Jennifer Pahlka of Code for America, speaking at the opening of Open Up! Photo by the UK Department for International Development

Retaining and sustaining tech talent post-Trump

Organizations dedicated to civic technology that formed under President Barack Obama, such as 18F or the U.S. Digital Service, have been magnets for tech talent.  With the uncertainty surrounding the policies of the incoming Trump administration, however, it is far from clear whether the federal government’s digital professionals will leave, stay or shift to working in state or local government.

“I think that a lot of them will [stay], not all of them,” Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director at Code for America, told GCN. Some will stay simply because they want government to work well, regardless of who is in office, she said.

And while Pahlka helped launch the USDS during her own stint in the federal government, Code for America has always focused on technology to help state and local agencies. She said change agents looking to leave Washington but continue this kind of work could find fantastic opportunities in other levels of government.

“Whether they’re coming out of 18F or USDS, or just coming into this space and wanting to contribute to the cause,” Pahlka said, “cities and states everywhere are a wonderful place to do this.”

State and local governments that want to recruit or retain tech talent must understand that talented people go where they see opportunity, Pahlka said.  When she recruited for the Healthcare.Gov rescue, for example, candidates were focused less on pay or vacation time than on the chance to make a real difference. “When you’re recruiting mission-driven folks, that’s what leadership in government needs to communicate,” she said. This includes welcoming change agents and creating an environment that would allow them to have an impact.

“Right now we’re at a time where I think a lot of people are just feeling a lack of visibility into what will happen from the top down,” she said. “That lack of visibility I think will resolve itself over time.”

Pahlka’s own uncertainties of the new administration remain as well, as she was originally recruited with former U.S. Deputy CTO Nicole Wong to work with the Hillary Clinton’s transition team to assess each agency’s tech and innovation landscape.

“That obviously didn’t happen,” Pahlka said, and though she thinks it was a good idea, she does not know where President-Elect Trump’s transition team stands in this regard. “I have hope that the folks who are appointed to positions that can influence the direction of the federal government’s approach to digital understand the progress that’s been made in the last four years.”

That progress includes the kind of user-centered, iterative and data-driven development that has led to reforming how the government does procurement, how people are hired and government interacts with users. And while not every project has been 100 percent successful, Pahlka acknowledged, the point is to ensure that the progress continues. “I have very high hopes that the people will join and want to continue that [work] and will have new ideas to add,” she said.

Agencies should continue to invest in people, she argued, because giving talented, committed individuals a goal and a place to collaborate could result in better decisions. Specifically, she recommended agencies look for potential hires who can advocate for users and understand the government’s current technological vision and limitations. Then, she suggested putting them on a real task with real barriers to see how they perform.

Leaders also should be involved throughout the process, helping digital teams overcome barriers by working with the existing law, policy and regulation, she said: “Creative solutions can come when leaders are there at the table saying, ‘Let’s figure out how we can do this.’”

For instance, Pahlka described the recent hire of Rob Cook, a senior executive from Pixar, to run the Technology Transformation Service, as a step in the right direction. “This is a great time to invest and support this organization with amazing leadership,” she said. “USDS also has an enormous amount of talent, and I’m quite confident that it’s going to end up with very strong leadership moving forward.”

Pahlka said she believes that what organizations like 18F and USDS have been doing is working, if you consider their work as early steps in a longer journey.

Change will not happen because of one person, but by a community of people who share points of views, values and skills, she said. “We’re going to be just putting more focus on all of those people in this current environment.”

About the Author

Amanda Ziadeh is a former reporter/producer for GCN.


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