needed and they hand it off to our volunteers team, which can search through the database of those now over 4,000 volunteers and say, we need someone immediate, full time, with this set of skills, who’s got this experience, and even in this policy area and we can find the exact right person for them. 

When the volunteer team finds the right person, we actually do a little onboarding for the volunteer as well. Talk to them about the project, make sure they’re comfortable with it, answer any questions. And one important thing that we do is we have them actually sign an oath. Part of the reason we have them sign this oath is it reminds them that they might not be using their most sophisticated skills in every case – in many cases they are. Incredible data scientists and analysts and user interface designers doing incredible work.

But sometimes what’s needed is a Google form and an air table. Sometimes what’s needed isn’t going to use their most sophisticated skills, but it’s going to be the right thing to do and we have to do it quickly. And to remind people that in any government context, it may look a little different if they’ve spent their careers in the private sector and to experience that difference with humility and respect for public servants. And I think that’s one of the reasons that we’re successful is that public servants, when they get these volunteers, aren’t dealing with the culture clash that often happens, because we’ve done a good job of preparing both sides.

SAFIAN: The work that’s being done through this, is this the work that you are expecting that would be done? Can you give us some more examples of what governments need help with and what things that they’re discovering your group can provide help with?

PAHLKA: The needs that they have in this crisis didn’t really surprise me. They fall into two big categories, data to make better decisions. And this is a time when the decisions that need to be made are as difficult, I think as they’ve ever been and heartbreaking, the consequences are enormous. So if you are, for instance, as with the state of Pennsylvania, manually co-leading 100 different data points into a dashboard every day to try to have current state on things like hospital bed availability, et cetera, that’s something that should be automated so that you get quicker, better data and then your people can move on to another critical area where they could provide help. So that’s a project that a volunteer of ours named Tiffany Ho led.

It actually continues. I think it took her about a week to get all this stuff up and running. They’re thrilled with it, so they keep asking for more features and more data points to be ingested. But her initial pass automated the ingestion of over 100 data points. That kind of thing doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s also a model for many other projects we’re doing with other states. Louisiana, Maine, California – and there’s more sophisticated data modeling where we’re helping, and there’s less sophisticated data correlation. It’s really about what the infrastructure that they have and the needs that they have and meeting that need.

The other big category is service delivery. I mentioned the small business loans or small business supports that are available in this eligibility wizard that went up in about a day and a half. There’s a bunch of other things like that that fall in the category of new benefits that are available to people because of the government response to COVID, where in normal times states could have years, sometimes even decades, to implement new benefits or new services. 

A good example is pandemic unemployment assistance. We had to get this stuff up and running now, and we are helping states understand how to do service delivery in an order of magnitude or to less time than they would have had in the past. And that’s incredibly important right now. What’s surprising to me is not the kinds of things that they’re asking for, and I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s just shocking is the level of need.

What’s going on in our country is unprecedented and government is suddenly asked to operate. It’s so much greater speed and greater scale than it has, it’s a little mind boggling. And if you think of those as leading indicators of what’s going to be happening across the country over the next several years, it’s very sobering.

SAFIAN: And when you look out in the next phase, or I guess maybe the phase we’re in now in the next few weeks and months, is there a growing number of amount of outreach from governments? In other words, more governments asking for more help from your group or do you have a lot more volunteers? 

PAHLKA: I hope that we can serve more and more governments and serve them better and faster. We’re only a month old – happy month-iversary to USDR. So there’s a lot that we can do to get better at what we do. And part of that is learning over time what government needs and how to not reinvent the wheel everywhere. So not just one off helping, but advising on better ways to do things and spreading applications and solutions from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

One thing that’s definitely happening is that where there’s waves of kinds of requests. So I think the first wave were very much around data for understanding the spread of the virus and the impact of various interventions. That’s still there. But now they want to look at different data sets because they want to start figuring out how and when to reopen. And there’s just different things that need to go into that equation.

By the way, as I’m sure you’ve seen across the media, there is no easy answer to that question. But getting people the best possible information is not just a question of putting the data in, but of understanding what data needs to be going into those models and understanding the variety of different approaches that people will take and empowering them to make the decisions that are right for their communities. Every community in the United States is going to be a little bit different on this. So the kinds of needs are going to change over time, but they are going to all be the kind that can be served by the volunteers that we have.

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SAFIAN: What is the implication about the way government’s likely to operate in the future because of what we’re going through right now?

PAHLKA: It’s a great question. I think that will depend on choices that we as a country make. There’s a phrase that’s going around, comes from disaster response and other contexts, build back better. And I think this is a great opportunity for us to build government back better. There’s a world in which government becomes more agile, more responsive, more scalable. We’re talking about scale here, right? Government is the original scale, is the biggest thing, it’s a third of the economy but it’s being asked to scale in ways that it hasn’t in the past.

And so if you can stand up a new digital service in a day because of a crisis, why does it take years when we’re not in a crisis? There’s a big long answer to that question. And I hope that when we go back to normal times, if we ever do, I doubt it will go back to a day but maybe it can no longer have to be years or even decades.

We got in this situation because we neglected to modernize our government infrastructure. We can’t make those mistakes in the future. And that’s a choice that the American public makes, that our elected officials make. And we’ve got to just make different choices if we want to be prepared for another pandemic like this or whatever is coming our way.

I don’t think our world gets less complicated in the next couple of decades. I don’t think this is a blip. And once it’s over, everything is hunky-dory. So let’s invest, let’s invest not just in the technology for government, let’s invest in government’s capacity to do this. And that means people and the mandate to do this stuff right in “peacetime.”

SAFIAN: Your comments about this relative to government, I will say echo a lot of things that I’ve been hearing from executives at organizations in the private sector, they feel some of the same way about themselves, that they could be faster and more agile and they’re stuck to systems in ways of operating that this crisis allows them to break through. And the question is how much that imperative and that speed and that embrace of modern tools we’ll continue to be affected and move forward as we come through and get out of this crisis.

PAHLKA: The people who need to look in the mirror about why these systems have not been modernized is us, the American people. We do not hold our government officials accountable to doing things like modernizing the technology behind the unemployment system or SNAP system or Medicaid system, because there’s no ribbon cutting ceremony and we’re just not paying attention. We’ve got to pay attention. We’ve got to call for our government to do the right thing.

SAFIAN: I’m mindful that in this time, in a lot of ways, all of our relationships with technology are becoming enhanced. We’re realizing how much we, as noted, you and I are doing this podcast from other parts of the country through technology tools that maybe we didn’t use a few weeks ago. As our relationship with tech gets closer and stronger, what do you think happens to the relationship between the human part of us and the tech part? And as we come out of this, are we going to be living and working more remotely than we ever did before anyway or do you think the role of tech will be to allow us to be more human, more face to face? I’m not sure whether you have a perspective about where we’re going to end up with all of this earthquake of change that we’re going through.

PAHLKA: Well, I think it’s hard to say. In my personal level, I’m enjoying not traveling. The pace of work has been ridiculous in responding to COVID, but there’s been a focus, personally for me, the sense of focus and not having to get on an airplane all the time, which does feel like a permanent change in my life that I wonder how that’s rippling around for others. 

I would say of the 40 people in the core team of USDR, I have met eight of them in real life ever before and I feel like I work with them as well as I worked with any team in my entire life. We have high trust, we are bonded by a sense of urgency and purpose that’s just amazing.

And it does make me think about remote work as an incredibly powerful and efficient thing. I don’t spend any time commuting. I don’t spend a lot of time flying anywhere. So that’s really profound for me and in a weird way very enjoyable – though, I’m sure I do miss the idea that we could all have cookies together in the break room. It’d be nice to do that, but someday we will.

One thing that is really resonant to me about these changes is the degree to which being able to conduct business online is an expectation in the private sector or I guess, increasingly an expectation of consumers. And of course that means they increasingly expect it of government. Well, government has lagged in that regard. Certainly the big programs like SNAP and Medicaid, you’ve been able to apply for those things online for years. In my work at Code for America, we worked very hard to improve the experience and the effectiveness of applying for those online because while it was technically possible, it didn’t work very well for a number of reasons.

It’s now working much better because we’ve been showing how this user centered, iterative, and data-driven approach improves things both for the users and for the people who are administering the applications and adjudicating them. 

But I’ll give you an example. One of the people who reached out very early when we offered USDR volunteers was a really wonderful public servant I’ve known for a long time in the city of San Rafael, California. 

And we said, “Rebecca, what’s your issue?” And she’s like, “Well, we have all of these smaller government services that are not online at a city level, permits that you need for things, et cetera, where you still have to come into the office and fill out a paper form. This is dangerous. We can’t stop providing the service, but we can’t have people coming in, we can’t have public servants in the office.”

And so we connected her with Alicia, we’re all former Code for America fellows, who’s a technologist and designer and understands how forums work and how bureaucracy works and had raised her hand through the forum to be a USDR volunteer. And she has been working with Rebecca and many other folks in the city of San Rafael to just put the rest of the business of the city online.

This is an equity issue. Yes, it’s a safety issue in times of COVID, but when we are all allowed to leave the house again, the fact that you can do that from your home and you don’t have to take time out and go stand in line, will help everybody. It helps people who are home-bound, it’s helped people that have accessibility issues. There’s all these ways in which by making government hard to interact with, we make it easy for the people who have resources and access and hard for those people who can’t take time off of work or don’t know where to go. Accessibility is an issue of equity. And I do think that’s one of the ways that this crisis could, if we play our cards right, help us build back government better.

SAFIAN: There are some folks who worry about the more digitized engagement like that gets, the more extreme certain digital divide issues become for folks who don’t have access to technology to access those services. Is that something that you think will fade over time because everyone’s going to be connected? Or is there another layer to that?

PAHLKA: It’s a nuanced and important question to ask because there are many ways in which the digitization of government has in fact increased the digital divide or made… For instance the complaints about an out street light or a pothole. Yes, if you make that easier to do online, you’ll get more complaints from the parts of the city that have smart phones or more access. It doesn’t mean though that the city government can’t prioritize those complaints with an equity lens.

If you go on one of these more modern things that Code for America or other groups have done and you try to apply, it’s very simple language, it’s very clear, it’s written in ways that makes sense to people, and there’s just not a bunch of confusing graphics. Mobile is more accessible, it’s more equitable. If you are someone who didn’t grow up with technology and is less comfortable with technology, there is a huge difference between these applications that force you to be on a desktop that are not designed for simplicity and this new range. And I think you actually can get someone who is less comfortable with technology to use these sites.

The other thing is, frankly, if you make it simple for a user or a beneficiary, whoever, the person who’s going to use the benefit, it also is easier for the administrator, the eligibility worker. It streamlines everything. So you can create a simple clear form that doesn’t ask in the case of SNAP for instance, 212 questions, doesn’t take an hour to get through, it only takes seven minutes to get through. Then somebody at a food bank can assist an older person who isn’t comfortable online in getting them enrolled in seven minutes instead of an hour. So there’s just many, many ways that this is all better if you just do mobile first.

SAFIAN: So these are stressful times and I’m curious if there’s anything that you do to try to manage your own stress or do you have advice for other people about how you manage your own stress, the stress of a team, the stress of standing something up or dealing with all the pressures that we’re being hit with in this crisis?

PAHLKA: I’m doing a lot. I had never used to run regularly. I don’t think I’ve missed more than a day since this whole thing started. Just because I know I’ll lose my mind if I don’t do some self care. But the thing that reduces my stress the most is thinking about that line from Mr. Rogers: When something bad happens, look for the helpers.

I’m in a very lucky position to have a front row to all of these people raising their hand to help and to be seeing how public servants are rising to this occasion. They’re always helping and now they’re having to help even more and they’re not crumbling, they’re looking at this situation and saying, “It’s our job to help the American public now and even though this is unprecedented, we’re going to get to work.” I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the country to get to see both of those dynamics happening. And it reduces my stress enormously.

SAFIAN: Thank you. And just to be clear, if someone’s listening and they work with a government entity or agency and they need help or they could use help, they should reach out to U.S. Digital Response, you’ve got the resources for them. And on the other end, if you’re a technologist or a designer and you want to help, you can sign up and do that through U.S. Digital Response.

PAHLKA: USdigitalresponse.org. There is a form there for technologists and others with the relevant skills to sign up, and there’s a form there for the governments to request their help.

SAFIAN: Well, that’s great. This is the kind of platform we all need. And you’re right, it is great to have help. Thank you Jen for sharing your thoughts and your efforts and your time. We wish you a lot of luck. I’m Bob Safian, and thanks, everybody, for listening.

Masters of Scale’s mission is to democratize entrepreneurship. Launched in 2017 as a weekly podcast featuring Reid Hoffman, we’re now two weekly podcasts — Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman, and Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, hosted by Bob Safian — as well as an award-winning daily learning app, a best-selling book, virtual and live events, and more, serving a global community of founders, funders, and leaders looking to innovate at scale.
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