I wrote a policy book?? I wrote a policy book!

Jennifer Pahlka
3 min readJun 7, 2023

I spent yesterday pinching myself. (Serious brag alert here.) Ezra Klein’s interview with me dropped, and he starts out with “My pitch for this episode is simple: Jennifer Pahlka has written one of the best policy books I’ve ever read.” Given that my regard for Ezra borders on worship, this is obviously a dream come true.

But who knew I’d written a policy book? I keep thinking back to when I was pitching this book, and trying to remember if anyone called it that. I think most people who saw the proposal thought of it as a technology book. I thought of it as a book about “delivery,” but was politely told not to say that, since no one knew what delivery was. But I think the fact that Ezra read it as a policy book is in some ways the greatest triumph of all. Calling it a policy book asks policymakers to grapple with topics and perspectives outside their lane.

I think it’s book about how government actually operates, not just mechanically but organically and emotionally. About how “the difference between theory and practice is always greater in practice than it is in theory.” There are feelings in the book: people enjoying and protecting their status, people afraid of consequences, people’s genuine and sometimes unstoppable desires to help their fellow human beings. I talk about people whose well of empathy is astonishingly deep. These are not big topics in most books I’ve read about either policy or technology. So when Ezra calls it the book he wishes all policymakers would read, he’s not just saying he liked it. He’s saying policymakers need to shift what they pay attention to. And I, unsurprisingly, agree with that.

“Power is the ability to afford not to learn.” I use this Karl W. Deutsch quote in the book to accuse the policy class of failing to adapt to changing times. But some have, and they have helped me learn. I remember when Cecilia Muñoz, who urged her team at the Domestic Policy Council to adopt the practices of user research she learned from the US Digital Service, said something about not being a tech person. “Oh, you’re a tech person now, Cecilia,” I told her. “You get this stuff — not only what to do but what it’s all for — better than many long-time tech leaders.” “Well,” she said, “then you’re a policy person.”

I think what we were both saying is just what I say in the book: that policy and its implementation cannot — and should not — be separated. Part of the delight of researching the book was learning that none of this is new, that computers and the Internet didn’t suddenly create the problems of administering government (though the world they ushered in may have exacerbated things).

At the end of every episode, Ezra asks his guests to recommend three books to the audience. The first one I shared is from 1973, and has a title that’s a paragraph long, as if to warn its readers it’s going to get into the weeds. It chronicles in excruciating detail (entertaining too, if you’re a nerd like me) the failure of a much-heralded federally-funded project meant to benefit my hometown of Oakland. After thoroughly debunking all the other reasons put forth for the project’s utter lack of impact, the authors convince you that the only remedy for our poor track record is bringing implementation into the policy fold, and vice versa.

The 1973 book, Implementation, is a policy book too. It was written by political scientists. But its reviews similarly acknowledge that a promise to dig into a lot of nerdy operational details might not be what policymakers are most drawn to. “If only every policy maker and every voter would read this book!” says one reviewer. Implementation needed a champion like Ezra Klein! I am not a political scientist, and despite Cecilia’s kind words, I am not a policy person. But I’m proud to have written a policy book, even if by accident.



Jennifer Pahlka

Author of Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better, Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists