"A Hack That Works Right Now"

The potential, and limits, of the field of public interest technology.

Tara Dawson McGuinness and Hana Schank’s new book Power to the Public—The Promise of Public Interest Technology is a conundrum. Its title suggests that it’s about how a new kind of technology, public interest technology, is empowering the public. But the bulk of the book is about something else, a tad less sexy but certainly still of great importance: how a new culture and practice of public problem-solving is being developed, refined, taught, implemented and spread through the various layers of government. If you are interested in how a new generation of problem-solvers are improving how government does things like manage big programs like immigration, welfare or veterans’ health care, then McGuinness and Schank are essential guides.

The book is full of illuminating examples: how the US Digital Service helped the Citizenship and Immigration Service unsnarl a massive information tech upgrade that sought to reduce its dependence on paper files; how Civilla, a govtech startup, convinced officials in Michigan to streamline its onerous unified benefits form (which stretched to 42 pages and 1204 questions before they got involved; the new form is 80% shorter); how Marina Nitze, the former CTO of the US Department of Veteran Affairs took her volunteer involvement in foster care to the state of Rhode Island, helping it streamline a huge backload in applications to be foster families. Not every story the authors center has a perfectly happy ending. They also detail how a promising effort led by Nava Public Benefit Corporation to help the state of Vermont upgrade its system for applying for nutrition assistance was derailed by the pandemic and the departure of a few key allies in the state bureaucracy. The through-line in the stories they tell is how the successful reform of government services requires a lot of empathy for beneficiaries, a lot of time spent listening to them as well as front-line government workers, and a focus on iterative development of new tools and processes, rather than the old-fashioned, top-down, hyper-expensive approach of giving an outside contractor huge sums to construct huge systems that almost always fail. For anyone curious about how the delivery of government services is actually being advanced, Power to the Public is for you.

It’s also refreshingly frank about how little the project of improving government service delivery is actually about tech. McGuinness and Schank are quite clear that public interest technology is actually more about a commitment that “government must help, really help” people’s lives and a mindset that uses principles of human-centered design, focuses on data to better see who is being served and how well, and concentrates on improving delivery. Tech is just a lever to get people with this mindset in the door. As Mikey Dickerson, a former Googler who was the first administrator of the US Digital Service, told the authors, “Try saying you’re going to the VA to be a management consultant. No. Don’t bother. The technology label is a hack that works right now. Government’s self-image is, there’s this new technology bullshit that I don’t understand because it’s kids and their iPads and their Nintendos. In order to deal with that part, let’s bring in some of those kids that understand the iPods and Nintendos.” Says Vivian Grabaurd, another founder of USDS, “In some ways, the technology angle was a Trojan horse” that got people like her into the room where it happens.

But if you are wondering how technology itself can better serve the public interest, or how new technology in the hands of disruptive actors can shift the aims of government more toward the public good, well, I’m afraid Power to the Public will leave you a bit confused. And that’s understandable, because alongside the story that McGuinness and Schank tell, of public-spirited technologists (and designers and product managers and organizers) who have been lured into government by patriotic calls to action (and often a little bit of peer pressure and calls from high ranking officials like President Obama), and people like Dickerson and Grabaurd who understood that being “from tech” was a “hack that works right now”, there’s another story that you can glean from reading alongside their book, which is how a few leading funders and government reformers have channeled the disruptive potential of tech-enabled popular movements to shift power towards more mundane, reformist goals like shortening wait times for foster care licenses, SNAP benefits and unemployment checks.

For a book that has Power as the first word in its title, the actual display and practice of power is mentioned at best in passing, if at all, in the Power to the Public. A better title would be Benefits to the Public, to be honest. There’s no discussion for example of the oligarchic context that “public interest technology” operates in, other than some criticism of the power of incumbent IT vendors and a procurement process that is heavily tilted to favor their bloated budgets and software. The underlying cruelty and racism of the American welfare state, which produces the very systems of impenetrable, unaccountable and ungenerous social programs that McGuinness and Schank’s heroes are trying to fix, receives only the briefest nod from them. And the elitist assumptions of Big Tech also go unchallenged. Thus they quote Todd Park, perhaps the key evangelist for PIT in government starting in 2009, describing how he managed to recruit some of his peers from Silicon Valley: “When we started, people said, ‘Well, maybe you’ll get twenty other crazy people to leave their multimillion-dollar stock options, packages, and free sushi to go work for the VA in DC.’ And through the incredibly hard work of a bunch of folks, we got 200 people to show up, and they were the very, very, very best of the best.” Organizations like 18F and the US Digital Service have climbed down a bit from this haughty hill in the years since, but I have friends inside those organizations who didn’t give up fancy jobs to help fix government and they still smart from the condescension they experienced.

This is the sort of book where the role of Mike Bloomberg—one of the richest men in America—is celebrated for his data-driven methodologies and his philanthropic support for iTeams, which provide funds for individual cities to set up small teams focused on solving a special issues like reducing blight, improving the economic prospects of people returning from jail, or cutting murder rates. The plain fact that Bloomberg’s purported obsession with data led him to claim for years that stop-and-frisk was working, when it plainly was harming hundreds of thousands of young Black and Brown residents of New York City—that exercise of power over the public doesn’t bear mention here. Instead, McGuiness  and Schank treat us to a lengthy quote from James Anderson, a former Bloomberg mayoral adviser who has long run the government innovation arm of Bloomberg Philanthropies, telling readers how “If you want to get big things done in the public sector, you need serious, sustained executive leadership. The mandate for change comes from the top.”

New America, where McGuinness and Schank both work, is receiving nearly $2.3 million in current funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, including $296,500 for its Public Interest Technology (PIT) program. McGuinness is a Fellow and Senior Adviser to that program’s New Practice Lab, which she founded. And Schank is the Public Interest Technology program’s director of strategy. I share these facts not to accuse them of any ethical issues; they are true believers in the cause of public interest tech and as their book shows in its discussion of Crisis Tech Line, not afraid to call out problematic behavior when they see it. But they still should have disclosed their program’s connection to Bloomberg Philanthropies in the book. My larger point is that the version of government reform now described as public interest tech is very fundable. New America’s very transparent and admirable disclosures page shows that it is currently receiving $7,155,900 in active funding for its PIT program (including $2,685,000 from the Ford Foundation and $2,250,000 from the Reid Hoffman Foundation). There is a community of interest at work here, not a conflict of interest.

That said, it’s important to note that people with a design mindset or who care about data-driven policies or who want government to truly serve everyone are doing much more than improving government service delivery. The goal of programs like New America’s Public Interest Technology University Network is to infuse more knowledge about public policy and social justice into the development of the next generation of computer science majors. And people like Chris Soghoian (a longtime privacy researcher who is currently Senator Ron Wyden’s senior advisor for privacy and cybersecurity), Matt Mitchell (founder of CryptoHarlem and a current technology fellow at the Ford Foundation) and (MIT computer scientist Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League) are all examples of public interest technologists who use their deep knowledge about how to build, use and decode tech coupled with a deep skepticism about power to raise critical questions in service of the public interest. Their work is important because it helps disadvantaged communities that have been lacking in the expertise needed to go head-to-head with private industry or government, often from places with real leverage, like Congressional offices or prestigious universities. I don’t think you can fully describe the ambitions of public interest tech without more attention to these kinds of leaders who, unlike the heroes of Power to the People, aren’t focused on improved service delivery but rather on demystifying and watchdogging the consequences of both government and private uses of tech.

Alas what is missing from this book is a recognition that this nascent field also has oppositional roots. It’s nice to see efforts that I helped build, starting with Personal Democracy Forum in 2004 and more recently Civic Hall, recognized by the authors as seminal to the field of public interest tech. But while I appreciate the hat tip, I don’t quite recognize the offspring. I’ll freely admit that some part of that is the fault of those of us who were around the early days of whatever we want to call this field—civic tech, community tech, public interest tech. There’s always been different interests colliding and combining in this arena. Speaking just for myself, getting government to open up and change its ways always meant more than just upgrading old service delivery systems. For me, the promise was in the potential to shift power from the hands of the few to the many, from the oligarchs to the public, if you will.

When Tom Steinberg, cofounder of mySociety, argued back in 2014 that we should have called the whole field of tech-enabled civic engagement the “civic power field” he was certainly right. But those of us, like me, who argued instead for “civic tech” as the field’s name felt that being so explicit about critiquing power under its very nose would mean that the movement would get nowhere. Instead, one part of the movement – the one that is least challenging to established systems of power – has gotten the embrace of a few leading foundations and billionaire philanthropists. It also didn’t hurt that President Obama embraced this nascent movement after his 2010 HealthCare.gov debacle, while his administration paid lip service to open government, cut deals with deep-pocketed industries and cheered as former top staff took well-paying jobs as lobbyists for tech companies. Looking back and now looking forward, I think instead that the “design justice” movement now being championed by the generation that grew up inside the space started by civic tech is on a much better footing than we were. Of course, the same challenges remain, which is what happens when philanthropies that claim to be for advancing social change come calling with big checks.

There’s no question that in an age of rampant disinformation, skepticism and cynicism about government, making sure that programs aimed at alleviating suffering or uplifting the least among us deliver on their promises. Government is our biggest collective lever. But we shouldn’t expect big changes in who government really helps without big changes in who has power. A simple glance at the make-up of Congress (still much more white and male than America, despite some recent improvements) or the color and gender of America’s corporate boards tells you all you need to know. Unfortunately, there aren’t many people or institutions in America interested in funding the kind of long-term work needed to redesign that system, while there are many who want to keep it going just the way it is. So while I’m glad to see the public interest technologists celebrated by McGuinness and Schank making headway, bringing real power to the public is going to take a whole different approach.

Odds and Ends

-If you are a political data nerd then TargetSmart’s new data dashboard, which has individual level vote history for more than 98% of all 2020 voters and comparisons to historic turnout for past elections is mind-boggling. (h/t Lara Putnam)

-If you want to donate to support local efforts in India to fight the COVID crisis there, here’s a crowdsourced guide.

-Read Fadi Quran and Justin Hendrix on why a National Commission on the January 6 insurrection is still of vital importance, even as consensus in Congress for it evaporates.

-You often hear about how anti-Semitism in America is prevalent on both the right and the left, but a new survey of 3,500 US adults, including a large oversample of young people, done by Eitan Hersh and Laura Royden, suggests something else is going on. “We find evidence of prejudice on the ideological left and among racial minority groups, but the data clearly show the epicenter of antisemitic attitudes is young adults on the far right,” they write.

-Attend: This Friday and Saturday, UMass Amherst is hosting a bracing array of speakers for a 50th Anniversary conference commemorating the release of the Pentagon Papers.

-Attend: Thursday, 4:00pm EST, Hahrie Han, Elizabeth McKenna, and Michelle Oyakawa will be talking with Randall Smith of Powerlabs about their new book, Prisms of the People: Power & Organizing in Twenty-First-Century America. RSVP here.

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