Broadband: With Jessica Rosenworcel
20 minutes

Cecilia Munoz, Vice President of Public Interest Technology and Local Initiatives at New America Foundation, joined Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel for a conversation about her career as an advocate for change and how we can open government to new ideas and new technologies.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: Welcome to Broadband Conversations, the podcast where I get to talk to leading women from across the technology, innovation, and media industries. You get to hear what they're working on, what's on their minds, and what they think is the next big thing.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: My name is Jessica Rosenworcel, and I'm a member of the Federal Communications Commission, and my guest today really needs no introduction, but I'm going to do a short one anyway.

My guest is Cecilia Muňoz, currently Vice President of Public Interest Technology and Local Initiatives at New America. I'm going to let her tell us more about that in a minute but before her current role, she served for eight years on President Obama's Senior Staff, first as Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, and then as Director of the Domestic Policy Council. And at the end of her term, get this. She was the highest-serving Latina in the White House. So Cecilia, thank you so much for joining me today. It's great to have you.

MS. MUŇOS: Thank you so much for having me.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. We're going to get into your current work which I know is important, but I want you to first go into a way back machine and tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are today.

MS. MUŇOS: Well, it's -- I'm not sure I actually know how I got to where I am today. I am a Latina from Michigan. My parents are immigrants from Bolivia, and I went to college and graduate school feeling very certain I was going to be -- that I was destined for a job in direct service, like in a kind of organization where you have clients that you help every day. And I actually got that kind of job when I finished graduate school after serving as a volunteer in an immigrant's rights -- in a legal services clinic offering services to immigrants.

I started my career in the Arch Diocese of Chicago back in the Midwest doing community organizing, and I ended up running a legal services program for immigrants after the last immigration reform in the 80's. And I've kind of been doing immigration ever since.

So my area of expertise is immigration policy, but I'm really a -- a policy nerd. I moved from Chicago to D.C. 30 years ago this year.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Thirty years ago?


MS. ROSENWORCEL: A few things have changed in that time.

MS. MUŇOS: Oh, one or two things have changed and I started 30 years ago at an -- a civil rights organization that was then called the National Council La Raza. It's now called UNIDOS US. And I started as an immigration and I ended up running their public policy shop, and I was there for 20 years until then President-elect Obama asked me to come serve on his Senior Staff, which I did.

I -- to my astonishment, I never expected to work in government. It wasn't what I was aiming for but it turned out to be an opportunity to do enormous good based on everything that I had learned in a career focusing on a range of policy issues that effect the Latino community and, of course, they're the same policy issues that affect the whole country. So it was my honor to, well, walk in the White House the day after President Obama's inauguration, and I walked out the day before the next inauguration.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow. How about this? What did you work on there that you're most proud of? I mean you can choose more than one. I don't want to put so much pressure on you, but I'm curious, during an 8-year period, what are the things that you feel like you were able to leave as part of your legacy working in public service?

MS. MUŇOS: There are so many things that I'm proud of. I like to say that as proud as I am of what we did, things like updating policies affecting the American workforce, updating environmental rules, the deferred action -- DACA program for young dreamers in the immigration space, the Affordable Care Act -- I mean as proud as I am of what we did, I am just as proud of how we did it in the sense that we were really dedicated to reaching out all across the country to every kind of community from the coast to the middle of the country, and we were a diverse group of people that was really deeply focused on making sure we were hearing from everyone in the country as we were making policy.

So I worked on Native American affairs, which is something that I didn't know very much about when I went into government and which I'm very proud of President Obama's record there. I worked on rural affairs. I worked on public health policy and in each of those places, we left a good body of policy and a strong set of relationships. And I walked out of there with a deep sense of respect for how good the American people are, how diverse we are but how fundamentally -- the great goodness of the American public, and I hang onto that, especially now as we're in a time with a little more turmoil.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, I appreciate that. It's also not just what you do but it's how you go about doing it. And I know that during the Obama Administration, we saw the role of technology expand in government. We, you know, saw blogs for the first time and something I think was really novel was the Administration asked the public to petition them online.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: And, of course, used social media in its early days. So in your roles, tell me a little bit more about how you view technology and how you used it in public service to better serve the American interest?

MS. MUŇOS: Yes. So there -- I'll give you two big examples. One that you've just alluded to is that we try to use technology in an effort to communicate with the American public. So we initiated a petition process where anybody could launch a petition to communicate with the Administration and with the President, and we responded to the ones that got over, I think it was, 20,000 signatures. I forgot what the number was but we made a commitment to respond to every one that reached a particular tipping point, and we did. And that was -- that's -- was a novel approach for government and it created some great internal conversations when we had to think through how we were going to respond to issues that we may or may not have anticipated, made us think, which is the point of communicating with your government.

And we had all kinds of different blog posts and posts on Medium and other ways of publicly wrestling with some of the challenges that we were struggling with and communicating with the public and giving the public an opportunity to communicate back. And, of course, famously, President Obama was on Twitter and much of his staff was on Twitter. And we, importantly, made sure that we were paying attention to how people responded to us. So there was a kind of a digital communications strategy which, I think, reached its zenith in President Obama's second term.

But then the second big thing we did -- and this is the thing which really changed the course of my own life -- is we created something called "The U.S. Digital Service." This was really out of the lessons that we learned from the initial struggle with which, right, the website famously didn't work at the beginning when -- but we -- not only did we fix it and 20 million people got healthcare by the way, but we really learned some deep lessons from that experience that we applied. So we discovered that we didn't really have an engineering problem. We had a management problem.

And so by creating the U.S. Digital Service, we essentially recruited hundreds hotshots from the Silicon Valley to come and use their skills in government. And so the pitch went something like this. We want you to come to Washington for a year or two years to earn a fraction of what you're earning now in the Silicon Valley and work in a windowless in some agency that totally doesn't appreciate what you know or what you do, but if you can get them to figure out that -- your super powers, you'll be able to affect how veterans receive their benefits, or you'll be able to change how people receive healthcare in this country. And for the people who that sounded appealing to, hundreds of them came to Washington. And because I was leading the Domestic Policy Council at the time, I got to help place these digital teams at federal agencies to help solve big problems that we were trying to solve.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I love that sales pitch.

MS. MUŇOS: Right? It's like come do something super hard for people who totally don't understand what you can but when it works, it's really magical. And that was really my experience.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I think also the U.S. Digital Service still continues today --

MS. MUŇOS: It does because --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- and it's --

MS. MUŇOS: -- it's an important way to make sure government works --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- it's --

MS. MUŇOS: -- for the people. It's not an ideological thing.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: You got it.

MS. MUŇOS: It's about using the tools that American companies use every day just getting out of bed in the morning, the tools that changed the way that you and I live and work but that have not yet been absorbed by government. And so I got to witness things like the creation of the College Scorecard, which is something the President very much wanted to do, which was just plain a better product, because we had a digital team working on it.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Can you explain what that is?

MS. MUŇOS: Yes. So President Obama asked his team at the White House as well as in the Department of Education to create a different set of metrics for measuring colleges so that a student or a family making a decision about where to invest their resources, to send their child to college had at least as much information as you and I have when we're buying a refrigerator or a television set. Right now the college rankings are done by places by US News & World Report, which President Obama felt very strongly measured the wrong things. You got lots of points if you were super-selective and you turned down most of the people who applied to you. You got lots of points if you built like fancy facilities, but you didn't necessarily get points for doing a great job with people who were the first in their families to go to college or for making it affordable for people to go to your school and to succeed in four years.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All important.

MS. MUŇOS: Super important. So the President asked us to create a different kind of system and originally, the original plan was we would create a rating system, we would crunch the data that the government has and put it on a website, and then try to drive people to the website. But we had some technical issues and we asked a digital team to help with the technical issues, which they did but then they came back to us and said, "You know, putting them on a website is a little old school. You can do that but you know what else we think you should do? We think you should actually talk to the 17-year-olds who are your user for this product and figure out how they're actually likely to use it." So we engaged in some user-centered design and the result of that was we did the website, but we also did an API. We released the data for anyone to use and apply whatever values they wanted to apply to it. And as a result, the College Scorecard is going strong. It's being used by more than a million people, and that number goes up every day. And it's being used in dozens and dozens of different applications that help students make this really lifetime important decision.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And you also brought user-centered design into thinking about government resources --


MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- and how government resources can actually be more available and used by all, and that's so important.

MS. MUŇOS: Well, it's a thing government doesn't do well on its own.


MS. MUŇOS: But --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Not at all.

MS. MUŇOS: -- the minute you bring that skill set in -- I mean my role was a little bit helping the policy nerds like me understand why they needed engineers and product developers in the room with them. And frankly, the engineers and product developers sometimes came in feeling like they knew a lot of stuff, but they didn't always know what the policy people knew. But when you got them at a table together with the problem in the middle of the table that everybody's job was to solve, really magical transformational things. And the insight I took from that, one is that government needs this expertise, but I come from the NGO world. I come from the civil rights world and that world needs this expertise, too.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's right.

MS. MUŇOS: So when I left government, I was fortunate to find a woman named Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is the CEO of New America, who is really thinking about not just how to leverage the tools of technology to make the country a better place but how to really focus on all the ways that we, as a country, need to adapt to the way technology is transforming everything.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So how does that work with what you're doing today? Tell me a little more about that?

MS. MUŇOS: So we created a team that's trying to build a field of public interest technology the way we have a field of public interest law in this country. So used to be if you went to law school, you cold work at a company, you could work for government, you could work at a law firm, and that was it. But we intentionally created a field of public interest law, which is now taught in law school, and so you can go to law school for the purpose of being a public servant, of being a civil rights lawyer, of doing something in the public interest. And you get trained for it and there are jobs for you. And so we are hoping to do the same thing with technology.

So we've launched a place where people working in this field can connect with each other. It's called "," which is something of a newsletter but it's four people who are applying their tech skill sets to local governments to solving public problems, helping them find each other, because one of the things we've learned at places like the Code for America Summit, which is a sister organization that we work with closely, is that there are people doing this work but they want to feel like part of a field, they want to find each other. They feel --


MS. MUŇOS: -- pretty isolated.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- they don't want to just be marginal to the government or --

MS. MUŇOS: That's right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- organization that they become a part of. They want to be sitting in the room where it happens, right?

MS. MUŇOS: That's exactly right and they don't want to be the one person, you know, in the bowels of the city government.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Who's got a vocabulary that's different than everyone else and a set of resources and different kinds of thinking.

MS. MUŇOS: Exactly.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: They need to find peers.

MS. MUŇOS: Exactly. So we're helping them find each other. We're helping -- we're working with a set of universities that's interested in helping provide the right kind of training, and we're working with NGOs and local governments on solving big problems using this skill set.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And then every time that they succeed in doing so or a local government or an organization comes up with some really big bad cool effort, we need to make sure we publicize those things, too, right?

MS. MUŇOS: That's exactly right so we -- so part of our work is story-telling to make sure that people see what happens. So for example, one of our fellows, a guy named Jeremiah Lindemann, developed first a map to help people highlight their lost loved ones from the opioid epidemic. And then that mapping project turned into a project to help counties map their data from the opioid epidemic so that they have a realtime picture of what's going on so that in a particular county, you can say we're most likely to see overdoses on Tuesdays between the hours of x and y.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And how do we think about staffing in healthcare centers as a result.

MS. MUŇOS: Exactly.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I mean I know here we're thinking a lot about looking at the areas of the country that don't have broadband and wireless service --


MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- and identifying what healthcare crises, like with diabetes or opioids, might be --


MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- taking place in those communities and how if we did get them connected, we might be able to put them in touch with more telehealth resources --

MS. MUŇOS: Exactly.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- that are low cost and easy to access --

MS. MUŇOS: I dealt --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- the ones we don't do today.

MS. MUŇOS: Exactly. I dealt with this when I was in government on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which has --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: In South Dakota.

MS. MUŇOS: -- yes -- which has an absolutely appalling teen --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Suicide rate.

MS. MUŇOS: -- suicide rate. Exactly. And making sure that we can use technology to make -- to help those young people get the resources that they need, the mental health resources that they need was a really big part of the strategy, and that's all about connectivity.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes. And we also need to develop really good data sets about where that connectivity is --


MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- and where it's not --

MS. MUŇOS: Absolutely.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- because we're going to have to fix those places where it's not to make these kind of resources available.

MS. MUŇOS: So it's about really bringing an additional toolbox to the tools that we already have to helping solve our public problems, to helping deal with public health issues like the opioid epidemic or the suicide rate in a place like Pine Ridge as well as, you know, fixing homelessness or whatever it is. If -- we will know we have succeeded when somebody, say, in middle school right now decides to become a technologist because she wants to fix homelessness, right? That's the world we're trying to create.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So what advice would you give to someone who wants to expand their career in public policy or go into public policy and be a public technologist, because I think that, you know, if that's a new field --


MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- we need to start developing on ramps to it and describing what it takes?

MS. MUŇOS: Yes. So we've learned that governments and NGOs, frequently, the first thing they need isn't engineering. It's usually process design. It's usually bureaucracy hacking. It's -- or some kind of design process or management process. So it turns out that the what I think of as the tech skill set that you need to develop is a broad skill set that it -- that in some cases, it's about engineering; in some cases is about design; in some cases, it's about management. But it means the capacity to look at a problem in a new way, to look at the way a government or an organization is engaging with people and to start to apply these principles of user-centered design, start to think like the way a Silicon Valley company approaches its customer, its user is the way a government can think about the people that it's serving, begin to ask -- as we did in designing the College Scorecard, who is this aimed at and maybe we should be talking to them to have their input help us design the thing which is going to help them do this.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: You know, I spent some time earlier at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and I'll never forget because the session before where I spoke, which was all officialdom, was a team from the City of Austin, Texas who was describing their user-centered design and going out to the people of Austin an asking them what they needed and then reorganizing the interfaces they had on line to help better serve that, but it seemed so simple. But the way they described it, it also felt revolutionary.

MS. MUŇOS: Well, that's exactly right. I can say this as a policy maker of many years, sometimes in all of our good intentions to solve a problem, we're guessing as to what's going to work, and we can now deploy data in the service of policy making and do a much better job of determining whether or not our bright ideas are actually the right ones to solve a problem. Ultimately, that's going to make government more efficient and more effective. It's going to make NGOs more efficient and more effective. And that feels important to me in helping people have faith that their government is actually their partner in solving problems and helping them get ahead.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And that matters.

MS. MUŇOS: Big time.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. So before we go, I have a few questions I like to ask --

MS. MUŇOS: Okay.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- everyone. So the first one is this. What was the first thing that you did on the internet?

MS. MUŇOS: You know, I knew you were going to ask me that question and honest to God can't remember. You know, it might have been I have family all over the world, because my parents are immigrants. It was probably connecting to a family member in Bolivia actually.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And how extraordinary it was to be able to do this in almost realtime and not, you know, wait for those expensive minutes to pile up on the phone --

MS. MUŇOS: Exactly.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- like they used to, right?

MS. MUŇOS: I remember having to wait for the overseas operator to connect us in order to be able to talk to family in Bolivia.


MS. MUŇOS: And the notion that you can communicate now and see their faces is amazing.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Okay. Fast forward to the present. What's the last thing you did online?

MS. MUŇOS: The last thing I did online? Oh, was ask a health question, as all of us do, right, going -- looking online to see what might be wrong with us --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: (Indiscernible) --

MS. MUŇOS: -- that we need more information about.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I'm familiar with that. More big picture now. What do you think the future of the internet and digital life should look like?

MS. MUŇOS: This is a very important question and I think about this all the time. We have a set of tools that is either going to help us move closer together or move farther apart. And it's not going to help us move closer together by itself. We have to be directive in using those tools. And as a woman of color, I can say very specifically, we need to be at the table, women need to be at the table, people of color need to be at the table in designing how we use the tools of technology, how we use the internet, how we use artificial intelligence and machine learning, how all of that gets deployed. I don't think those things are benevolent or evil by definition. That entirely depends on who's at the helm, who's engaging and using the tools. And if we are not engaged in those processes, they're going to move us further apart, and we can't afford that.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, agree. So important. Now before we go, you've got to tell us where folks can follow you to keep up with this good stuff that you're doing.

MS. MUŇOS: So I am -- my organization is New America, so you can find us at And I am on Twitter. I am "cecmunoz" [pronouncing CEASE MUŇOS], C-E-C-M-U-N-O-Z.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. That wraps up another episode of Broadband Conversations. Thank you for being here, Cecilia, and thank you for the work you do, and thanks to everyone for listening. Take care.