“Building By The Rules, A Policy Crash Course For Technologists”: Chizobam Nwagwu with U.S Digital Corps (Video + Transcript)

March 27, 2024

The U.S. Digital Corps is an early‑career fellowship designed for the country’s top technology talent to serve in the federal government. U.S. Digital Corps Fellow, Chizobam Nwagwu will discuss different policy types and a Findsupport.gov case study.


In this ELEVATE session, Chizobam Nwagwu, a fellow at U.S. Digital Corps, discusses the importance of policy for technologists and provides a crash course on policy. She covers different types of policies, including laws, regulations, executive orders, guidance, and priorities and plans. Chizo emphasizes the need for technologists to understand and work within policy boundaries, and provides advice on how to navigate policy challenges. 

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Chizobam Nwagwu ELEVATE public policy should be designed to serve the public

Transcript of ELEVATE Session:

Chizobam Nwagwu:

Awesome. Thank you for having me. Thank you again for everyone who’s making the time out of your day to come. This is my talk – Building By the Rules, A Policy Crash Course for Technologists. Now, just a preface, this talk is not legal advice or a comprehensive guide to federal policy considerations. I am not an expert, but I recognize that this information is really important. As an overview of what I’ll cover today, I’ll talk about why policy matters, offer a basic policy framework and dive into a case study, a project that I worked on called FindSupport.gov. And if there’s time, we can hopefully do some questions.

Let’s start with why policy matters. Now, I can imagine that many of you are a mix of those coming from the nonprofit and private sector. Well, public policy is definitely a foundation of what makes government unique from either of those two. It’s often important for keeping in mind what and how we deliver products and services to the public and the government, or in my case, the federal workforce. I hope that this talk can equip you with some soft skills and knowledge to put in your civic technologist tool belt.

Let’s back up and use this from the perspective of thinking about our own personal lives for a bit. We all make policy. I think about rules that I live by, what are things that I always do or things that I never do? For instance, I always try to brush my teeth twice a day. I always try to…or I never bike in the rain because that sounds like a really risky task to take. Or I always make sure to fill up a tank of gas before I’m going on a really long road trip.

I can imagine that folks in the chat, if you want to share any of your own rules that you live by, that some of those themes may be along things like diet or things that you use to work out or how you budget. What are you setting aside for certain activities every fiscal year for yourself? Or even how people do chores in your house, I know that’s a big thing of mine.

I would say that people create rules or people create our own policies to protect ourselves. I think about my rule of, I always try to brush my teeth twice a day is because I want to prevent cavities. I want to ease the pressure that my dentist might be putting on me as well and keep myself healthy. That’s really what the essence of kind of a bit of what policy is. Policy is trying to make our behavior intelligible and predictable to others. Another policy could be, I have a colleague who is vegan and whenever we go out to eat, always thinking about what are places that we can go that can also accommodate her needs and wants?

It also helps us translate our goals into action. For instance, if I want to run a half marathon, leg day is my policy. I must do [inaudible] in the sense of if I want X, I must do Y. It also helps to organize our options to inform a specific course of action.

I think about whenever I’m going on a really big expensive trip, I may say, “Hey guys, or hey friends, I can’t go out tonight because I’m saving this for a piece of this, a certain amount for a big trip that I want to save up for.” It also sets expectations and clarifies our responsibilities to one another.

For example, if I have a roommate, “I do laundry and you are going to do the dishes.” And there may be some consequences or penalties for not complying. If I said that, “Hey, please do not touch my leftovers from a really nice dinner I had,” the consequence might be a very ominous stare from the corner of the room.

Public policy is like that, it’s really, except, it’s on a bigger scale. Public policy is trying to address a number of problems at the same time. Dealing with often a larger scale of people, goes into much more detail, and may require more time to craft.

Notice that maybe based on, and I don’t have super clear access to the chat yet, but if folks did share, there’s probably some rules in your own life that you’re thinking that you’re more lax about or more strict about than others.

Government can be like that too, where they’re constantly having to meet new people, do new things, and they need to be able to update policy to meet those new needs or new challenges, iterating to meet those challenges.

Let’s start with a brief framework of how I might think about product, specifically, in public policy. Where policy can be seen as a force for change or a force against change, acting on both sides of the thing that you’re trying to do or accomplish. This is Kurt Lewin’s force field analysis model that I can’t take credit for.

Let’s start with a force for change. In the chat, if anyone can share, feel free to share of any ideas of instances where a force for change.

What is a policy that allowed you to have permission to innovate or improve? Examples that I’m thinking of in my work, for instance, was the 21st Century IDEA Act. That was a law passed in 2017, if I’m remembering correctly, that required agencies to modernize, digitize, standardize how they’re actually building websites in the 21st century. Or the Customer Experience Executive Order, which I’ll dive into a little bit later.

On the opposite side, a force against change or a restraining force is what I’d like to say. It places constraints or conditions around innovation. An example of that, again, in my work or the space that I’m in, maybe for example will be the Privacy Act, which protects personally identifiable information. It prevents agencies from disclosing certain types of information without consent. It’s really trying to uphold that prior commitment that we’re making to the public. You might think of that as a, may the force be against you or with you type of situation, depending on how you’re looking at it.

Let’s go deeper into six policies I hope to cover today. Now, it’s not an exhaustive list, this is really just a discrete number that I thought would be relevant for our conversation this afternoon. I’d bucket those into binding and non-binding. With binding policies, I’d like to think of as carrying the force of law or a contract between you and the government, one that you can legally challenge one over the other with. There may be penalties or consequences for not complying with those. Whereas, non-binding will be not binding.

Let’s start with laws. Examples of laws that immediately come to mind include, for example, ones that really are stemming from people listening to problems in society. And so our lawmakers in Congress, for instance, or in your state legislature. They’re tasked with listening to the public and translating those challenges into solutions. That shows up in policy as, for instance, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA’s protecting people with disabilities in many areas of public life. The Rehabilitation Act requiring access to federally funded agencies and programs and federal employment.

To get a bit deeper, laws or enabling statutes may also come with appropriations. As product people, especially, working in government, we’re working in agencies, complying with the law is part of our job. A law may also provide enabling statutes where it’s a type of legislation that provides new powers to an entity or permits something that maybe wasn’t allowed before. Again, these happen at the state level, the city level, think of your state legislature, your state constitution, or your city council, or your city charter. Those are also examples of appropriations laws. Now, there are also differences between mandatory laws, where you must do, versus directory, which is you should do. Which I won’t get into too deeply now.

On the right you’ll see a screenshot of the 21st Century IDEA Act, which again, as I mentioned, requires agencies to modernize websites, digitize forums, accelerate the use of e-signatures, improve customer experience, and standardize the transition to shared services.

Moving on to regulations. Regulations are also called rules. They are subject to statute. So for example, it goes through a comment period, it goes through the, sorry the rulemaking process, which first starts with a notice, the agency puts out notice of, “Hey, we’re putting out a draft version of this rule.” Then the public is allowed to comment on that rule.

Anyone can comment on that rule, there’s a lot of materials online about how to write a public comment. Then, the agency looks at each of those comments, understands and answers each of them to then implement those into the revision, understand what is implementable into the revision of that rule. And then finally, publishing the final rule. And these, again, are subject to challenging in the courts around agency authority, which I won’t get into for the bounds of this conversation.

Let’s take an example. Let’s take the Federal Acquisition Regulation for those that may be familiar with contracting or specifically, government contracting. This is the regulation that governs that process, the procurement policy for the federal government. Now in this subsection A where it says 41 U.S. Code chapter 13 is where those requirements will be. That code says that the General Services Administration, the DOD, and NASA shall jointly administer and maintain a single government procurement regulation known as the Federal Acquisitions Regulation. And so I encourage you, this is a very small piece to learn more about rulemaking or rules at regulations.gov or also reginfo.gov to certain degrees about how that process works.

Now, let’s go into Executive Orders, the final binding type of policy that I’ll go into. It’s also a type of regulation. It does not go through the notice and comment period. It’s exempt due to some expressed powers in the Constitution. For instance, times of emergency, examples of this are, for instance, the Customer Experience Executive Order. Which does provide specific instructions for how agencies should deliver.

Going into non-binding policies, we have guidance. There are lots of names for this, there’s memos, policy statements, circulars, bulletins, et cetera. The purpose of these is to explain new regulations and answer stakeholder questions. Now, there’s some caveats with this where the interpretations are binding on employees and may include some penalties.

The guidance also is binding, it can be binding to vendors in any contract. And again, it’s administered or written by subject matter experts like the chief information officers, program leads.

On the right, you’ll see an example of a recent memo that came out by OMB. Number OMB Memo 23-22, which outlines the specific requirements, timelines, and priorities for implementation of the 21st Century IDEA Act.

Now, I’d like to end here, this part of the talk here with the priorities and plans. The PMA is also known as the President’s Management Agenda, for instance, is a version of a priority. It lays out the agency’s strategic plans. For instance, the data strategy from the Evidence Act is often delegated to sub offices. There’s different responsibilities for these are spread out across the federal government in this case and often crafted internally.

Now, this might be a good screenshot time as a small version of a cheat sheet of some of the policies that I went over here. I’ll take a quick moment, and just to wrap us up here, I’d say the policy advice that I have for technologists would be to get to know your policy folks. It is someone’s job to understand statutes and regulations, really lean on them for insight and advice.

Secondly, I’d say the law is more flexible than people may realize at times, so really read the policy because sometimes the policy can be, “Well, we’ve done this this way the entire time and it may not be written down.”

Three, pick your battles, know whether you’re dealing with a law, which may be very hard to change, or guidance or a priority or plan. Where there might be some leeway and when necessary, fight policy with policy.

Then lastly, definitely knowing your boundaries. Knowing again, when to defer to your policy subject matter experts when it is falling outside the bounds of your role as a technologist.

These are some reflection questions I won’t have time to get into right at this moment. But again, feel free to screenshot if you’d like to take it back to your team. I hope from this very quick synopsis that you can see that technologists help deliver within the bounds of policy. Policy can seem scary, but policy shouldn’t stop us from meeting the public’s needs.

I’ll frame this quickly with a case study of Find Support. Where the White House in their 2020 Unity Agenda had outlined that they wanted to build new easy to access, user-friendly online treatment locator tools for behavioral health.

SAMHSA and CMS, my team with the digital service at CMS, helped support the work to build FindSupport.gov in trying to meet that priority. The purpose of this website is to help people know how to cope with behavioral health issues, know how to find treatment, get the tools to know how to pay for treatment, again, based on your insurance status.

We talk to a lot of the people as part of our user research who are on Medicaid or may have qualified based on some of their information, and also allows people to have the tools to know how to support their loved ones and what to do in a crisis.

We started with framing this project around how can we build with, not for users? Is this product accessible for all as part of our requirements being in the federal government? And how does this product protect user privacy? And is it secure?

These were a few of the statutes. I’m really going to dive into about two of them for the purposes of this conversation. The Paperwork Reduction Act in the federal government is really designed to reduce burden on the public. I say that to say, for instance, think about how long did it take you to take your taxes this year?

On average, it takes about 11 to 13 hours for Americans to prepare their taxes. And that’s at least a full workday, if not more. And so how would it make you feel if that process was any longer? That’s really what the PRA is trying to get at as one piece of the spirit of the legislation of thinking about forms. And you can see in the top right corner an OMB control number.

And ways that we navigated this… I encourage you to look actually more on PRA.digital.gov to learning more about what it means to do low burden research before having to go through a longer approval process. But these were some considerations that our team took. And so you can check out more information about this specific law on PRA.digital.gov.

Similarly, with the Section 508, it requires agencies to make all federal IT accessible to people with disabilities. And that touches on a number of things and also corresponds closely with other peer legislation related to people with disabilities and their different types of lived experiences. That also factored into creating our roadmap for actually building the product. Really making that the focal point for how we were doing user research at what points in time.

With that, I will quickly close since I know my time is coming up, but I hope that if it’s clear that as product managers or as technologists, doing your due diligence is important. That you have awareness that policy actually can create space to ask questions, and that every policy won’t apply. In general, the government should be designed to serve the public. Public policy should also be designed to serve the public. And with that, product managers or technologists specifically, more generally, have an opportunity to center the public voice.

Thank you again for having me, I’m really happy to connect offline.

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