February 22, 2024

Recoding America

Eight years ago, I got to join a small group of incredible people to work on something we all knew was going to be bigger than us.

Over my career, I’ve mostly worked in the areas of digital governance, digital policy, and communications. I had carved out a small niche in being someone who could tell stories about technology in ways that made tech accessible to leaders and decision-makers. It wasn’t always the most interesting skill, but I was good at it and proud of what I did.

Eight years ago, a handful of us came together to create a digital organization within our provincial government. Our thinking was simple: if government was to serve people in a digital era, it needed the skills, expertise, and structures to think digitally. We knew that the success of any government program was 3am government: the ability to deliver service to people in the ways they wanted and expected that service, when they needed it most.

Our motley crew eventually became the Ontario Digital Service, a not-so-small group of people who not only worked across government to help build better services, but also worked with people across government to rethink what it meant to deliver services in a digital world. (I’m still working here; the name has changed over the years, but the ethos remains the same: we’re here to make government work for people.)

Reading Jennifer Pahlka’s Recoding America was a perfect reminder of why I do the work I do; why a few of us got together eight years ago to build something new. Pahlka provides a number of examples of how thinking differently about the way we deliver services leads to better outcomes for people, and how thinking differently requires having digital talent inside government. Policy and legislation isn’t enough: implementation needs to be built into the decisions we make, and that requires having people who have the skills, expertise, and experience to understand what good implementation looks like—and then give them the space and power to make the necessary decisions.

Pahlka clearly makes the case for embedding digital practitioners into the public service:

The degree of government’s reliance on the digital realm has grown steadily for decades, without a corresponding growth in digital literacy.

This is why I’ve devoted the recent part of my career to digital talent: good people in good environments lead to good outcomes, and we need to make sure our public service has the right skills and tools necessary to lead towards those outcomes.

I think every policymaker should read Recoding America, but I think everyday citizens should read it too, to get an understanding of how government works and how we can make it better—and maybe inspire people to help make it better too. Pahlka says is succinctly:

It’s easy to complain about government but more satisfying to help fix it.

I’ve spent the latter part of my career trying to fix it, and I’m excited to keep doing that in the years to come.

→ marginalia → books → reflection → work