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 healthcare.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: 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, healthcare.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.
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 healthcare.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.
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