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Code for America's Catherine Bracy Explains Why Tech Won't Save Government, but Can Make It a Whole Lot Better (Q&A)

"No one doesn’t have a visceral, evocative moment when we say we’re trying to make government work better for people."

Drew Bird / Code for America

When President Obama won reelection in 2012, people paid a lot of attention to the techie, data-driven campaign staff that helped Obama beat Mitt Romney and the Republicans.

Some of the alums went back into the private sector, but many of them stayed in the intersection of technology and public policy. Catherine Bracy, formerly the director of Obama’s technology field office in San Francisco, is among the latter. Bracy is now a top leader at Code for America, the national nonprofit supported by donors and Silicon Valley sponsors that seeks to bridge the gap between the tech sector and public policy.

Code for America, an ever-so-slightly left-leaning group whose most effective work is on the local and state level, is the symbolic leader of the civic technology “movement.” Among all the different entrepreneurs and thinkfluencers who opine loudly about what government doesn’t get about tech and vice versa, Bracy’s sharp insight cuts through the noise.

You can check out some slides from a smart presentation she made in 2013 about race, gender and income inequality in Silicon Valley. I also highly recommend her Twitter feed.

At the Code for America Summit in Oakland yesterday, I caught up with Bracy and asked her about what tech can do for citizens and the obstacles her organization faces in breaking down the barriers between government and the tech sector. The interview that follows has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Re/code: One of the things I’ve noticed about civic tech and the people that it attracts is this kind of Camelot-Kennedy-“serving your country” kind of vibe. Has that helped bring people in, or has it isolated civic tech from the rest of Silicon Valley?

Catherine Bracy: When I first moved here, I’d never lived on the west coast before, and I didn’t realize how little I knew about Silicon Valley and the tech industry. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. But I’ve found that [with] people who come to do this thing for the President, we only had to ask once. Some of them moved to Florida, some of them were volunteering full-time with us.

On the Obama campaign?

Yes, I ran the technology office in San Francisco. Basically, I was recruiting technologists to volunteer for the campaign and build software that we deployed. I don’t know if I would classify most of those people as “Camelot.” I have a picture in my head of what you mean [by] that, a “do-gooder,” optimistic, values-driven kind of person who sees technology as a real opportunity — not cynical. I don’t know that I would classify most of the people who walked through the door as that.

What about in Code for America?

I think there are a lot of people who are very self-reflected and humble, and we select for that, especially through the fellowship. People who have worked in this space and developed enough understanding of how hard this work is to not have a totally starry-eyed view of what we’re trying to do here.

When we hear people use this rhetoric that’s very hopeful, “save-the-world”-type stuff, you can tell that they’ve never actually been in the trenches.

Working in the civic space, where a lot of problems can’t be fixed through code, what are the opportunities that an organization like Code for America has?

I’ve coined a term at Code for America: “The app trap.” What we are trying to achieve, and the way the world looks when we achieve our goals, it’s really hard to describe in the abstract. It’s really hard to point to when we’ve changed a system or we’ve improved some massive bureaucracy. It’s often years in the making. To separate the milestones along the way of this systemic story, we fall back on talking about the apps we’ve built, and the way the apps sort of represent a milestone or bigger picture. And that leads us into the “app trap” [that] now colors the conversation. “Oh, you’re just about building apps.” And the app is the end of the story. But it’s not.

We’re working on these huge areas of focus, these strategic areas where technology can make a real difference. And we’ve done a lot of work to define where those places are.

There’s a political problem that’s presented before you get to making processes more efficient. As an apolitical nonprofit, how do you get to that place where you’re able to make the strategic change you want?

I think it would be naïve for us to say that we don’t focus on the politics of it and that we’re not interested in the decision-making that goes into resource allocation. On the other hand, I think there’s a lot we can crystallize and highlight about what’s broken in the policy in its current form.

It makes it so much easier for advocates to make the case for food stamps as being an economic driver and for investing in these programs that have all these other ancillary benefits in the world that other folks are measuring. We have a lot of respect for the policy folks, it’s just not the work we do.

I think there’s so much work to be done at the implementation level that isn’t being focused on and so much about how you fix the implementation that informs the upstream policymaking that we can do without having to get into the conversation about resource allocation.

Okay, to invent a scenario: If a tenant organizer in Red Hook, New York, came and said, “Hey, you’re creating tools that give the people I’m working with access to information they didn’t have before, but they’re still SOL when fighting crappy landlords,” do you think there’s a way you’re able to partner with people in the realm of politics that can advance their interest?

Absolutely. You should talk to [Code for America staffer] Dave Guarino, because he’s really articulate about how our work can support the work of advocates, like food banks, who enroll a lot of people in food stamps.

They’re the deepest well of intelligence that we have about how we can create tools that can do what they’re doing on a manual basis. We’re basically trying to automate and scale all the concierge-level service that these people are giving to food stamp clients on a day-to-day basis.

One of the things I’m focused on now is how do we build strategic relationships with advocates, with companies, with basically everyone outside the building who’s not a government partner, to come at this problem in a really strategic way so that we’re all pushing in the same direction.

There’s Microsoft and Google here [sponsoring the event] — as a whole, has Silicon Valley been enthusiastic in partnering with you in this work, or have you been twisting arms?

It hasn’t been that difficult. No one doesn’t have a visceral, evocative moment when we say we’re trying to make government work better for people.

“Did you go to a public meeting? How was it?” “Oh my god, it sucked!”

Everyone has this picture in their head of these broken systems, and technologists see that and they’re like, “Of course it could be working better.” In a really humble way. They’re not imposing their worldview on this work.

They’ve been willing to listen and learn and participate. There are people from Microsoft who participate in the Brigade meetings weekly and [they are] true participants. Not just [in a] “I’m here from Microsoft and I’m the sponsor” kind of way, but really rolling up their sleeves and helping to build as citizens.

What about the other way around? Have you found folks in political power or responsible for implementation in cities and government who have been responsive when approached?

Well, it really varies, right? There are thousands of municipalities in the country, it’d be hard to lump them into one pile. Something Jascha [Franklin Hodge, Boston Chief Innovation Officer] said earlier today resonated with me: Government doesn’t have the luxury that the private sector has of being able to choose their market. They have to serve everyone. Because of that, government is naturally more risk-averse. It requires them to be more responsible about their allocation of resources.

And so making the case to them is harder, because they’re not necessarily inclined to just experiment. We’re starting to see that change, and see that doing the old “waterfall” way —

What do you mean, the “waterfall way?”

For example, when it comes to software, they write the RFP, and they’ll include in the RFP every feature that the software has.

It’s a really drawn-out procurement process.

It’s how you build out waterfall software. It’s shipping out the CD of Windows ’95 instead of, like, just getting I-don’t-know-how-many updates from Google throughout the day without us even knowing it, that agile, sort of iterative way. In government, everything is a step-through process that has a beginning and an end, and they think once the law has passed or the thing has shipped, it’s over. It’s not!

It needs to be informing itself, it needs to become a learning environment. They need to build something, understand how it works, iterate on that, add to it, and nothing’s ever done.

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