Baratunde Thurston: Good morn­ing, every­body. Nice. Can we just express a moment of appre­ci­a­tion for the set design of the New America Conference. It’s like a hip­ster farm­ers mar­ket, right inside the Reagan Building. Which he nev­er imag­ined. So, it’s real­ly real­ly great. I want to jump right into it, Vivian. You worked in the US Digital Service. You’re one of the found­ing mem­bers of the team. What was it like to work in a func­tion­ing exec­u­tive branch?

Vivian Graubard: Good ques­tion. I’m not sure. No, I’m just kid­ding. You know, it was inter­est­ing. I was at the White House for almost six years. And most of the time that I was there was spent on try­ing to bring sort of these best prac­tices that we knew worked in the tech indus­try to bear in gov­ern­ment when it came to pol­i­cy imple­men­ta­tion. And so there’s been this inter­est­ing arc from the Presidential Innovation Fellows, where a sin­gle agent going into an agency and then very quick­ly learn­ing that that might not be the best idea. To the cre­ation of the United States Digital Service, which real­ly focused on small, fully-stacked teams that were work­ing on one issue, one very con­crete thing and see­ing how we could sort of change the tides that way.

Thurston: So it was amazing.

Graubard: It was amaz­ing, it was the best.

Thurston: Okay, great. That’s what I was look­ing for. We have a pub­lic sto­ry of the US Digital Service, which is some­body for­got to plug in the web site to health​care​.gov. Obama called his tech bud­dies. They hung out over whiskey—

Graubard: That’s right.

Thurston: —flew in a bunch of heroes from Silicon Valley who took time off of ship­ping bur­ri­tos to rich people—

Graubard: Right, cat apps.

Thurston: —and, made America great.

Graubard: Yeah.

Thurston: Um…

Graubard: Again, or just…

Thurston: For the third time, I think? There’s been ups and downs. It’s a sto­ried past. Can you share some nuances of what the expe­ri­ence at USDS were on the mis­take side, on the mis­cal­cu­la­tion side, on the we had assump­tions that were wrong” side? Because it is a sexy sto­ry from the out­side, but inside it must’ve been a lit­tle messier than that.

Graubard: There is. There is a sto­ry that absolute­ly took advan­tage of a cri­sis, right. The cri­sis that the President was pay­ing atten­tion to. That the left, that the right were pay­ing atten­tion to. And it gave us sort of all the air cov­er and the lift that we need­ed to say you know, health​care​.gov is not the only thing that has ever flopped over on its side. We are spend­ing now more than $84 bil­lion a year on tech­nol­o­gy in gov­ern­ment. And I don’t know if any­one feel like they’re get­ting $84 bil­lion worth of ser­vice? Tell me. And so we were able at that time— And Jen Pahlka, who’s in the room, and Marina Martin who’s in the room. There are so many peo­ple who are able to sort of make the case for build­ing some­thing like the USDS that was mod­eled off of the Government Digital Service in the UK

But to answer a ques­tion about the hard­er parts, you know, the ugli­er side of the sto­ry. So yeah, there was a cri­sis. The President was pay­ing very close atten­tion. There were dai­ly meet­ings with him which con­tin­ued to give peo­ple the—

Thurston: So you said the President was pay­ing close atten­tion. That’s so amazing.

Graubard: Yeah. 

Thurston: Sorry, guys. I’m going to keep doing that. It’s gonna happen.

Graubard: Baratunde Thurston, every­one. And so that gave then Todd Park and Mikey Dickerson and Mina and this incred­i­ble team of peo­ple the cov­er that they need­ed to show up in Virginia every day to these con­trac­tor’s offices and say, Look, they’re pay­ing atten­tion. They’re ask­ing us for updates.”

Well, then they got it to a place where it was sta­ble,” func­tion­al, and then there was a team that stayed behind. And to just give you an exam­ple, two years lat­er Mikey Dickerson was going back to the XOC, which is where the war room for health​care​.gov is. And there were new con­trac­tors. And they were doing some sort of fun­ny stuff. And he said, Why are you doing it this way?” It was how they were con­nect­ing to the sys­tem to make changes to it. And they said, Oh, because you know back in 2013, Mikey Dickerson told us to do it that way.”

And he said, But you don’t have to do that anymore.”

And he said, Well, I don’t know if we can change it.”

He’s like, I’m lit­era— I’m Mikey Dickerson. I’m telling you we don’t have to do it like that anymore.” 

And so the thing that’s hard is that you can’t just… The heli­copter­ing in and think­ing that every­thing is going to change overnight, and we now have this new way of doing it, and every­thing is per­fect in the world… It’s not like that. It’s plant­i­ng a seed. It is nur­tur­ing it. It is water­ing it. It is plant­i­ng many oth­er seeds once that one seems to have tak­en roots and prov­ing that you can do this over here, you can do it over there. And keep­ing your eye on the ball. Which means that tech­nol­o­gists and peo­ple with these skills sets are not peo­ple that heli­copter in and out. We need to think about embed­ding them long-term and mak­ing them a part of the orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­ture that persists.

Thurston: Thank you for that. And for some of the oth­er side. So, I haven’t explained at all why I’m a part of this con­ver­sa­tion oth­er than I was avail­able. Which mat­ters. People are busy in this town, espe­cial­ly now. (I’m going to keep doing it.) But I was born into this space, in a way. I grew up in DC. My moth­er was a coder for the gov­ern­ment. Yeah, thank you, one per­son. Everybody else is like, Yeah, obvi­ous­ly that’s what every­body was doing in the 70s. Big whoop. My mom did the same thing.”

And then I’ve been more in the media, com­e­dy, and com­men­tary side. But my roles at jobs at The Onion and at The Daily Show were both heav­i­ly about bring­ing tech­nol­o­gy to bear on how these groups achieve their mis­sions. And the idea of plant­i­ng a seed, embed­ding and being there for the long term, see­ing that come back around… You know, see­ing some­one six months lat­er or two years lat­er, when the idea for the change comes from some­body who was already there, then you’re like, Ah, my work here is done.” It can be a very mag­i­cal moment ver­sus day one when they hand­ed me a tow­er PC on my first day of the job and I thought it was a joke. Which it was­n’t. They were like, We’ve always hand­ed tow­er PCs to peo­ple. This is what we do here.” So those old habits can die hard. But you can kill them off.

What do you… I remem­ber a time when peo­ple were very pos­i­tive about the Internet, and sim­ple in their pos­i­tiv­i­ty. If every­body just had a blog, we could all express our­selves and make things beau­ti­ful. And we got Breitbart.

Graubard: Isn’t that what Instagram’s for?

Thurston: Right? Instagram is beau­ti­ful food, the best food. (Going to keep doing it.) But there’s been some nuance added to the idea of what tech­nol­o­gy in the pub­lic inter­est, tech for the pub­lic good, civic tech, means. And you go from every­body has access to the Internet to we have data that is avail­able, to embed­ding teams inside of a gov­ern­ment agency not just one per­son. What is your ver­sion, what’s the sto­ry that you have in your head about this arc. The evo­lu­tion of what civic tech even is. Where are we at right now, where’s it going?

Graubard: So when I came into this world in 2011, 2012 when I start­ed at the White House, when I moved into the Office of Science and Technology—

Thurston: Not a bad start.

Graubard: Yeah, it’s not bad. And then we real­ly had this idea that we could cre­ate for exam­ple the Presidential Innovation Fellows pro­gram. It was the we can bring in one real­ly smart sort of entre­pre­neur in res­i­dence, very inno­v­a­tive techie-type per­son and they will com­mand the sec­re­taries to behave dif­fer­ent­ly and they will do oth­er things. And there was quite a bit that they accom­plished, right. 

But real­ly there was a lot that we learned. And so the—you know, one per­son is real­ly tough. One per­son across an entire agency is even hard­er. And so it began to evolve from there. And then we moved into USDS. But real­ly there were the hackathons, the open data, all things that real­ly mat­ter and I think that it’s a real­ly great step into this work. But I think that what that pre­sumes is that it con­tin­ues to feel very sep­a­rate from the core work that’s happening.

And so when you say… It is my opin­ion that if you say, We’re going to host a hackathon,” I think that’s real­ly won­der­ful for the com­mu­ni­ty. I think that it gets peo­ple real­ly ener­gized. It cre­ates some great ideas about where cer­tain pain points are and things that we should be focus­ing our time are. But real­ly the big things are like the very sexy things that nobody cares— Not that nobody cares but that we don’t real­ly think about. 

So a hackathon for exam­ple is not going to fix how the immi­gra­tion appli­ca­tion ben­e­fits work. It’s a huge paper process. There are tons of peo­ple who adju­di­cate these appli­ca­tions every day. They had a sys­tem” that allowed peo­ple to apply elec­tron­i­cal­ly and then when adju­di­ca­tors received it they print­ed it out to review it—

Thurston: Is that why you put sys­tem in quo­ta­tion marks?

Graubard: Yeah. Yeah yeah yeah. And so these are things that are… They’re not sep­a­rate. It is core to how these orga­ni­za­tions do their work. And we hear it time and time and time again. And so I think that we need a lit­tle bit of every­thing? But where I am at now, where our team is think­ing about this work, it’s in my mind sort of— It has evolved from the hackathons and open data and into the How’re you doing your work? What is painful about it? What can we make bet­ter about it?” Because if you are more effi­cient you will be more effec­tive in car­ry­ing out your core crit­i­cal mis­sions, and that is what we need right now. I can’t invite a bunch of refugees to a hackathon and tell them that that is going to fix their situation.

Thurston: Can you describe the mis­sion of the Public Interest Tech team at New America and… You know, this is an organization—I’ll tee it off this way—that we heard in the intro­duc­tion this morn­ing, been around since the late 90s, employs peo­ple who can write real­ly elo­quent­ly and in a human lan­guage about deep pol­i­cy issues. And now has a tech­nol­o­gy wing. And tech­nol­o­gists don’t write papers.

Graubard: We don’t?

Thurston: I’ve seen them, they’re terrible.

Graubard: You saw my talk­ing points.

Thurston: Yeah, that’s not why…you’re around. So what are you going to be doing?

Graubard: Yeah. So, New America to me, Cecilia and Anne-Marie asked me to first come in and sort of con­sult on the pro­gram, I thought this is a real­ly— I had the same, this is a real­ly inter­est­ing place for it to be. And then… I’ll take you on a lit­tle sto­ry, a lit­tle adventure.

I was on a road trip dri­ving from San Francisco to LA with some friends. And we were lis­ten­ing to a pod­cast, On the Media myth­bust­ing pover­ty.

Thurston: I know it. That’s a good episode.

Graubard: Yeah. I don’t know if Rachel Black is in this room. But it’s when I was actu­al­ly— I don’t know you, hel­lo. But it’s when I was think­ing about this work, I was think­ing about this offer that I had from Anne-Marie and from Cecilia to come and build this. And I was going through the same steps. Like, why does this make sense at New America? I was so tak­en with this pod­cast, and sud­den­ly I hear, And next we are going to speak to expert Rachel Black from New America.”

And I thought that’s why. That is why it makes sense here. Because there are so many peo­ple who are experts in the exact pol­i­cy areas that we care about—or the exact ver­ti­cals that we care about, were we would like to take their brains, their under­stand­ing of these prob­lems, and apply them in ways that peo­ple will feel, right. In improv­ing ser­vice deliv­ery from non­prof­its. In going and ask­ing some­one like Rachel where do you see the pain points here? And I know that it’s so much big­ger than that. Like I can’t even. But is there any­where that you think that tech­nol­o­gy might make a dent? That a process might be improved? That per­haps there’s one lever that we could just push on a lit­tle bit that would have like expo­nen­tial­ly huge huge returns?

And so that was one rea­son. And I remem­ber think­ing this is weird. This is fun­ny. This is inter­est­ing. And it’s real­ly excit­ing. And then I thought about build­ing a dig­i­tal ser­vice for non­prof­its, which is a very sim­ple way of putting it, near the end of my time at USDS because that’s real­ly where my heart lies.

And it’s so fun­ny, if I were build­ing some­thing from the ground up and I were think­ing of who should be my board, who would I ask to be on my board, the com­bi­na­tion of Cecilia Muñoz with her exper­tise in the non­prof­it space and at the White House and in gov­ern­ment and in work­ing on these crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant issues. Anne-Marie’s exper­tise. Todd Park, who’s my for­mer boss and men­tor and friend who has recent­ly joined the board. With advi­sors like Mikey Dickerson and Megan Smith. It is quite lit­er­al­ly a dream team. 

And so I think that incu­bat­ing it here, see­ing what works and learn­ing a lot—this is an exper­i­ment. We’re going to take it day by day and fig­ure out what works what does­n’t work and go from there… I mean, I’m super excit­ed to be here.

Thurston: Are you guys excit­ed to have her here? [applause] Okay, good. Because that would be awkward. 

Graubard: No, you hate me. 

Thurston: I want to focus on the word here,” actu­al­ly, and the idea of where you’re going to be, where New America…the world that New America’s enter­ing. And so there is a his­to­ry of this evo­lu­tion of civic tech. There are prac­ti­tion­ers. There’s oth­er alum­ni from USDS out in the wild doing good things. There’s Code for America, which has made a change, but still using tech, for pub­lic good. There’s Civic Hall Labs, where I’m advi­sor, doing work most­ly out of New York City but also across the coun­try. How does the Public Interest Tech team here at New America approach inte­grat­ing with, build­ing with and on and around what exists?

Graubard: So, it’s crit­i­cal. If we go into this by our­selves, we have failed before we’ve even start­ed. First, Jen Pahlka is like the god­moth­er of this work, right. It would be a com­plete­ly missed oppor­tu­ni­ty to not work Jen and with Cod for America, to not work with Civic Hall Labs. Even if we were all doing—Civic Hall Labs, Opportunity@Work, Code for America—even if we were doing every­thing exact­ly the same, there would be more than enough work for us to all go around in our lifetimes. 

But even then, we’re not approach­ing things in the exact same way. We’re not work­ing on the same issues. We’re not embed­ded in the same ecosys­tems and com­mu­ni­ties. And so the best thing that we can do is work with each oth­er and learn from each oth­er and know that if Marina Martin is going to be work­ing on the fos­ter care sys­tem and child wel­fare, and that Code for America has per­haps recent­ly done a project in that space, that there’s a lot to learn there, even if the approach and the thing that we’re focus­ing on with­in that issue is slight­ly dif­fer­ent and look­ing at the ecosys­tem that sup­ports child wel­fare and improv­ing that. That there’s a lot to learn. And so there’s no way that we’re doing this with­out Jen, with­out Code for America, with­out Civic Hall Labs. We have to do this together.

Thurston: Awesome. So we’re out of time.

Graubard: Oh no.

Thurston: The two of us. You guys are about to have an expe­ri­ence of inter­ac­tive work­shops, etc. that I will not explain because that’s the extent of my knowl­edge. But thank you for being here. And thank you for this con­ver­sa­tion. You should clap for yourself. 

Further Reference

Renew America, New America’s 2017 Annual Conference site