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Cover of Recoding America by Jennifer Pahlka

Macmillan Publishers

Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better by Jennifer Pahlka

Published in June 2023

Matt Reed’s review of Recoding America is the reason I read the book.

Publicists, authors and editors throughout the land should take notice. If you want your book to sell (at least among higher ed folks), get Matt to write a review!

Matt writes that,

“My copy of the book is laden with margin notes along the line of ‘YES!’ and ‘Ugh!’ The examples—and there are many—are well told, familiar and maddening.”

As I listened to the audiobook version of Recoding America (read beautifully by the author), I could not write “YES!” Or “Ugh!” in the margins. But, mentally, I was right there with Matt.

Recoding America is about information technology and government. A very similar book could (and probably should) be written about IT and higher ed.

Pahlka, the founder and former executive director of the nonprofit organization Code for America and former U.S. deputy chief technology officer, is an expert insider on government IT.

Recoding America describes her time in the Obama administration, where she helped launch the United States Digital Service, modeled after the U.K.’s Government Digital Service.

The main argument of Recoding America is that government (at every level) needs to rethink how it does IT. The problem, as identified by Pahlka, is that in a misconceived effort to save money, the federal government has outsourced the work of IT implementation to contractors and consultants.

In government, the work of implementing IT projects tends to be low status. High-status government work is policy development. In many areas of public sector employment, career mobility depends on one’s ability to manage procurement and oversee contractors.

The negative impacts of implementation being devalued compared to policy making can be significant. Pahlka tells the story of the failed launch of and how that web disaster almost doomed the Affordable Care Act.

Today, the core systems the Internal Revenue Service relies upon to keep the government funded are incredibly brittle, as the government has underinvested in developing the IT capabilities necessary to modernize its systems.

The parallels between how government manages IT and higher ed will be apparent to anyone in our community who reads Recoding America.

By outsourcing core educational functions, such as building and running online degree programs, universities have avoided the need to develop a range of internal competencies.

The capabilities necessary to run online degrees, such as instructional design, are also competencies that enable universities to be adaptable and resilient.

Outside of online learning and OPMs, the trend across higher education has been to consume IT as a service. Renting rather than building campus technology services can make sense, as freeing the university IT unit from commoditized operations (such as running the learning management system and email system on local servers) should open up space for higher-value strategic work.

The problem comes when senior IT leaders are not part of a university’s senior leadership team. There has been a long fight for CIOs to sit in institutional strategic roles, able to bring their expertise and perspective to the full range of challenges faced by higher education. This fight to elevate the role of IT to institutional strategy has been only partially successful.

The higher education caste system consigns IT professionals to lower-status roles than traditional academics. Universities are thought of as places of teaching, learning and knowledge creation. The IT infrastructure that enables all of that teaching, learning and knowledge creation is too often relegated to that of “support.”

Our colleges and universities may run better if they adopt some of the thinking and practices from IT. Can we have an agile university without including IT brains and experience at strategic decision-making tables?

Recoding America is all about how government should rethink its practices of outsourcing IT implementation to contractors and consultants.

The book can easily be read as a cautionary tale for higher education of the risks of not nurturing internal IT talent and capabilities and of failing to elevate campus IT leaders to institutional leadership roles.

What are you reading?

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