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A former federal technology official enlisted by Gov. Gavin Newsom to triage California’s pandemic unemployment response, explains in her new book, how technical and political failures are costly to citizens at all levels of government.

According to a report by CalMatters, Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code For America and former U.S. deputy chief technology officer, writes in her new book, that the turmoil at California’s Employment Development Department is a prime example of failures that have also plagued other major civic tech efforts, such as the post-Obamacare implosion of or archaic IT systems at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

Pahlka founded Code for America, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that aims to make government for all people. According to the Washington Post itis the technology world’s equivalent of the Peace Corps or Teach for America” [offering] an alternative to the old, broken path of government IT.” In her 2012 TED Talk, Pahlka noted that we will not be able to reinvent government unless we also reinvent citizenship, and asked “Are we just going to be a crowd of voices, or are we going to be a crowd of hands?

In her TED Talk she said “We had a team that worked on a project in Boston last year that took three people about two and a half months. It was a way that parents could figure out which were the right public schools for their kids. We were told afterward that if that had gone through normal channels, it would have taken at least two years and it would have cost about two million dollars. And that’s nothing. There is one project in the California court system right now that so far cost taxpayers two billion dollars, and it doesn’t work. And there are projects like this at every level of government.”

Of all the tech disasters I’ve witnessed and tried to help untangle, the one I’ve come to see as most emblematic of these forces – and the ways we consistently misunderstand them – is the story of California’s unemployment insurance in the first year of the pandemic,’ Pahlka writes in the book “Recoding America: Why Government is Failing In the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better.

Three chapters of the book chronicle Pahlka’s time co-leading a “Strike Team” deployed by Newsom in mid-2020, as long benefit delays and outlandish stories of fraud began to dominate headlines. In the months to follow, state officials would find that payments were delayed to some 5 million workers and may have been improperly denied for another 1 million, all while the state lost as much as $32 billion to fraud, according to varied state and industry estimates.

Among the problems and potential solutions detailed in the new book: Why it was easier for scammers to file successful unemployment applications than it was for some workers, how a $100 million-plus tech modernization project by state contractor Deloitte buckled during the pandemic, and why the furor about outdated online systems has more to do with flawed state and federal policy than old software.

Modernizing technology without rationalizing and simplifying the policy and process it must support seldom works,” Pahlka wrote. “Mostly, it results in much the same mess you had before, only now in the cloud.”

An EDD spokesperson declined to comment.

The new details come amid a national reckoning over pandemic unemployment failures, including millions in federal funding recently made available for new tech modernization efforts. More than 150,000 workers in the state are still facing long appeals backlogs as they fight for delayed or denied unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile, congressional factions have also dragged jobless benefits back into bitter political fights. Last week, questions about responsibility for EDD woes resurfaced during a contentious U.S. House committee hearing led by Republican lawmakers opposed to President Biden’s nomination of ex-California labor chief Julie Su to be the U.S. Labor Secretary.

What exactly derailed the EDD’s computer system – or “grab bag of somewhat connected, somewhat separate systems,” as Pahlka wrote in the new book – is far more complicated than popular notions that “EDD staff was just incompetent at technology.” Even understanding the agency’s layers of antiquated technology, which she likens to an archeological dig, doesn’t get to the heart of the issue.

Rather, Pahlka explains, the dysfunction stems from the policy environment at the EDD and the bodies that oversee it. The California Legislature, federal labor regulators and flawed oversight mechanisms have all contributed, she wrote, to ever-growing and often-incompatible regulations, plus a political system that rewards compliance over public access.

“The bureaucratic confusion,” Pahlka wrote, “ultimately lands on the people.”

Some of the problems cited by Pahlka and state watchdogs have since been addressed, at least in part. The federal Pandemic Unemployment Program that was the biggest target for fraud has since ended. The EDD also went on a tech buying spree during the pandemic for services including call center support from longtime contractor Deloitte and an online identity verification system recommended by Pahlka’s Strike Team (which, in turn, spurred different complaints about long waits for some workers). The agency is now working on another nascent tech modernization project called EDDNext.

Still, Pahlka warns, the biggest underlying issues remain harder to address.

What we need has less to do with updating rigid 1950s code than with updating rigid 1950s thinking,” Pahlka wrote. “We need a fundamentally different way of delivering on the promise of policy.”