Pahlka quoted: “Efficiency in government is a matter of social justice.” (Mayor 
John Norquist)  It is at the often maddening interface with government that the 
inefficiency and injustice play out.  Two examples (both now fixed)…  At the 
Veterans Affairs website, you needed to fill out the application for health 
benefits, but the file wouldn’t even open unless you had the unlikely 
combination of a particular version of Internet Explorer and a particular 
version of Adobe Reader.  Nothing else worked.  In California, the online 
application for food stamps was 50 screens long and took 50 minutes to complete.

How did such grotesquely bad software design become the norm?  Pahlka points to 
laws such as the “comically misnamed” Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980, which 
requires six months to get any public form approved, and the 775-page Federal 
Acquisition Regulation book, which insists that all software be vastly 
over-specified in advance.  “That’s not how good software is built!” Pahlka 
said.  “Good software is user-centered, iterative, and data driven.”  You build 
small at first, try it on users, observe what doesn’t work, fix it, build 
afresh, try it again, and so on persistently until you’ve got something that 
really works — and is easy to keep updating as needed.  Pahlka’s organization, 
Code for America, did that with the 50-minute California food stamp application 
and pared the whole process down to 8 minutes.

These are not small matters. 19% of the US gross national product is spent on 
social programs — social security, medicare, food assistance, housing 
assistance, unemployment, etc.  Frustration with those systems makes people 
want to just blow the whole thing up.  Pahlka quoted Tom Steinberg (mySociety 
founder): “You can no longer run a country properly if the elites don’t 
understand technology in the same way they grasp economics or ideology or 

Government drastically needs more tech talent, Pahlka urged, and the 
user-centered iterative approach could have a broader effect: “It’s not so much 
that we need new laws to govern technology,” she said.  “It’s that we need 
better tech practices that teaches how to make better laws.  The status quo 
isn’t worth fighting for.  Fight for something better, something we haven’t 
seen yet, something you have to invent.”

She concluded with what she learned from 8 years working with government at the 
city, state, and national levels: “Decisions are made by those who show up.”

                                                                —Stewart Brand <>

A linkable, illustrated version of this summary is on Medium here 

The full video and audio versions of Pahlka’s talk are at the Long Now SALT 
site, here 

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