The full title of this book is “Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better” but felt a little long for the blog post title. 😉
A colleague of mine recommended this book to me after my first public sector project. Originally I had scratched my head around a number of behaviors and decisions that I witnessed in government work. There seemed to be a pretty major disconnect between “these are the laws and policies being passed” and “these are the systems and processes that translate those laws and policies into actionable outcomes.”
Policy and delivery breathe increasingly different air.Jennifer Pahlka
My first brush with government work was with very waterfall-centric workflows and a heavy focus on end-to-end requirements gathering. Systems were a mash of various vendor products and offerings that resembled a jaw breaker – layers upon layers that had built up from a core data architecture from years (if not decades) prior. This waterfall, legacy snowball concept tends to be what steers people away from public sector work. Those that remain often wish to wave a magic wand to solve problems with technology solutions.
I don’t think that sort of wand exists.
A revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies — it happens when society adopts new behaviors.Jennifer Pahlka
These new behaviors largely come in the form of product development and product management. Not PROJECTS, but PRODUCTS. And building products is difficult, if not impossible, when approached from a legacy model of lengthy requirements gathering to produce an output that exists many months of years into the future. Just a quick glance at the Cone of Uncertainty shatters this sort of plan. But most public sector organizations are built to manage projects, and so project management is what you tend to get.
Gall’s Law, named for pediatrician and systems design theorist John Gall. “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked,” Gall wrote. “A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.”Jennifer Pahlka
The quote above shook me. It inspired me to write Platform Engineering is Product Design at Scale. Because it’s true – building products is an iterative process that works best when small, crisp feedback loops are used to navigate the creation of a (complex) product. It’s also a reminder that teams work better when taking smaller bites – when you do something small, and learn to do it well, then you subsequently increase the odds that you can do something bigger.
Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better is a great book. It goes into depth on real-world products being built by amazing people in the public sector. I definitely recommend grabbing a copy for those interested in working for public sector entities and focusing on improving the quality of services provided to the community at large. The chapters on “building concrete boats” is pure gold.
I have spent my life making rich, commercial organizations even richer, and it certainly feels a lot more gratifying and fulfilling to instead pivot towards helping the stewards of our public systems build and scale amazing products.
This book will give you a taste of that joy.