Lessons learned from a career in public interest tech

An interview with Emily Tavoulareas

Managing Chair at Georgetown University’s Tech & Society Initiative

By Joshua Noble, TPG Education Committee


Emily Tavoulareas is currently at Georgetown University’s Tech & Society Initiative as the Managing Chair. She was previously a Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and also was a founding member of the U.S. Digital Service at the Department of Veterans Affairs. We spent some time chatting with her to hear more about her background, interests, advice she has for folks interested in public interest tech, and where she sees the space going.

Tell me about the path that brought you into doing civic tech work.

I have been working in what we now call public interest tech for the better part of about 20 years. My arc essentially started with international affairs, government, and public policy in my undergrad and graduate degrees. I was focused on different aspects of community development, organizing, and getting people access to things they needed, often in underserved places and communities. I graduated from graduate school right around the tipping point of social media, around 2007, and started pulling some of the (at the time) emerging technology into the work that I was doing in the Middle East. I began to realize that these technologies are not designed for the people I was working with, so I started asking myself: how and why were these decisions made?

So I made a career pivot into a creative agency where I  ended up in a product role. This led to an opportunity to join the Obama administration in 2013 to lend the skills that I had developed to public policy problems, which was kind of a nice, full circle for me. It brought me back to government and to some of the public policy questions I had been thinking about, having acquired some of those technical skills and experiences.

In other words, what drew me to civic tech was the belief that technology and design have a role to play in providing people access to critical services and improving people's lives. But at the root of all my work was a desire to connect underserved communities to the things they needed.

From your perspective, how is public interest technology different from other technology work? What are the features? Is it who you're serving? Is it the funding organization(s)? Is it how things are built? Is it a combination of all of these?

While there are definitions of Public Interest Tech, if you ask 10 people what it means, you'll get 10 different answers. I say this because I want to be both careful and honest here—there are many perspectives on this, and my answer is just one. 

Personally, what I’ve landed on is this: Public Interest Tech is a term that describes several existing intersecting fields, disciplines, and areas of expertise—like law, computer science, privacy, public policy, public administration, science and technology studies, information systems, information security, and the list goes on. All of these disciplines and areas of study exist on their own, but what unites them under a “Public Interest Tech” umbrella is their focus on the relationship between technology and the public good, with the “public good” being the priority—not the technology. 

But if I’m being honest I think we have something of a definitional challenge because we tend to use words and terms – such as ‘civic tech’ and ‘tech policy’ and ‘public interest tech’ – interchangeably. I believe that they're quite different, but related. I think of “civic tech” as shorthand for the work of designing and delivering technology to improve access to and use of government services. I think of “tech policy” as shorthand for the work related to accountability and responsibility of risk and harm that stems from technology. Think: mass surveillance, algorithmic bias, human rights, democracy, misinformation, monopolies, mental health, fraud, etc. And here is where I need to highlight that none of this work is new. The language of ‘public interest tech’ is, but people have been studying and working at the nexus of technology and the public good for several decades. 

So to answer your question (sorry for the journey here!) I think the unifying thread is a focus on and prioritization of the public good, which is also reflected in an approach that is rooted in the needs of the public and the realities of the world we live in—not in a techno-utopian fantasy world.

Which bodies of work or areas of study in this field do you feel are the most important? 

Oh boy what a loaded question! For me it is Science and Technology Studies (STS), Public Policy, and Law. But I honestly think it depends what your vantage point is. If you’re in public health or education you might have a different answer. Though I’d say STS is relevant everywhere. So I guess I do have an answer… STS! 

I’d also like to share an observation: I find the most direct line to civic tech is actually public administration, not public policy. Public policy tends to lean heavily toward a theoretical political science direction or toward a strong “econ” lens, where a lot is seen in light of macro economics. Both of these tendencies make it challenging to tie public policy directly to civic tech. By contrast, I find Public Administration is about the administration (or implementation) of a public service. And what is technology in government but a tool of implementation? Technology is the infrastructure that supports institutions, programs, and services, as well as a touchpoint for the public. Don Moynihan and Pamela Herd wrote a book called The Administrative Burden. As I was reading it, I thought, “This is all the language I didn’t know I needed.” Every word I've been looking for, every concept I've been trying to describe, it's all right here. Someone's already been thinking about it – though not from a technology point of view – and the language helps describe the context of the work I spend so much time thinking about. This is all to say… I think scholars and practitioners have a lot to learn from each other! 

What do you see as the core skills that civic tech practitioners should be focusing on? What are key resources or organizations that people should be aware of?

For the people who already have “sharp” skills that they want to point at a government problem, read Cyd Harrell’s book A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide. Then start researching public institutions that might want your skills. Consider what questions or problems or issues you are especially passionate about, where you would like to apply your skills, and then think about which organizations can affect them and work from there. The thing I believe is most critical to success for anyone going into government is a basic understanding of how government works and its incentive structure—what makes it tick. Cyd’s book helps get you in the sort of emotional place and mindset to be able to make the kind of progress you want to see. Figuring out how to operate and how to be in that space to be effective— I think her book does both of those things remarkably well. Another great book is Seeing Like a State, which is fantastic for understanding why the government functions as it does, especially with regard to incentives. 

The skills that tend to be the most immediately and broadly valuable are user experience research, visual design, service design, and any kind of programming – but especially people who are comfortable on both the front end and the immediate back end, those who are comfortable taking something a visual designer will hand them and turning it into a thing.

I think data skills are important as well, though it’s important to note distinctions between data skills. For example: Public policy schools specialize in  statistics, macroeconomics, and produce students who are really good at crunching datasets. But that is distinct from people who can think about the process and manner in which data is collected and flows through a system, and how it is stored. That's the part that tends to be most acutely relevant to modernizing government products and systems. Government is full of economists and statisticians but what it does not as much of is people who really understand how data is collected, stored, managed, and moved.

What is different about design in civic tech or public interest tech than design outside of those settings?

I’ll answer this in terms of civic tech. First, let me say that when I say “design” I do not mean “making things pretty.” I mean a diverse set of design skills and methods that make products and services accessible, usable, and useful. At the end of the day, I think design is about effectively solving a problem for someone that is not you. 

In the places that it's happening it has been ground breaking, and has opened the eyes of the people managing programs. To my mind, there are essentially two key elements about design in the civic tech space: (1) a completely different way of operating and (2) a different set of norms related to defining success and prioritization. This is basically the switch from, “What do we need as a business?” to “What are the needs of the people we are trying to serve and what works for them / their environment / their constraints?” It’s also introducing comfort with the notion that (1) designing with users throughout the process is more likely to achieve the outcome you are aiming for, and (2) you cannot be an expert on someone else's experience.

What is a key challenge in civic innovation that we are facing that you think has a good solution in civic technology? Where can we find a win to look to in civic tech that is going to have real impact?

I worked in the VA for 4 years, at the White House for a year, and then back to the VA – and I just don't have an answer for you. I can't think of a single technical solution. I genuinely would love to hear someone's optimistic answer to this. I guess if I had to choose something it would be forms, which are one of the most frequent points of contact between citizens and government. So I guess my short answer is forms! Oh, and maybe case management software.

My long cranky answer is that the entire system, all of the systems that government institutions run on, were built as a response to a policy / legislation.  Their systems look various ways depending on the policy and on the organization. All of these institutions and many of the policies that are being implemented are from the post-war era, the mid-1940s to early 1950s. To put that into perspective, that is before the entire United States was connected on the electrical grid. So while we were the first to adopt digital systems, our digital infrastructure is now pretty old, and there's just no good way to replace that. But ultimately, I think a lot of the solutions that we want and the improvements we want, don't lie in technology. They lie in policy changes. How’s that for an unsatisfying answer?

This is part of my frustration with a lot of the civic tech space. A lot of what's being written and immortalized about it is how positive it is. I remain optimistic and that's why I'm still very excited about this work. But I also fear we are whitewashing our history, especially around programs like USDS. We act as if they brought in some programmers, and designers, everything was great, and BOOM! Innovation! No. The reality is that it was (and continues to be) complex, and challenging on countless levels. 

What are you reading or listening to these days?

I have 3 kids under the age of 6, so if I’m being honest… I’m doing a lot more listening than reading at the moment. A few favorites: Tech Policy Press, Lawfare, There Are No Girls on the Internet, Untangled, and Pivot. 

This conversation originally took place in July 2022. After some slight modifications by the interviewee, it is now being officially published.

Joshua Noble is a designer and technologist with a deep interest in data and research. He’s the author of several books, most recently Everything Is Someone, and is currently working on a new book on data and service design.