FWDThinking Episode 13: The Nerd Peace Corps has grown up

In conversation with Code for America’s Amanda Renteria and Code for Canada’s Dorothy Eng.

All opinions expressed in these episodes are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations for which our guests work.

[00:00:00] Alistair Croll: Hi, and welcome to another episode of FWDThinking brought to you by FWD50. It’s a chance for us to have conversations with some of the world’s leading civic tech and public service executives and ask them what’s going on in their worlds. And today I am absolutely thrilled to bring together two people who haven’t yet met but should. Right here in FWDThinking Amanda Renteria is the CEO of Code for America. And Dorothy Eng is the executive director of Code for Canada. And we love the cross-border cooperation we’ve had between those organizations. We’re huge fans of both of them. And I am absolutely thrilled to be able to be the person that says hi, it’s nice for you two to meet. So why don’t you introduce one another to one another. 

Amanda Renteria: Great. Dorothy, you can go first. Go for it. 

Dorothy Eng: Okay. Okay. How, how, how far back do we want to go? I’ll just do… 

Alistair Croll: All the way back, you gotta give [00:01:00] background. 

Amanda Renteria: Before the pandemic, at least.

Alistair Croll:  That’s right. 

Dorothy Eng: Well, last year was a complete write-off so, so okay, so I’m Dorothy Eng. I’m the new executive director of Code for Canada. As of last, this past may prior to that, I was still at Code for Canada. I was in the director of partnerships role primarily responsible for overseeing a lot of our partnerships with different organizations, primarily government partners across Canada but also some other non-profits and also private sector partners. And before that I guess like I’m a civic techie at heart. I guess going, you know, going pretty far back, I went to school. I went to university for engineering. I’ve always been, you know, fascinated by the STEM subjects. And coming out of school, you [00:02:00] know, worked in technology development actually at a vendor that worked closely with a lot of different public sector clients. And so got pretty familiar with like how large-scale complex public sector you know, complex systems are designed and built and made. And with that, a lot of like the constraints and barriers that governments you know, deal with on a day-to-day basis in like planning, planning, their projects, you know planning their budgets. And then, you know, alongside that, like, you know, when we talk about things like user centered design and user research, and how do we do that in the public sector? Like I could see how a lot of those concepts like would really were really hard to implement in the public sector. Working, working on these large technology projects. So anyways, you know, having that experience I felt like [00:03:00] there had to be a better way. And actually, that’s when I, this is maybe a bit, I don’t know, five, ten years ago. That’s when I started learning about Code for America Brigade you know, kind of gathered a group of folks and where I’m located, we’re in Toronto, Toronto, Ontario. And then, so we, you know, we, we got together and were like, we need to start like our own local civic tech group, and then sign ourselves up as a Code for America Brigade. And so, we did, so yeah, I was one of the co-founders of Civic Tech Toronto which is one of Canada’s largest and oldest civic tech groups. Definitely not the oldest and most established, but one of the first ones. And yeah, from there, you know with that community, we kind of got the attention of folks in, in the public service locally, especially at the provincial level of the government of Ontario. We started speaking to [00:04:00] them about the work of, you know, Civic Tech Toronto, and the civic tech movement, and, you know, bringing it back to like the work that Code for America is doing and code for all around the world. And they got pretty excited and so decided to pitch in some money to help us spin up a Code for Canada. Back in 2017. So yeah, that was like the, yeah, born and bred kind of like civic, techie and love Code for Canada’s mandate. Been here since day one as going from the civic tech community now working at this nonprofit, which I guess always been a passion of mine. And it’s so nice to now be here as the executive director, but also super excited for like the potential and growth to come. Lots of hard work ahead. Yeah, that’s, that’s a little bit about me. 

Amanda Renteria: Well, now I know why we haven’t talked because you and I started in May at the same time. So, we’ve been [00:05:00] basically in the pandemic hole together, trying to figure it out in these new roles. 

Dorothy Eng: Oh, actually, oh, mine was this past May. Like just the may of just now. Yeah. Yeah. Like just like a month ago you were saying yours was like may 2020. 

Alistair Croll: Honestly, it’s been like March. It’s been like March Vember. I think we can all be forgiven for forgetting what date it was. You’ve both been pretty busy yeah. That’s awesome. Amanda, What about you? 

Amanda Renteria: Yeah. So, I’m excited by the way, to like, just pick your brain on being a civic techie forever. Because for me, this is new, this is new space. My background is public service. I come at this work from having been working in different levels of government for the last 20 years. Starting out actually at the city of San Jose, which has a Code for San Jose and really seeing things from the local level of how policy works and how things work, and then moved on to be a chief of staff [00:06:00] worked in, worked in politics as a national political director for presidential campaign and then moved into state government where I got to sort of see the real sort of bureaucracy of how things work, including technology at the California department of justice. And then fast forward. This role was incredibly enticing to me because I just felt like we’re at a time right now where people are questioning how institutions are going to work, how democracy is going to work. And the Code for America is part of, I believe and Code for are part of what is important about democracy, which is a civic tech ecosystem that is engaged and thinking about the responsibility of government and trying to figure out how to make it work. On the other side of the work that Code for America does, which is in some very key core programs, like get GetCalFresh food assistance, tax benefits, et cetera, is really figuring out how technology can help make institutions work again, particularly for low income [00:07:00] communities. And I just believe that both of those pieces, one, a vibrant civic tech industry, and a way to really utilize technology in public for good areas is what will be required to bring trust back into the system. And my hope is that the connection is so much stronger as we look back on this period of time. Because I think the pandemic was really a window into, gosh, we need to bring tech and government together a heck of a lot closer, and there’s so much that can be done. And I hope it becomes the tipping point for really just a different way of working together, government tech and everything else. So, this is like a perfect conversation. Because you’ve been in that space for a long time and I’ve been in this other space and we can bridge it. 

Dorothy Eng: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. Yeah. 

Amanda Renteria: So, I would love to hear you know, having been in the space of big vendors right. And moving over. In general, it’s so hard to kind of move that space [00:08:00] as you think about Code for Canada and what you can do to really move the needle there. Because so many of us actually bumped up against some of these vendor issues. What are your thoughts? 

Dorothy Eng: It’s been, it’s been super interesting, like the, our kind of trajectory or journey as Code for Canada because as I mentioned earlier, like I kind of have this I have this kind of unique background of having been in that space before, like working as part of a vendor with many public sector clients. And then, also being like prior to this role as executive director you know, being in our partnership role, talking to so many people in government about primarily our fellowship program. Like that is the program that kind of started us. Like that’s been our [00:09:00] cornerstone program, you know, it’s how we like basically took the model that you folks had piloted like back in the day, you know, also took some learnings from your team. Like we were doing a bunch of interviews and research with folks on your team. We spoke to folks at like Code for Australia Code for Japan. Just like trying to like piece together all these different learnings and then, you know, create some Canadian version that, that we like pilot and test here. So, we’re like, okay, here’s our prototype it’s our fellowship prototype let’s, let’s go out and test it. And so like, you know, we start all these conversations with government partners being like this, this is our, this is our fellowship program. Like it is, yes. It’s like there’s product development is a large piece of it, but the, the product development is in service of capacity building, right? Like the whole point of Code for Canada’s mission. And, and our desire to partner with government teams is to [00:10:00] model these new behaviors, these new ways of working, right? Like, and using the product as like this, this challenge or area of focus that like gets people. Understand like, oh yeah. This is like, why I do user research and this is how you do it. And this is how you do like user testing on a, on a product with like actual residents or constituents. And, uh, that, it’s interesting. Cause when, you know, when I go out and like, we’re talking about the fellowship on our end, the stuff we do at Code for Canada, and it’s all really about experiential learning like a lot of government teams are just like, oh wait. So, you’re like an Accenture or Deloitte or you’re like, how are you different from like, you know, KPMG? And we’re like, no, no, no, it’s a, and then we have to explain, explain the pitch again. So, it’s almost like we have to talk, it almost takes like, you know, two or three meetings to like, get, really get like, to like, get them really understanding That, [00:11:00] that there is a different way to do it, right? Like they don’t, like they don’t have to follow the same textbook way of building technology of like going to a vendor, you know, going through the kind of like traditional RFP or like procurement process. There are other ways. But that kind of that, that kind of like journey to get a part like a government team realizing that is like, It’s like commitment, right? Like, cause, cause it’s like, it takes time. It’s like a lot of conversations. 

Amanda Renteria: What is the trick I can get so that you can then see it and feel it and touch it and be like, oh, now I get it. 

Dorothy Eng: Exactly. Yeah. And so actually once we had one. Yeah. Once we had our first kind of fellowship cohort under our belt and we had those projects to show then things started getting easier, right. We’re like, okay, great. We have some stories to tell. We have, like, now let’s tell them, let’s like, you know, we’ll do a showcase. We’ll show it. We’ll demo the product. We’ll talk about the learnings that go with the product. But [00:12:00] yeah, it’s been, and so now we’re, we’re, we’re at a pace where like we’re at a place where we have momentum to kind of work with. And so, I would say what, I’ve, what I’ve noticed, at least in our community of government teams or organizations that, that we largely talk to is that and who are interested in working with Code for Canada, is that we’ve I feel like we’re kind of approaching the point where we’re almost at the edges of this bubble of like awareness and understanding and buy-in of those like maybe kind of early adopters and like the digital government. Or like digital government space and like that kind of ideology. And so now, now it’s like, how do we, who who’s at, who’s beyond the bubble. Right. And there’s like, that’s like, you know, 95% of the public sector in Canada. And it’s, and so for us, this is the, this is the, this is the part, like, how do we get over that hump? How do we get to the governments? Who like, like, to be honest, like, I, I bet a lot of those governments who were not getting in front of and [00:13:00] who. Who don’t, actually don’t even have like the time or space to like take a step back and be like, wait, there’s a Code for Canada that we can work with? Cause I, I bet a lot of them are like, you know, municipal governments who are just, who are, you know, they’re on the ground, they’re dealing. And at this moment, like dealing with COVID and everything that’s going to happen after COVID and they’re just scrambling to like keep up with the day to day. And those are the kinds of groups that we’re really keen to. You know, coming out of this pandemic to like, get in front of, to, to like help them realize like, yeah, there is another way, like, you know, there’s the vendor way, which, which you can still do, but there’s also other ways that will help, help you to become like, you know, like not, not that the vendor way is bad, but it’s like what, what we, what we aim to do is to help build the capacity so that public sector teams can better, you know, work with vendors going, going forward, because we absolutely believe that vendors are, will, will be there’s a place for them in the future, but it’s just. Elevating you know, public sector teams like capability and competence [00:14:00] in, in, in working with those vendors is where we, we want to see ourselves playing a role. So that’s my…

Amanda Renteria: Well, it’s, it’s interesting because it’s one of the things that we often work with, right. Which is like, how, how much do you go? You know, you build one relationship and then how deep do you go versus going ah, there’s more places we need to be in this country. Right. And partly we did during the pandemic, just because everyone’s sorta needed help on a lot of these newer programs that had just come out. We got a real view of working across the country in different states. And what we did learn is a lot of states didn’t know what other states were doing. And what was interesting is when there was alike vendor. All of a sudden you change the dynamic. When you have a couple of states saying they’re all reaching the same problem. Like, can we just do something about this in order to get kids resources? Like, can we do? And I found that to be one of the key lessons during the pandemic of cause it’s really hard when you built the relationship that you just [00:15:00] want to go deeper with them. Cause you’re like, oh, you’re doing good work. And I want to know help you with this next program. But that balance is actually been for us a real push. This past year to say, wait a second. There’s some, there’s some real pressure points that are different, or at least collaboration efforts that are different that really could take things to that next level. 

Dorothy Eng: Oh, that’s super interesting. 

Amanda Renteria: So that’s been, that’s been interesting for us then the last, you also like want to do both, right? Like we want to go deeper into integration benefits and we want to help more people with food assistance. Yeah. 

Dorothy Eng: Yeah. And so, and that’s interesting. Cause when you say like trying to like figure out those pressure points and what are, what are the other broader areas that you can kind of like start to spread your energy around? What do you, do you have some in mind that are top priorities or? 

Amanda Renteria: I do, which is, which comes from in some ways, my experience in government I mean, everything, everyone always likes sort of views government as gosh, it’s so slow. And [00:16:00] I often say, it’s slow until it’s not. And then it’s really fast. Right? And so, what that means is when the window is open, that’s the time to run. Looking across the country in America right now, not only is the desire for government systems saying, oh my gosh, I now gotta like reach people digitally. I never really had to do that. Or my team can’t come in the department anymore. What do we do? And so, there’s this whole rethinking or at least openness, right now to that, but the other pieces, we do a lot of work in, you know, our brigades do a lot of mutual aid work. Our fellows do work on the front lines with you know, folks, lower income folks and they bring in lived experience as a fellow. And so, the other part of the issues that we are actually trying to address or the programs we’re trying to address are really in the news right now. Right? I mean that part. So, on both fronts, we we’re sort of leaningx in and seeing this as the window is [00:17:00] wide open. And I think I wake up every day going, oh my God, it’s going to close. How can we do as much as possible right now? So, we’re not going in some ways, we’re almost sharing a heck of a lot of best practices. And trying to sort of help states deal with the, the realities right in front of them, as opposed to going really deep and saying, we’ve got a program for you for the next four years. This is what you need to do because no one can handle that right now. So, it’s an, it’s an interesting time, I think, in terms of the work that we do. Are you guys in the same space, like, especially like, as your fellows are out there, is there more of an openness to what they’re offering in cities?

Dorothy Eng: Yeah. I mean our, so I’d say the what, what we see is so this is what, so what, what I’ve seen in coming, going into the pandemic and what I, my hypothesis coming out of the pandemic is within governments, this [00:18:00] is, so this is a theory, and I’m gonna, I’m gonna I’m just like, it kind of aligns with like, what we’re seeing generally around the world with, with the pandemic is that there’s like, you know, the groups or the people or the communities with that, that have that, like the haves and the have-nots like that kind of thing where like there are, there are certain government groups government organizations for us that For example, the federal government, you know, they, they naturally, they have the largest budget. And so those are, those are the groups that you know, come to Code for Canada with a bit more leeway or like space to, to explore the ability to bring in fellows. Because, because, oh yeah, to also just preface the way. We run as a nonprofit like over Canada is we’re, we’re basically like a fee for service social enterprise. If you looked at it from certain angles. So, governments you know, pay a program fee like a lump sum to then have [00:19:00] fellows who come in and, you know, deliver a product, but also work with them and like coach them in, in a, like, you know, these modern digital tools and practices. So, because that’s our model

Amanda Renteria: So, you pay for the program, but not the training. You are sharing best practices. 

Dorothy Eng: So, you pay for the program and the program includes everything. So, it includes like our ability to go out and recruit some fellows. It pays for you know, Code for Canada staff also like onboarding, getting fellows ready and prime to work in government. It also pays for training for government team as well. That like goes alongside with that experience that of working with fellows. So, it’s almost like this one, this one package. Right. And, uh, and, and, and we’ve chosen to primarily go this route because the philanthropic landscape in Canada, I think is quite different from how it is in the US this is what I’m from, from what I’ve read online. And so like, [00:20:00] here in Canada, like Uh, you know, philanthropy is certainly like a thing that, that is celebrated and like, you know, is, is a large part of our economy. But probably like a lot smaller than, than it is in the us. And it’s because, you know, I think there’s many reasons for that, but I think one of the, I think one of the main reasons is like, you know, the way that we are our laws, like define non-profits and there’s nonprofits and charities. And Code for Canada isn’t a charity. We’re, we’re still a nonprofit. And so, I think there’s like, you know, there’s like kind of different structural limitations. And so, as a result, the way we’ve sustained ourselves is through this kind of fee for service model with, with government partners. And so, as a result, when we work with government. What, what that yields is like a lot of our government partners primarily are like at our, within larger institutions. So, like the federal government provincial governments where budgets are a bit [00:21:00] bigger than municipal governments are the ones where uh, we’re, we’re actually still iterating and like testing. How to, how to best support them because their budgets are smaller. And they also are, like I mentioned like that, that, that, that fact of like, you know, coming out of the pandemic there, there’s still probably going to be slammed with like, having to deal with the post pandemic effects on like in their day-to-day work. So yeah. We’re, we’re still trying to figure out like how to meet local governments, where they are. And, and that’s, that’s still a huge area of discovery for us and like learning, learning curve. But one that we’re really like, we’re really keen to sink our teeth into coming, coming out of all this. But yeah, I would say I’m actually, I’m trying to remember what was the original, the original question. Oh yeah. It was like, it was the yeah, so I think, I think that. In terms of where we’re going to be investing our time and like, and who, who will be working most [00:22:00] closely with, it’s going to be quite uh, quite, quite different. I think in terms of like how we work with the larger governments, like the federal government provincials and then versus like the smaller municipal ones, where there is quite a lot of space for like discovery and understanding. Yeah. 

Alistair Croll: Hey, I have questions. This is fascinating, but I selfishly going to interject here. I know that in Canada Code for Canada, kind of embeds with government departments. So, we actually have a workshop tomorrow on speculative design being taught by some of your fellows who were embedded in the STC with Pia Andrews and, and are teaching some of the stuff that came out about how to do speculative design. And when I talked to Laure Lucchesi from, from Paris a few weeks ago, they actually embedded people in her digital group, which is part of the government, but it’s like a digital department in with politicians. So, the member of parliament or the minister would have somebody who, when the minister had something in their schedule that [00:23:00] was related to technology, this person would go, here are the five things you should care about that affect this. And apparently those people became better at writing legislation that could be turned into code. And I’m not sure that Code for America has the same kind of embedding approach where you like become part of the group. So maybe you can talk about the similarities and the differences of, of how you actually place the fellows in and like what kind of authority and responsibility they get within the government department and how long that lasts.

Amanda Renteria: Yeah, so we embed them in cities, right? So, we work with the city to go, what is the project you want to work on? Re-entry. Procurement. And then we find a fellow that really matches one of the pieces. That’s very important to us. Particularly this year and last year is ensuring that we have folks with lived expense come in. And what we have learned is when you have somebody that comes into a project and they really bring their experience with them, they’ve been through it. [00:24:00] They’re actually able to not just bring advocacy groups and community groups together in a very trusted way, but they have key insights where they don’t, there’s not as much of a learning curve. Right. They remember what kinds of things are good and what kind of things didn’t work and how do we make it better. And so, for a host of reasons we have seen this model be even better. Then are what we’ve seen on fellowship programs where we didn’t intentionally find, lived experience and match.

Alistair Croll: So yeah, with experience you mean? Like, if it’s something about overturning cannabis convictions, as someone who’s had to deal with that themselves. 

Amanda Renteria: We work on a housing and homeless issues, somebody who experienced that just wanting to make sure that we’re matching those things. And it really does help in the work and the process in the advocacy of it all. And we’re hoping we’re not, we’re two years into this, but we’re hoping it also adds to the stickiness that the city themselves own it as well. Right. Because you’ve also given them a story. Like we figured this out with real experts who understand what was going [00:25:00] on.

Alistair Croll: It’s also politically more defensible because no, one’s going to accuse you of like preaching from an ivory tower if somebody actually has that. So, I think in, in today’s political climate, it probably makes it more palpable as well to say, look, this wasn’t just designed in, in, in abstract. 

Amanda Renteria: Right. Well, and we’ve seen how government systems often aren’t sort of centered, right? So, we’ve always been around how do you, how are you making sure its people centered human centered design? You can tackle it by teaching that you can also add to that by bringing in the voices themselves to do the work, which I think is a really cool combination. 

Alistair Croll: It’s amazing. And Dorothy, for, for Code for Canada, how much experience do you expect the fellows to have with the problem you’re solving? 

Dorothy Eng: Yeah. I mean, we for the most part, so we’re, we’re still fairly, fairly young as an organization. Like we’ve run. We, we run our fellowship in cohorts and we were just kind of like almost wrapping up our fifth one. [00:26:00] So as of right now, you know, in our first kind of iteration of this program, largely we find folks who like, obviously have had some technical skills that meet to kind of the needs of the partner in the project. But then also, we really focus on like soft skills as well. Like, you know, are they great communicators? Do they have like, do they have great efficacy? And then, and then that, and then the third lens is like the kind of this passion or interest in, in civic technology and wanting to You know, dip their toe into like the civic tech movement. Which a lot of them haven’t necessarily like attended a hack night, right? Like through local hack night or civic tech group. So a lot of them are kind of new to the scene and, and wanting and like interested in, in social impact. How technology can play a role. And so most often these are the kinds of fellows that, that we, that we’ve attracted so far and [00:27:00] like have embedded in government. We, we would love the, I, I love that idea of like finding folks who have lived experience, like bringing them in as, as part of the team, like the multidisciplinary team. 

Alistair Croll: How much training do you usually do? Like for both of you, what’s the onboarding, like before they go and work in the city or the government.

Amanda Renteria: Yeah, for us, we do, we do a pretty big onboarding, but what we have learned is what’s even more important is actually a mentoring process through it. So, we can, we put them with a mentor. We also bring a cohort together to do it together. All of those aspects are in the program because we learned, right. We’re like, okay. Yes, there’s a training. That was good. Not enough right now we need like partners and cohorts, and that’s really helpful to share what’s happening in other cities. And then we moved on to mentor efforts as they’re going through the process. So, it’s quite a lot of support and by the way, it makes it more fun because you really do feel. We’re kind of [00:28:00] different for all those folks in government. And I want to be still fired up about this work. How do I share this? Because those folks are almost speaking a different language. I’m hoping over time. It won’t feel exactly like that, that we have we have enough talent and conversation and taught enough people within the government themselves, that it almost feels special project as opposed to special language, special culture, you know, special, everything coming into to try and help.

Dorothy Eng: Yeah, I, I, yeah, I like that a lot. Uh, on our side, we do also spend a lot of time onboarding, like we’ll onboard fellows for it previously, when we were all in person, we would do like a month-long onboarding. I think actually COVID has, has actually I think a lot of those lessons in, in onboarding and training and focusing on mentors. We’re, we’re learned from, from you folks at Code for America. We were, we were starting our program and similarly, like iterated on our model to also realize like, yeah, the mentorship and the and the advisory is, is a really strong [00:29:00] is, is it adds a lot of value to, to a project from all sides, right. For both the government partners and fellows. But, uh, but yeah, like the that, that onboarding is, is pretty crucial. You know, training pretty much training these folks and like how government works. Like a lot of, a lot of them haven’t worked in the public sector ever. And so, uh, so yeah, we, we do the whole, like how our government works one-on-one and then bring in, you know, a bunch of guest speakers who are digital government experts who have been around the block, you know, once or twice to help tell show the fellows that. It it’s going to be tough, but it’s, but it’s gonna, there’s gonna be a lot of learning and it’s like an amazing and amazing experience. 

Alistair Croll: So, the other question I had and then I’ll stop interrupting the two of you. We had a speaker last year from Code for America, and she’s going to join us again this year. Jazmyn Latimer, she’s this amazing I [00:30:00] loved her angle that forms are bad because a form can’t suggest what else you could do. So, like if I give you a form, I’m placing all the burden on the denizen and the citizen, the wrongfully convicted, whoever that person is to apply. As opposed to the government’s systems to be able to say, here’s how I can help you. And I know in Canada, we have these Service Canada centers where you walk in looking for one thing and it’s okay for the person behind the counter to say, hey, by the way, you know, here’s the child tax credit you’re not currently getting, or did you know, there’s this school lunch program that might help you or whatever. It feels like that’s the thing that the Code for the Code for all around the world, Keep suggesting is like, hey, we think that you can be proactive instead of reactive let alone for one consistent pattern. From the days when I worked with Code for America fellows, years and years ago, it was always about like that one was about recidivism and failure to appear rates in Kentucky. And even then, it was like, [00:31:00] how do we tell the person they’re supposed to have a court date as opposed to them knowing it and then getting in trouble for not knowing it. It seems like so much of this is that the interface to government has traditionally been on the shoulders of the citizen, on the shoulders of the denizen. Right. And that we’re saying that now the government has gone digital and code can act autonomously in a way that a forum can’t. That we have to shift that to the government, telling the citizens here are the things that we can do to help you. Here are the things you can take advantage of. But that’s not how the sort of nudge versus sludge thing works. So, there’s what the government says. It has as programs, but in some ways it’s kind of like when McDonald’s runs make millions and they just assume that people will throw out their cup and they’ll never have to award the prizes. Right. There’s the actual money allocated to the budget. And then there’s the amount that we actually have to claim on that. And so, it seems like there’s a, there’s a conflict of incentives between civic tech, which is like, we should be pushing everything we [00:32:00] can to the citizens and governments who are like, we’d like to state huge funding for programs that never fully gets claimed by citizens. It feels like civic tech is where those, and I’m saying things, maybe the two of you can’t, but my perception is that it feels like this is a place where civic tech is at loggerheads with the system. And I’d love to learn more about that because I feel like most of the interesting discussions, I’ve had with civic technologists are around proactive versus reactive governments.

Amanda Renteria: It was just on a hearing fairly recently and had to testify in one of the questions that was asked was, you know, there’s a lot of folks who are sitting in the halls of Congress who believe that government’s role is to create the thing and the people should come to it. And. You know, you could see the group of social entrepreneurs, civic, technologists go. Huh. But I think it’s important to understand that, you [00:33:00] know, these big marble buildings were set in place like that. Right. And so, it is true that we are building from working with systems that are by and large sort of stuck big marble and sitting there. And so, it is important to go, how do you now bring that building or tear it down, right? Tear it down and start a new where the building doesn’t exist. So, I just kind of want to say to that, like I get the big mound we are trying to, or what we’re trying to change here, but on the question of proactive and I’ve kind of gone back and forth, if I could choose what would government be? Would it be proactive or would it be iterative? And I think I might choose the latter because there are times where government is like, we’re going to do this big program and yes, here you go. Right. And it doesn’t quite work out. And so, I think what I would choose, not that I can choose either, but I would choose actually an [00:34:00] iterative mindset because if we have that, that will in itself make you proactive, but in a way that, that moves and changes with an evolving economy and evolving population and evolving times That’s how I would see it. I don’t know. What about you Dorothy? 

Dorothy Eng: I love it. Like, yeah, like totally agree.  Like the, the that, so like, we, we have, we’re so fortunate to work with, you know a ton of government teams and like public servants that, as I mentioned earlier, like they’re, they’re kind of the early adopters of, you know, civic, tech and digital government. And, you know, when I, when one of these folks and their teams and there, their managers and managers’ managers, like, I can, I can see that there there’s this like need, right. There’s like an itch there. Like, yeah. Like what if we, like, could you imagine if we went out to talk to people or like, what is, what is usability testing? Like, could we do that with Code for Canada? And it may, you know, [00:35:00] maybe they’re like, well, maybe, maybe another time, but the questions are there, right? Like, like there’s a, there’s like, it was like a very slow desire, this building up. And even like, we, we run this one program based in Toronto called civic hall, Toronto, which is modeled after civic hall New York city. Yeah, that, that is, you know, it’s a membership-based model. We, we had an office space that, that all members, like, which were, which were largely teams, you know, at the city at the local government, city of Toronto were required to like go to office hours or like open office hours once a month. You know, they got to sit down at their desk, like put a little sign up and it’s open to the public. And so, anyone can go up and like ask questions about what they’re working on or some of their priorities. And, and those, when, when we were in person like those office hours, where there was always like, you know, a bit of a. Like an uncomfort, like, do I have to do this? Like, can I send that other person? But [00:36:00] eventually like, you know, you’d see, they they’d like they’d show up and, and get comfortable with it. And yeah. And they’d take to it. And it was, and I think, I think I agree with you, Amanda, that it’s like, There’s the it’s about it’s about iterating on it, right? Like there’s no we, we have no idea what’s going to happen, right. When, if a government puts, put something forward saying like, hey, we built a thing already with this thing. Right. The, the feedback might be really bad, but like but if we’re, if, if the intent is to do it with that intention, seeing what the response is, and then knowing that we’re going to iterate on it and improve it almost like lowers the stakes and it makes it more yeah. Less it less intimidating. 

Amanda Renteria: In, in Canada. Does your policy-making process? I mean, in, in the states, it’s pretty broken obviously at the moment, particularly at the federal level, but where, where it used to be, [00:37:00] when you put out a major policy, you would do sort of what we would call on the hill, a clean-up bill. And that allows at least for some iteration, right? Cause you’re able to like put it out there and you recognize, for instance, with the ACA this, this is not quite right or affordable care act. This is quite, let’s do this, but that doesn’t happen anymore. And that’s really made some iteration very difficult. Right. Cause it’s like, you gotta sell this thing works as is, even though it wasn’t written perfectly. And sometimes it’s the written part that’s really problematic. How does it work in Canada? Is, is there a more smoother sinking relationship? In terms of iteration. 

Dorothy Eng: So yeah, I, there might be pockets. I mean, what I’ll describe as my understanding at a very high level, and I’m definitely not an expert in in knowing, some of the systems that, that, that. That our policies are developed and also maybe how they’re changing, but from my impression of, of the teams that we’ve worked with, it’s, it’s, it’s fairly like waterfall, [00:38:00] right? Like, like policies are developed the ratified and then kind of passed over for, to for implementation. And so, yeah, I think, I think that iterative process doesn’t really exist in a lot of circles in Canada. And I would say though, like they’re, they’re, I mentioned there’s like pockets of, of teams that are starting to explore different, different possibilities of iterating on policy development. One of them is actually a group that, that that, that Allistor was mentioning. Is, we have two teams right now, two teams of fellows working with ESDC that’s employment, social, of employment, social development, Canada. So, through the responsible for, you know, unemployed dealing with unemployment you know, someone goes on leave, they get benefits. And so, we actually have a team they’re working on this kind of like prototype tool, which is like a policy difference engine. So just like experimenting with. [00:39:00] This concept of rules as rules as code and you know, any kind of changes in policy, what kind of what kind of implications will that have in visualizing those implications? And so, yeah, it, it’s still pretty, pretty waterfall here. Like I’d say that that iterative mindset is like not, not common, common at all. 

Amanda Renteria: Yeah, I’m hopeful for the next generation to bring in right. A different way. Just moving things. I mean, I know our federal government like it’s something like 6% are under the age, federal employee, 6% are under the age of 30. And so, if you just think about what potential there is for public servants today to change this up, you know, tech natives, essentially, right. That will look at this. And I can only imagine in some of the places that I’ve been in, like what tech natives would come in. If they’re like, wait, wait a second. I’m in trouble. I don’t even know. Right. Like forms, [00:40:00] like a filing cabinet with paper. Yeah. I mean just the opportunity to really change it. But what you are seeing on the front lines is exactly how that changes, right? The stories that create people then moving from cities to states from program to program. If you were to bet, what has the most potential like area of change in government? 

Dorothy Eng: Well, I think that, you know, what, what COVID and the pandemic did, is it really like thrusted, like digital services, like digital public services into the spotlight, right? Like, no one, no one chose for that to be the case, but, but it did right. Everything from like, under, like being able to see what the COVID test results are to like, you know, applying for unemployment or like now, I mean locally where I am like trying to sign up for a vaccine, like it is, it’s a bit of [00:41:00] a, it was a bit of a slog, like trying to get a spot. And, um, and if, if anything, if there’s any areas for change, it’s this, it’s like the, the awareness of kind of the important, the importance of like you know, building public services, modernizing them to, to meet like residents raise expectations is something that like is I think, going to gain more awareness across the public sector at large, also the public, right? Like uh, I’m hoping that the public also has some more empathy for governments that you know, again, we’re like thrust into these, these life challenges. I’m like, oh no, I gotta like create a vaccine rollout system in, in, you know, in one month’s time. And so yeah, I think, I think awareness and understanding, and so hopefully like leading to more, you know, that, that kind of starts that, that bigger change is what, what I’m hoping for. How about, how about yourself? What do you think? 

Amanda Renteria: You know I’ll [00:42:00] go back to, you know, the conversation we were just having a little while ago about, you know, building these big business buildings and people are supposed to come to those government buildings. I think there is a new expectation from the people to say, no, wait a second. I’m not going into that building. And I think that, and I, and I think that’s not just true with government, right? As everybody thinking about, do I go back into work? Do I need to be there? Or can I do it from my bedroom? Right. I think just that alone, that things will travel to people as opposed to people, traveling to things is a really strange, different concept that I think does change the way kind of everything works. And so, I think it opens up things that we haven’t seen. Right? Like the idea of drones coming by and dropping off might have seemed like so far away. It doesn’t seem so unusual. Right now. 

[00:43:00] Alistair Croll: But it’s interesting. Cause a lot of people talk about digital and they see problems with representation. You know, used to have tens of thousands of citizens per congressperson. Now it’s hundreds, thousands, millions per, and we still talk about representation without talking about the direction it’s still the will of the people flows up to the houses of power. Yeah. And I think what’s happening here is it’s not just that they’re digital creates opportunities for direct democracy for, for hearing directly from the citizens for real-time census instead of a survey, but then it also can change the flow of that information. So, I love the fact that for example, AOC, you know, did a, here’s what I did for you this year. Like why isn’t every government official, forced to once a year ago, this, I said, I do, this is what I do. That’d be great, but that, that is something that wasn’t necessarily possible in the same way. And I think that that when we really get digital it’s going to be a bi-directional, it’s not just going to be the [00:44:00] scale of the interaction, but the, bi-directionality of the interaction, which I think addresses both of your points as that, that’s part of the, what’s going to make those things possible.

Amanda Renteria: Yeah. And I just want to add one more thing to that, which does keep me up at night. I think it will be harder to see people that we haven’t seen. If they’re not right now visible as we move to digital. And it scares me, I mean, truly scares me as we think about folks who have been pretty checked out. That now that you’re going to bring online systems, you just won’t find them. Right. And that, that is really concerning from a government, from a civic tech, from a, the public good standpoint. And so, I hope, you know, we’re all intentional about making sure that people are online and seen, and that world, that broader perspective is there from the beginning. 

Alistair Croll: Yeah, for sure. I can’t believe we got to introduce the two of you. This is great. I feel like I felt like some kind of international states person here, so like the G7, [00:45:00] you know, anyway, thank you both so much for being here. It’s a pleasure to introduce you to one another. It’s great to see both of your faces again. Thank you for all the amazing work you’ve been doing with your organizations. Not just over the last 18 months or so. To really put a breath of fresh air into the halls of government, because I think it’s making a tangible difference. And it’s great that the two of, you know, each other feel free to talk amongst yourselves whenever you’d like to. And I’m sure we’ll see both at FWD50. Thank you so much for being here today. 

Dorothy Eng: Thank you so much. It was great. Take care.

We often talk about the “private” and “public” sector to separate the activities of free enterprise from those of the government. That’s a simplistic distinction, of course: Academia, non-profits, lobbyists, and many other organizations try to steer society towards their goals. But it’s a convenient scalpel with which to divide government discussions.

Governments run on information. As tech has made it easier for many groups to work with information, we’ve seen the rise of a third sector: Civic Tech. It’s the  intersection of citizen coders and government tech. It occupies a “third space” between individual activism and public sector services. And its proponents have one foot in the halls of government, and the other in the realities of fast-changing technological innovation.

First launched as a “peace corps for startups” or “gap year” for technologists, the movement has grown worldwide. Code for America was the biggest and most visible of these movements. Over the years, it spawned similar organizations abroad. The model also evolved as governments launched their own Digital Services groups.

Amanda Renteria is the CEO of Code for America. Dorothy Eng is her Canadian counterpart, the new Executive Director of Code for Canada. When we asked them to join us, we didn’t realize that they’d never met, which made this conversation all the more delightful! In the latest FWDThinking episode, Amanda and Dorothy talk about working with vendors, supporting public servants, when to go deep and when to go wide, and much more. Most of all, we loved seeing them meet and compare their worlds for the first time!