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Code for America's Jennifer Pahlka to Take a Year-Long "Fellowship" as Deputy U.S. CTO

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, May 30 2013

Jennifer Pahlka. Photo: transportationcamp

In 2011, a new fellowship program called Code for America that promised to send programmers and designers to solve problems in city halls across the United States was just wrapping up its first year. Its founder and executive director, Jennifer Pahlka, presided over a year-in-review event held near the nonprofit's headquarters near San Francisco's Mission district. Summarizing the year, she described the difficulties her organization experienced in Washington, D.C. — where city officials in a new administration refused to honor the previous mayor's plan to participate, and CfA fellows working on a program with federal government encountered many frustrations in the Beltway's vast bureaucracy.

The paperwork involved in dealing with federal officials, she told me, was just too much to handle.

How much has changed. Thursday, Code for America and the White House announced that Pahlka will take a leave of absence from her organization to become the next deputy U.S. chief technology officer for government innovation, working for the limited term of one year under current CTO Todd Park.

"Many people have speculated that Code for America’s successes could only have happened from the outside," Pahlka wrote in a blog post announcing the move. "I’ve challenged that notion, pointing initially to the President’s own actions the second day of his first term, when he published a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, stating that government should be transparent, participatory, and collaborative. More recently, I’ve pointed to how quickly and dramatically people like Todd Park have not only created concrete value for taxpayers, but also made sustainable change that will make government work better for many years to come."

In her blog post, Pahlka announced she would be responsible for the Presidential Innovation Fellows program — an initiative that recently finished its first year in which, much like in CfA, fellows from outside of government bring technology to bear on specific issues. One program to come out of the first Presidential Innovation Fellows year is RFP-EZ, a web service of the Small Business Administration to offer smaller firms the chance to pick up government contracts worth less than $150,000 apiece.

Office of Science and Technology Policy spokesman Rick Weiss said Pahlka was travelling today and would be unavailable to elaborate.

"... [S]he will be working with CTO Todd Park to move the Administration’s tech innovation agenda forward," Weiss said in an email. "We are excited about her pending arrival."

In the deputy CTO role, Pahlka follows in the footsteps of her Bay Area colleague Chris Vein, who left a position with San Francisco's city government to join the White House in 2011 and left in late 2012 for a post at the World Bank. Vein succeeded Beth Noveck, who joined the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from academia and returned there after her time in government.

Noveck was on hand during President Barack Obama's transition into government, before the White House released its first Open Government Directive and started its path towards its own brand of technology-enabled openness, and in the early policy-setting days of the administration.

Vein worked in the White House from 2011 to 2012, an implementor to follow the policymaking academic.

Not long after Park moved from the Department of Health and Human Services last year to take the top CTO role, he and Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel — pulled into the White House from the Federal Communications Commission — launched a new Digital Government Strategy and announced the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which had a precedent in federal government thanks to a smaller-scale program from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Earlier this month, the White House issued a directive mandating each government agency release ever more data in machine-readable form available for public use.

As someone who at CfA presided over an entire organization dedicated, in part, to proving the usefulness of open government data and of collaborations between people inside and outside of government, a Pahlka period in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy makes a certain kind of sense.

CfA is the flagship organization for the thesis that citizens — especially tech-savvy ones — should be collaborating with government on civic problems. CfA "Brigades" in cities across the country — 203 locations, 39 of which have announced at least some activity — bring programmers other tech experts together to create communities that city officials might reach out to for help, advice, or partnerships. The organization's "Accelerator" program offers funding and mentorship to startups that hope to sell Internet-based services related to government, like Captricity, which helps extract data from paper forms, and Revelstone, which offers performance analytics services. The organization is also trying to connect government officials around an idea of public service that lionizes data-driven decision making, procurement processes that are friendlier to smaller companies and startups, and voluntary release of government data for developers to build upon.

Code for America's chief of program officer, Bob Sofman, and chief of staff, staff, Abhi Nemani, will run the organization in the year Pahlka is gone. She expects to return in July 2014.

The headline has been changed for clarity. As the article rightly notes, while Pahlka will be in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, her precise title will be deputy U.S. chief technology officer for government innovation.