Christine de la Huerta|Mar 20, 2012

Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America, was the keynote speaker on March 13 at SXSW. The address was meant to show how geek skills can transform the world.

She started out by showing us examples of some of the outdated so-called technology used by government to provide services – monochromatic screens and archaic programs developed 20 years ago. Pretty sad.

Many people don’t want to work with governments. They’re slow and bureaucratic. But she thinks the will to do things differently in government is finally emerging.

Her message was one of hope: “Things are changing.”

She says government is the next big untapped market. In fact, she projects federal state and local IT spending to reach $172 billion.

As someone who says she has worked with “geeks” her whole life, Pahlka seems to have found her life’s mission with Code for America. Her organization helps governments work better with the people and the power of the web. Through its FellowshipAccelerator and Brigade, newly announced at SXSW, the organization is building a network of cities, citizens, community groups, and startups, all equally committed to reimagining government for the 21st century.

So refreshing: Here is one person trying to find a way to change the system. She is not alone. In its first year, Code for America received more than 300 applications from developers that wanted to participate in its fellowship program, creating 21 online apps and web solutions. Now in its second year, more than 550 applicants are on board. Yes, people do care about government.
The benefits to agencies? Lower-cost technology, with faster turnaround and more efficient services. It’s a win-win. “There is no reason we should be paying orders of magnitude more than it costs to build a web app,” she says of traditional government technology acquisition.

Why do developers do it? “Interfaces to government can be simple, beautiful and easy to use,” says Scott Silverman, one of last year’s fellows.

It invites us to think about government differently, says Pahlka. Once we can look beyond our preconceived critiques, at its core, “government is what we do together.” She says government is our collective action. And through her organization, “We are getting pretty good at collective action through technology.”

Based on Code for America’s solid start, it appears we are going to have to expect different things from government and, as Pahlka suggests, different things from ourselves. “We aren’t going to fix government unless we fix citizenship,” she says, as she reaffirms her theme. “Things are changing.”

Her call to action is that we now need to build a citizen Internet. She ended by borrowing a line from the friendly, familiar Smokey the Bear as inspiration for a new cause – only YOU can change government.


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