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Interview With Russian Journalist And "War And Punishment" Author Mikhail Zygar; Interview With "Promise" Author Rachel Eliza Griffiths; Interview With "Recoding America" Author Jennifer Pahlka; Interview With "Bad Sisters" Creator, Actor And Writer, And Executive Producer Sharon Horgan. Aired 1-2p ET
Aired July 14, 2023 - 13:00:00 ET
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BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone, and welcome to AMANPOUR. Here's what is coming up.
The story of Russia's oppression and Ukrainian resistance. I speak to Russian journalist, Mikhail Zygar, about his new book on a painful history.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RACHEL ELIZA GRIFFITHS, AUTHOR, "PROMISE": We have the power to choose what work looks like for black women, we don't have to exhaust ourselves or
work ourselves to death.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: -- taking back the innocence of youth in a time of brutality. Poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths talks to Christiane about her novel set at the
dawn of the civil rights movement. And they discussed the attack that almost killed her husband, the author, Salman Rushdie.
Also, ahead --
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JENNIFER PAHLKA, AUTHOR, "RECODING AMERICAN": The technology is just buckling under the weight of all that policy and processed clutter.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: -- "Recoding America." Former top U.S. tech official, Jennifer Pahlka, tells Walter Isaacson why America is feeling in the digital age.
And finally --
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HORGAN: We can't just kill our brother-in-law. Bibi, do I wish she was dead? Yes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: -- Christiane's conversation with the freshly Emmy nominated write and actress Sharon Horgan. They discuss how she mix sadness and
silliness in her hit show, "Bad Sisters."
Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Bianna Golodryga in for Christiane Amanpour.
The cracks are on full display in Moscow after the failed Wagner rebellion at the end of last month. In an extraordinary show of defiance, senior
Russian general, Ivan Popov, of who led Russian forces in Southern Ukraine is saying he's been fired after accusing military leaders of not providing
Meanwhile, general and Wagner VIP, Sergey Surovikin, has still not been seen in public since the aborted mutiny. It is a stark contrast with NATO
leaders who, despite some bumps in the road, put on a largely united front at their Lithuania summit this week.
I spoke about this with the Russian journalist, Mikhail Zygar. He fled the country after a media crackdown and in protest of the war. His new book,
"War and Punishment," follows the painful history between his country and Ukraine, and is now available across the world. Here is our conversation.
Mikhail Zygar, thank you so much for joining the show. It's great to talk to you.
We'll get to your book in just a moment. But let me get you to respond to what has transpired this week, and that was the NATO summit in Lithuania.
Obviously, Ukraine walking away disappointed that there wasn't a direct timeline offered in terms of when they can join the alliance. But
nonetheless, big news was made. It appears that Sweden will be joining very soon.
I'm wondering how all of this is playing out within the Kremlin and how they are portraying it to the Russian public, because the theme that they
had presented all along is that NATO is a threat to Russia, now you've seen over the course of one year, not only Finland joined the alliance but now
Sweden soon to join as well.
MIKHAIL ZYGAR, RUSSIAN JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR, "WAR AND PUNISHMENT": You know, it seems to me that Russian political elite is a bit in disarray. And
actually, the most discussed topic is still Yevgeny Prigozhin's mutiny. And the number of internal problems is that high that -- obviously, propaganda
is trying to address the news about Ukraine and NATO summit, but actually, they (INAUDIBLE) with it.
There are meaningless statements by Former President Medvedev that, OK, Ukraine will never join NATO and that's why we should continue our war. But
actually, the thing that people are really discussing is the internal problems in Putin's inner circle and in the army.
GOLODRYGA: It's notable that Russia, and it seems, the Kremlin, is acknowledging their biggest problem right now is internal and not outside
threats. And it's been three weeks now since that failed mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin. And you are a bit prescient in your writing and in your
reporting going back now over a year that he was a man to watch, that he was a man to take seriously and potentially, a threat to Vladimir Putin's
sovereignty and his power as well.
You say that he has been severely harmed, Putin has been severely harmed by this mutiny. Explain how.
ZYGAR: We see that Vladimir Putin is not -- does not seem a person who's in control. He was considered to be the only guarantor of the stability for
the political elite, for the bureaucracy, and now it's obvious for everyone that he cannot hold it.
And the recent news are that General Popov, who was one of the high ranking commanders in Russian army, was fired from the ministry of defense. So --
and he was obviously supportive of Prigozhin's line. We've heard in the recent years that not General Surovikin but other very important commanders
and generals from the ministry of defense were detained or arrested recently.
So, we are witnessing the system that seemed to be very stable is beginning to collapse.
GOLODRYGA: Yes. The fallout from the mutiny continues, as you mentioned, another general now speaking out after he says he was fired for criticizing
the direction of this war and its leadership. And General Surovikin also now being detained since that failed mutiny, and no one has really spoken
him since. A lot of his advisers around him as well, according to "The Wall Street Journal," have been detained in question.
How do you see this ending? Because it appears that Vladimir Putin, over the years, had done a very good job of making foolproof any sort of
attempted coup or threat from opposition or the left, but perhaps, now, he should be more focused and concerned about the stability of those in the
right, around him, of the Siloviki.
ZYGAR: You know, he was always very cautious about army, about all the leaders of his security apparatus and he tried to organize some kind of
retrace (ph) between them. He always wanted them to compete with each other. And actually, he was using Prigozhin as a counterweight to minister
of defense, Sergei Shoigu.
And these competition goes on. But now, we see that probably Vladimir Putin is out of touch with reality, as Angela Merkel once said. Even his reaction
to the Prigozhin's mutiny was weird because we know that the same day he left Moscow for a big celebration in his hometown, St. Petersburg, where he
was partying on a yacht of his close friend, Yuri Kovalchuk.
So, probably Putin -- obviously, all my sources confirm that his decisions are a bit strange. And most Russian bureaucracy don't -- just don't get it,
why he's not very decisive as he used to be.
GOLODRYGA: Yes. And it continues to perplex those like you and even myself who watch this space very closely. Let me now turn to your book. Because
all of this is really interconnected, and you focus on the war and you give a history, a great history, I would tell viewers that this is a great
opportunity to read the history of Russia and its origins, and Ukraine and its origins. Because you really do go through a lot of detail and debunking
the myths that they were created as one.
But you start the book with a confession. And here's what you're right. This book is a confession. I am guilty of not reading the signs much
earlier. I, too, am responsible for Russia's war against Ukraine. As my contemporaries and our forebears. Regrettably, Russian culture is also to
blame for making all these horrors possible.
What in Russian culture, in your view, attributed to this war today?
ZYGAR: You know, first, definitely, we need to address the idea of Russian greatness. Because even Russian -- even liberal part of Russian society is
very fascinated with the idea of great Russian culture, great Russian literature, great Russian language, I think that's very toxic word and we
need to get rid of it because it's -- Russian culture and Russian history, for many people, was -- for many years and for many people was a
justification of Russian empire as the unique value.
So, I think we need to stop thinking of Russian empire as the value, and we must eradicate the idea of this empire in Russian culture, in Russian
literature, and within ourselves.
GOLODRYGA: You also debunk a lot of the myths that many now have come to know, and that is how Russians have described Ukrainians, how the Kremlin
especially said that there are "Nazis" inside of Ukraine, there were also lies and propaganda about President Zelenskyy being a drug addict as well.
Why was it so important for you to really bear truth to all of these myths and lies and propaganda?
ZYGAR: You know, actually, the beginning of this war changed everything for a lot of people in Russia. And for me, it was obvious that we need to
start from scratch and like -- because all the previous Russian history seems to me like a huge propaganda right now. We have never had any kind of
people's history of Russia.
We had the history of the Russian emperors and then secretary generals and then presidents. Actually, we need to change our attitude. We have to
change the attitude to the neighbors. We need to focus the real story behind us, and that -- all those stories are sometimes dreadful, Russian
history is full of blood, and we need to know it.
And history is being used as justification of this war. Putin is using history every time he is talking about history in every single speech, and
that's falsified version of Russian history. So, now, I think is the time to debunk all of those historical myths, to destroy imperial narrative.
GOLODRYGA: Yes. And it's important not only for our viewers and readers around the world, but also for Russians. I know you spent a lot of your
time focusing on making sure this breaks through to the Russian public as well.
What's interesting in this book is that you give a lot more detail as to President Zelenskyy's history and who the man is before he's become this
wartime president that everyone has come to know and admire for his great bravery. He was, as we know, a comedian, an actor, but he was also someone
who was well versed in Russian and Russian culture. Russian was his dominant language. That was his first native language. And it's interesting
that over the course of the past few years, he had been really hoping to use his charm, to use wit, to use his familiarity with Russian and Russian
culture to find some common ground with Vladimir Putin.
Where do you see, in the timeline, that things go awry in that attempt?
ZYGAR: You know, I know from several sources that there was one moment when there was a point of no return for President Putin. The first time he
learned about Volodymyr Zelenskyy was that moment when -- back in 2014, Volodymyr Zelenskyy made for his show on Ukraine and television, a sketch
where he played with Alina Kabaeva -- supposedly mistress --
GOLODRYGA: The reported mistress. Yes.
ZYGAR: Yes. The mistress of Vladimir Putin, and that was something unimaginable for Russia because no one has ever dared to joke, to make fun
of President Putin's personal life. And mentioning of Alina Kabaeva is obviously impossible on Russian television, and Zelenskyy made a very funny
sketch about Putin and Kabaeva, and that was very important turning point in their personal -- that was the moment when Putin heard of Zelenskyy for
the first time, and he is never forgiven him.
GOLODRYGA: And that gives you a sense of where that relationship stands today and the stark contrasts between these two wartime leaders. Mikhail
Zygar, it is a wonderful book, thank you so much for joining us today --
ZYGAR: Thank you..
GOLODRYGA: -- to not only talk about the news of the day, but also, why this book is so significant at this time as well. Great to see you.
The acclaimed novelist, Salman Rushdie, has been speaking out about the attack onstage that almost killed him last year, telling the BBC that he
still dreams about the stabbing that cost him his vision in one eye. But throughout it all, he says the support of his wife has been crucial to his
recovery. Rachel Eliza Griffith is an award-winning poet. And her debut novel, "Promise," is a wrenching tale of youth and innocence at the dawn of
the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Here's her conversation with Christiane.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Eliza Griffiths, welcome to the program.
RACHEL ELIZA GRIFFITHS, AUTHOR, "PROMISE": Thank you so much for having me. It is a delight to be in conversation with you.
AMANPOUR: And this is your first novel, which is no mean feat. So, let's just lay the table, then. This is a novel about a black family, in fact,
two, that have moved from the south, which is much more overtly racist, up to the north, the free north, at the beginning of the civil rights
movement, and encounter racism, but it starts with a story of almost gentle childhood, in their element, family love. It's -- the story is through the
eyes of two sisters, as Ezra and Cinthy, she goes Hyacinth Kindred.
You've mentioned a little bit about your mom and other elements that are very similar to her upbringing and the family experience. What's
particularly were you wanting to focus on?
GRIFFITHS: I moved my story from the south into the north because I wanted to, first of all, shift our kind of familiar gaze at the American South and
stories that come from the American South. So, I wanted to go far into the north to really emphasize the wingspan of racial hatred in America, but I
also wanted to think about Maine as this place, when I was young as a student, I spent a lot of time going north. And I always wondered, you
know, what it would be like for a black girl like me to grow up in this kind of environment.
And so, Cinthy and Ezra, as you mentioned, they are coming of age. They are 13 and 15. They are coming from a loving black family that has always tried
to protect them and emphasize education and what kind of life that they might have if they have education and love and support. And as they're
beginning their first day of school, of their last year, all of this kind of falls apart.
And so, that's -- those are some of the things I would like to say is that, you know, what kind of world in Maine versus the south would be the setting
for this novel? I think that's really important to think about with these girls. And that, you know, they are defiant, they are bold. They do not
want to be ladies. They don't want to listen to what their parents are telling them. And the world is telling them that they have to be.
I'm reminded of Zora Neale Hurston's novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God." And there's this moment where the central character in that novel, her
grandmother who loves her and wants to protect her tells her that, you know, she can't be a flower, she can't be a blossom. She's come in to her
grandmother's porch and she's watched bees kind of kissing the flowers, and she's aware of her own sensuality and her life. And her grandmother says,
you know, the romance and sensuality of the world is not for you. Black women are the mules of the world. And so, this happens as she's very young.
And so, I wanted to reclaim the sense of vulnerability and dreams and imagination for these young girls that you can be strong and defiant, that
can't be taken away from you, that you can have access to the sweet dreams of life and that we have the power to choose what work looks like for black
women. We don't have to exhaust ourselves and work ourselves to death. That we are not just here to be laborers or mules or animals.
And I think in this country, and particular going back to enslaved black women, I wanted to not provide some kind of traumatic story of black girls
and women. I wanted to think of our inner lives and our imaginations and I wanted to give this to my two young girls who are 13 and 15.
AMANPOUR: Yes. And you do. And I just want to read some of these -- some quotes, because they are very poetic and I find that the way you write, the
novel, is very poetic. I mean, it's very evocative, it's very, you know, extravagant, the language, and very interesting to read around a novel.
You know, there are two black girls, obviously, who are the central protagonists, but they have a -- you know, what you might call and what you
kind of do you call a white trash friend, Ruby, who is even as oppressed and, you know, abused but in a slightly different way. She says, you know,
the town is so small and bland. Ruby fears, "She'll be forced to marry one of the six Johns in her class." And then the father, you know, Kindred
father says, the stories in us speak in you. And you never know how people are really living until they die.
And I find that a really interesting sort of bridge from the joy of their childhood and the innocence of their childhood to this last year of school
where they've lost their teacher and, you know, their father is -- their family is being destroyed in front of their eyes. So, it is a very
traumatic story as well.
GRIFFITHS: Yes, it's a very traumatic story and I feel that it really mirrors in many ways at this brink of girlhood, at this brink where, you
know, many of us leave youth and are now stepping into the world and the world is saying to us, you get to be this thing, you can't be this, this is
what you -- this is your inheritance.
And so, I feel very compassionate and tender towards Ruby because she suffers from promises that the world has told her that she should receive
as a young white girl. And so, these three girls, you know, at the beginning of the novel, they decide the day before school they're going to
play this game where they really look at each other and they go up into this hard sunlight and they lie down on the ground and they look at each
other, and they're trying to figure out why the world is telling them that they are different or that one body is valued more than the other, that one
is more beautiful than the other. And when they sit up, they kind of think, there's something different, but it's not what the world is telling us.
And so, what happens in the novel is that, at this moment, there's a loss of innocence. There's a certain kind of feeling of them being dragged into
the gays of the world, on their bodies and their futures. And so, Ruby is coming from an environment, even though she is white, there's a class issue
where she has been kicked down in a way to make it seem that she is not as -- she doesn't possess as less value than black girls. But because she is
poor, there will be extra steps that she will have to take to claim the gifts and privileges of white womanhood.
And for Cinthy and her sister, they are sitting up and trying to think about the loving veil that their parents have wrapped them in, have made a
shelter for them, and realize that there is a dissonance, that there's a break between what their parents have promised them versus what the world
has kind of suddenly asking them to see about their selves and to not see themselves, and that they are trying to say, that they want to see
themselves, all three of these girls.
AMANPOUR: Yes. And even Cinthy and Ezra who have this fantastic family, who has given them education and love and all this guidance through life,
their family also, you know, essentially ends up being highly compromised. That's all I'm going to say because I don't want to do a spoiler alert. But
it's not a particularly happy ending there.
But I say that because you also evoke, and I've heard you talk about it in other interviews, the threat and the fears that these girls and this black
family feels there at the beginning of the civil rights movement, you know, on record (ph) again today, the threat of gun violence against black young
men and women, all those threats, not just racism but violence, against this race. Tell me how that affects you.
GRIFFITHS: This affects me very deeply. It's affected me since my girlhood, you know, being a child myself. And that I feel that there is an
echo in my novel of this quote, you know, that Faulkner has said about the past and the present, and I would say the future. They're collapsed in
time. They're all existing at the same time.
Some of the themes about race and violence and justice that I speak about in my novel, that is exhibited through the lives that my characters are
finding themselves in, it is completely related to the past of the civil rights movement. But that movement is now to -- there's not like that was
the past and this is now. The kind of racial attacks, class attacks, attacks upon books themselves, it's all happening around -- now. Like who
controls education, you know?
And then, this word, promise, in my novel, this word, promise, is very important to me. You know, I think of your question and I think of a moment
where my eldest sister wants to try to protect her younger sister, and she says, you know, don't love your pain. The world promises us harm and
there's nothing you can do about that. But she says, promise me to have the nerve to love your life.
And I want to think about, in my novel, how parents and children and the justice system and culture, you know, we make these promises to us. Parents
promise us things. We, as adults, we've been promised a certain kind of humanity or freedom to choose the lives we want, but what does that word
And when I was thinking of writing this novel, you know, the word, promise, when I look back in old journals of mine as a child, as a girl, this word
is everywhere and there's something for each of us when we think about our lives, when someone says, I promise you, I promise this, I place my hands
on the bible and I promise to tell the truth and the whole truth and nothing but the truth. What does this word mean? When parents say, I
promise I can take care of you no matter what sacrifices I have. And this goes to immigration stories in this country, this spins the world really.
What does it mean to promise things to someone else that is dear to you? What does it mean to promise a certain kind of way of being involved as a
global citizen, but particularly in this country as an American citizen, and what has been promised to -- for me in this novel, black people, you
GRIFFITHS: If you work hard, if you do these things, then you will get this. But in my experience, it's devastating and heartbreaking that that
isn't true. Or the way that it happens for so many of us, so much at stake. There are so many costs to deliverance of that promise.
So, I would say like that would be some things that I would -- you know, I would say to you about this particular story that I'm thinking about and
your question about how relevant it is, everything in this novel, it's like it is happening now because it is.
AMANPOUR: Well, you know, you lead me, obviously, into the story of your own personal lives, you and your husband, because you talked about the
attack on the books, you talk about, you know, racism, you talk about the violence that's in our society, and particularly in American society, when
it comes to either African Americans or writers who should have the right to speak and write.
How are you doing since your husband's -- since the attack of your husband where he was talking about the right to have a safe space in this, you
know, era of cracking down on even thought and books?
GRIFFITHS: Thank you so much for asking about that. That really means a lot to me. You know, it's such a personal experience that I'm coming
through that has taken place in the kind of national and global stage and the idea of safety and security is something that I grapple with every day.
Personally, I can just tell you it's been wonderful to be able to return to my identity as a writer and a creator and as an artist because I think that
is a space where writers and artists, we know how dangerous it can be to tell the truth, to write our stories, to offer them to a world and be aware
of the violence.
There are so many writers who are sitting in prisons, you have been tortured, who are being killed right now who don't have access to certain
resources except to try to continue to go forward writing. And I think that's what I'm trying to do, is to go forward from various fears and
traumas. And know that I stand in the midst of writers, both personally and artists and thinkers and people who believe that we need to have the
freedom to tell our stories.
AMANPOUR: Eliza Griffiths, thank you so much. First novel, "Promise."
GRIFFITHS: Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: Next, a technology and how it is not being leverage well by the U.S. government. The former U.S. deputy chief of technology says that
stacks of policy are holding officials back. In her new book, "Recoding America," Jennifer Pahlka shares the struggle and how it is hurting the
American public. She joins Walter Isaacson to offer potential solutions.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WALTER ISAACSON, CNN HOST: Jennifer Pahlka, welcome to the show.
JENNIFER PAHLKA, AUTHOR, "RECODING AMERICAN": Thanks for having me.
ISAACSON: You've got this great book, "Recoding America." And I would like to walk through how you got there. I remember back when I was -- "Teach for
America," you started a "Code for America" and that put you on this path. Tell me about that path.
PAHLKA: I was working in the tech media world and it was around 2008 or 2009 when we were getting this new president elected based on his ability
to use the internet, and it really started --
ISAACSON: We're talking about Obama there
PAHLKA: Yes. I'm talking to President Obama. And I was working on event called Web 2.0, which was about this new kind of web, the participatory web
that everybody got to be involved with and things moved quickly with lightweight applications that were easy for people to use. And I started
saying, hey, you know, if it can help this guy get elected, can help him govern better? And that's how we got involved with this whole idea of Gov
2.0, which is what inspired me to start "Code for America" and get people from the tech industry into government and helping it work that way, where
people could participate and it would be easy to use.
ISAACSON: And that helped get people into government, sort of as a year or so of service you'd for a community or a city in government in coding. But
then, you went on Todd Park, the chief technology officer under President Obama, and you created the U.S. Digital Service. That was a lot more than
just a year of volunteer.
PAHLKA: Yes. I think my journey into government has been one of learning quite a bit. I loved what we did and I believe the original ideas of "Code
for America" didn't quite account for how much, you know, the tech industry could help government, but we really needed to learn about government, and
I think government now is in a place to help the tech industry quite a bit.
And part of that to learning was when Todd Park recruited me to come to the White House. And I had seen what was going on over in the U.K. where they
had created something called the Government Digital Service, which, yes, was much more than a one-year service program. It was the great
technologists and designers and content strategists working at the center of government, really changing how the U.K. operated and how the government
could communicate with its citizens.
And so, that was the inspiration for the U.S. Digital Service. And also, I think, out of that we got another wonderful group in the General Services
Administration called 18F, and both of those groups are now groups and agencies around federal government. And also, many states have these groups
that do digital service work, which is just a little bit distinct from sort of the legacy wave that government has done I.T. operations.
ISAACSON: One of your other stints in government, you and I were both on the Defense Innovation Board with Eric Schmidt as the chair, the former CEO
of Google. And I think we were all kind of shocked that the Defense Department itself, where you'd think it would be the best, they were just
having trouble implementing things. Tell me what you learned there.
PAHLKA: The dynamics of these very long procurement processes that focus on gathering oftentimes thousands and thousands of requirements, and
results and software for people who work in government and people have to touch governments, that really doesn't work well, that's just so over
scoped. Those dynamics, and various other human dynamics, were present to exactly the same, really, in the Defense Department as they were in the
USDA or states or cities.
And so, it was really a great learning experience to see how these dynamics come about in places that look very different from each other. And yet, so
many parts of government are suffering from this dynamic of, as I call it in the book, building concrete boats.
ISAACSON: That's because it's like -- in your book, that's a great scene because it's sort of the requirement, or somebody has a request and they
say, we're never going to question requirements. So, they tell us to build a concrete boat, we'll build a concrete boat.
So, let's start there, which is requirement. That seems to be at the heart of the problem of implementation. And so many people pile requirements on.
Give me some examples of that.
PAHLKA: I work this summer -- I'm sorry, two summers ago when -- in COVID, on the unemployment insurance crisis here in California. And when we came
in, they were in the middle of doing a procurement for a new unemployment insurance system. They had been about to bid it out, I think, when the
pandemic hit and sort of took them off course. That request for proposal had, I believe, 6,700 requirements in it. So, they're really just trying to
recreate all of the complexity of the system that they have but on new technology.
ISAACSON: Wait, wait, wait, wait. 6,000 requirements? I mean, who puts these in and what are they talking about?
PAHLKA: Well, if you -- I think the way to explain why there's 6,700 requirements, and it may not be the exact number, but it was in that
ballpark, is to you understand the complexity of the systems that they are trying to build, and I don't just mean the technology systems, the legacy
of policy and process and procedure that's accumulated over many, many years.
In fact, in unemployment insurance, if you think about it, that program was created at the 1935 Social Security Act. It's been quite a few years since
then, and that's, you know, almost nine decades of people at the federal and state level, from the executive, judicial and legislative branches,
throwing down new policy and process requirements and having them sort of land in this way on a program that then they start to really buckle under
the weight of 90 years of new memos and new changes without ever going back and rationalizing it or simplifying it.
And the way that really hit home, for me, when I was working at the Employment Development Department in California in August of 2020, when
they had this backlog of what turned out to be 1.2 million claims that hadn't been paid since March and April, was a colleague of mine was working
with a claims processor to try to understand, you know, where were leverage points, why we were doing it this way, what we change?
And one of the guys she was talking to kept saying, I'm not quite sure about the answer to that question. I'm the new guy. I'm the new guy. And
eventually, she said, well, how long have you worked here? And, he said, well, I've only worked here 17 years. The people who really know this
process of these -- processing these claims have worked here for 25 years or more.
So, certainly, the technology gets very complex and you get these, you know, wild numbers of requirements but -- and it's in part because we're
not doing the hard work of making choices about what to actually prioritize, but it's also because we are dealing with 90 years of policy
cruft and clutter that nobody has bothered to simplify.
So, I don't think we're going to get an unemployment insurance system that's going to scale to meet the need in the next downturn unless we go
look at the policy and process, not just keep, you know, blaming all these technology failures. The technology is just buckling under the weight of
all that policy and process clutter.
ISAACSON: One of the things that stood out was the Food Assistance Program in California that you tried to help untangle.
PAHLKA: So, when we first started working, this was at "Code for America" in 2013, on food assistance. One of the forms that was used by -- I think
it was 28 of the California counties, had 212 questions on it. It did not work on a mobile phone. So, most low-income people access the internet
through a mobile phone, but they would have to go find a computer at the library to use it, and it really was -- the reason why so many people who
were eligible for a SNAP in California weren't getting it, they couldn't get through this form.
Even at the library, it would take too long. The library computer would timeout after half an hour and they hadn't finish filling it out. And
because of all of the processes and procedures that they had to jump through after filled out that form. And working with those counties to find
a better way to do this, with fewer questions that worked on a mobile phone, involved really understanding that they -- the way they made
decisions about this was that all the counties got to vote on what features were going into this. And when you can all add but no one subtract, that's
when you get, you know, classic concrete boat with 212 questions.
ISAACSON: I'm writing a book on Elon Musk, and his rule number one is question every requirement no matter who gave it to you, whether it was the
government, the military or whatever. And so, he's become obsessed with that, unlike at Boeing where they're trying to do the same type of rockets,
but they're following every requirement.
There seems to be a danger in both approaches. In other words, ignoring requirements as well as following them to build a concrete boat, as you
say. How do you balance that and give me some examples of where people could challenge a requirement and actually make it work better?
PAHLKA: Yes. I think that the idea around challenge requirement needs to connect to what was the intent of the law, what are we actually trying to
achieve here, does this requirement get us to that goal? And I think the people on the ground have a better sense of whether that's going to be the
thing that gets us there or something else is. And really saying, OK, do we understand how the user is going to use this?
So, being able to bring in the voice of the person, whether it's a claims processor, you know, inside a government agency or the person making the
claim, the person unemployed, those voices are very rarely represented when those 6,700 requirements are being put together.
So, I give an example, not from unemployment insurance, but for Medicare, really amazing public servant named Yadira Sanchez who was around for
healthcare.gov. She got thrown a whole bunch of really difficult work that helped healthcare.gov go from failing to succeeding. And in that learned
about user needs, user research, more agile development, less relying on these requirements.
And then you see her sort of evolve in her leadership to the point where she is looking at the requirements that are given her and saying, you know
what, that's not the best way to fulfill the intent this law or this program.
So, for example, she's asked to do these data extracts of pharmaceutical data to give to the ecosystem. It's part of what Medicare does is they
provide a lot of data to the provider world to help, so that they can, you know, evaluate their outcomes. And she says, well, those data extracts,
with all the policies and processes we have, are going to take us nine months to get out the door. We have all this packaging to do, all this
testing. It's very expensive. And then, the people who want to use that data to make health care better aren't going to get it for nine months, and
they only get a certain moment in time.
There is a way to do this technically called an Application Programming Interface, an API, that will let anybody plug into that data in real-time
in a safe way. And she says, let's do that instead. Everyone is happier. They have better access to better data, it cost less in the long run and it
works better. And then, they get much faster. But she is literally looking at a law that says to her very specifically, do these data extracts, and
she's doing something a little different. That's the kind of boldness that perhaps Elon Musk might, you know, be very proud of.
ISAACSON: But it's also the kind of boldness that can get you in trouble.
ISAACSON: In other words, if somebody messes up a product in government, they don't get in that much trouble. But if they violate a step or a
procedure or a process, they fear they can be, you know, indicted or something.
PAHLKA: Yes. There's a lot of fear. And I call that in the book, the accountability trap. And it's something, I think, we should all really
understand and uses a basis to have some empathy for public servants. Because you are held accountable to both outcomes, like does the site work,
and processes and procedures, and those two are very frequently at odds. And we're asking our public servants on a day-to-day basis to make a choice
between the two. But it's the fidelity to process and procedure that their careers very often rely on.
ISAACSON: You know, one of the other sentences in your book I liked was, government leadership has typically seen implementation, in other words,
getting something implemented, as a second-class job compared to the people who do the big policy stuff. And especially. I might say, Democrats when it
comes to environmental things, they want so many processes and procedures before something can be done that that policy gets shaped by the people who
can implement it.
PAHLKA: Absolutely. I think it's important to realize that when I'm -- all these things I'm writing about in the book where we end up with not the
outcome that we intended, almost all of the things that are piled on to make it hard are really well-intentioned.
I agree with the idea that we should check various environmental things before we do a building, but at some point, you have to say, for instance,
well, we need to build infrastructure to electrify our country. And if we are not able to do that in 10 years because of all of the requirements and
the process, that is actually going to get us to the wrong outcome.
ISAACSON: Is that sort of one of the problems with the housing crisis?
PAHLKA: Very much, yes. I live in California where our housing crisis is quite acute, and there's become a realization that many of the procedures
that were put in, for very good reasons, are now hurting us. They make everything take too long and get too expensive. And that is an excellent
corollary to how we build government software.
ISAACSON: Tell me, and you do so at the end of the book, how do we get out of this mess?
PAHLKA: It's not going to be easy. There's no silver bullet. I do think that there are very specific things that each of us can do, and I think it
starts with just thinking about implementation as the important part of our government's functioning and what we hold our government leaders
accountable to instead of just passing a law or policy.
I mean, we tend to celebrate when elected leaders get something passed. I was, for instance, really happy when we got the Inflation Reduction Act
passed because it's our shot at avoiding a climate collapse. But if we then don't go and implement that, why would we -- why did we pass in the first
place? Why did we do all that hard work to get it passed?
So, I think we, as the public, need to think about implementation more than we think about what's getting past or certainly more than we do today. And
our elected leaders have to shift their focus as well. They are so focused on what policy can I say I got through Congress or a state legislature, and
less on, what is the health of the bureaucracy that needs to implement this? And what can I do to increase that health, such that every law and
policy that gets passed can actually be implemented well?
Because what really matters isn't the words on a page, what matters is the outcome. Do we really feel it? Do we get this new electrical
infrastructure? Do we have a medical -- you know, a health care system that people really understand and can work? Do people who are supposed to get
benefits actually get them? That's where we need to turn our attention and that's going to be, you know, the responsibility of people in
administrative agencies, certainly the people who oversee them in legislative branches but also, the American people, because guess what, the
elected leaders do what we hold on countable to, at least to some degree.
ISAACSON: Jennifer Pahlka, thank you so much for joining us.
PAHLKA: Thank you for having me, Walter. It was a pleasure.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: And finally, this week, all-stars in Hollywood have been holding their breath as Emmy nominations are announced. Well, now, we take
a look back at Christiane interview with one of the lucky nominees.
The Irish star Sharon Horgan bagged two nominations this week, one for writing and one for acting in her hit show "Bad Sisters."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Families, they're complex.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm warning you. She doesn't respect you because you are weak.
SHARON HORGAN, CREATOR, ACTOR AND WRITER AND EXECUTIVE PRODUCER "BAD SISTERS": She wasn't always like that. He's sucking the life out of her.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, it's (INAUDIBLE) he dies of cancer or something.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Then why not give nature a helping hand?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: A darkly funny series that she told Christiane all about.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Sharon Horgan, welcome to the program. So, let's go back to a little bit of the beginning. It's a story about five sisters, the Garvery
SHARON HORGAN, CREATOR, ACTOR AND WRITER AND EXECUTIVE PRODUCER "BAD SISTERS": Yes.
AMANPOUR: And it's about -- I really don't want to give any spoilers in case, you know, people have not seen this breakout hit. And it's about John
Paul, who we know from the very beginning dies. So, that's not a spoiler. And he's the awful one. You also come from a very big family, right? You
have a lot of siblings. Did any of that sort of -- I mean, did that, sort of, inform your decision to do this or --
HORGAN: Yes. Yes, yes. It did. So, it's based on a Belgian series called "Clan," and it's the same premise that it's about five sisters and one of
them is married to a monster. And so, the other sisters decide that they -- they're going to kill him but they're very bad at murder. So, they keep,
sort of, trying and failing. And that's how it sort of works on an episodic basis.
But when I first watched the show, the thing that really drew me to it was that the sisters and that, you know, sibling camaraderie. And I've got two
brothers and two sisters, big Irish family, and I just felt like I knew how to bring that joy to the screen.
HORGAN: And it -- because if you didn't enjoy spending time with those sisters as a group, you weren't going to root for them when they keep
trying to kill this guy, you know. And you got to root for them, over 10 episodes, that's a long time to --
AMANPOUR: To root for people who want to kill somebody?
HORGAN: -- who want to murder.
AMANPOUR: I just want to note, because you said, you know, it's a Belgian -- it's an adaptation of a Belgian series. Why did -- is it that just
because Ireland is your home country or what was it about Ireland? Because it's certainly beautiful.
HORGAN: It is, right?
AMANPOUR: It's just beautiful. The whole scenery is an antidote to the very dark comedy.
HORGAN: I know. Well, I wanted to shoot something in Ireland for so long. And when Rob and I made a "Catastrophe," we had my Irish family and we
would do some Irish scenes, but we never had the money to go to Ireland and actually shoot them. So, I never felt like I was showing Ireland in all of
But I don't know, it was a few reasons. I think when I watched the Belgian original, there was just something about the look and feel of it that I
felt would translate well, and then the idea of a big family. And, you know, he's a very religious man and I felt that that would, sort of, just
play well as well. And once we kind of worked out that this swim that the sisters take every year, this swim in the 40-foot that you see at the -- in
the first episode, once I sort of worked out that that was going to be a big important part of their lives and I thought, it has to be shot there
because this is amazing.
AMANPOUR: Right. So, I'm going to play a little bit of the clip from the swim. I know we have two clips. Let's get the swim up first. And I just
want to -- you just called him a monster. But actually, in this series, you call him, the prick.
HORGAN: The prick, yes.
AMANPOUR: Yes. So, just setting this up because soon --
HORGAN: You're going to hear that.
AMANPOUR: -- there's no way to that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's one Christmas.
HORGAN: It's not just one Christmas. We're losing her. She is not like the girl she was. She's getting quieter and smaller.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can't grow in the shadow of the prick.
EVE HEWSON, ACTRESS, "BAD SISTERS": She was always quiet.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's bullocks.
HEWSON: What's bullocks about it?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's just not true.
HORGAN: Becka, she wasn't always like that. He's sucking the life out of her.
AMANPOUR: So, that's your character. Eva, you're the oldest sister. And all of you are actually grieving your own parents who have died. And you're
sort of almost like the den mother to all of your sisters. And each and every one of you has a case against the prick.
AMANPOUR: But it's serious, right?
AMANPOUR: I mean, obviously, it's serious because it's about domestic abuse, it's about psychological abuse. Tell us a little bit about what he
does to your sister, who's his wife.
HORGAN: Yes, it's a kind of -- yes, he's an abuser. But it's the kind of abuse that I don't feel has sort of have been shown on TV before because --
I mean, you sort of see domestic abuse that's violent or sexual abuse, but this is a kind of coercive control where he's kind of just stripping away
her personality and her strength of character and sort of isolating her and using, you know, financial control. And I have not sort of seen that shown
in a TV character before.
And actually, since it has gone out, it's been upsetting but also kind of void me a bit that it was the right thing to do, because so many women have
come out and said, you know, either that's me or they have, you know, a sister or a friend or, you know, a niece or someone in that kind of
situation. So, it -- but it was scary to do that, because if you are talking about something as serious as that, you really -- in a comedy as
well -- and I know it is comedy drama but, you know, at times it's really daft.
AMANPOUR: I mean, it's daft and dark.
HORGAN: Yes, daft and dark. It's going to be a new genre. We just have to figure it out --
AMANPOUR: I mean, daft and dark. I mean, some -- anyway, we're going to play another clip --
AMANPOUR: -- where you are just saying it, laying it out there. OK. Here we go.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HORGAN: We can't just kill our brother-in-law. Bibi, do I wish he was dead? Yes. He is a piece of -- but that is not how -- you know, that's not
how life, society works, OK? You can't just explode a man.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, just so that you know, we can say prick one word on the air, but we can't say the other word. So, we bleeped the other word. Just in
case you're wondering.
HORGAN: It's better. It's better.
AMANPOUR: Yes. It's better. So, we can't just explode a man. But, again, this is all about -- all your attempts to do precisely that.
AMANPOUR: Did sometimes you worry whether it was too dark, especially in some of the instances? Like J.P.'s mother? Again, I'm not going to do
HORGAN: Oh, God. Yes. Yes. We did. But the great thing about -- well, the original, and our version as well, is that his crimes kind of worsen over
the course of the season. Like he starts off as someone that you just think, I wouldn't want to sit across the table from that man. He makes my
stomach churn. And by the end of it, it's -- you know, it's really brutal. You know, criminal behavior.
And so, yes, we did worry. We really worried. But I kind of feel like you do sort of end up loving those sisters so much, and everything they do is
out lot of love. And even the stakes -- the mistake they make hurt them badly. And so, yes, we just had to keep our fingers crossed that an
audience would be onside enough.
AMANPOUR: And they have been. I mean, I think you're absolutely right.
AMANPOUR: It is extraordinary to see, despite, as you say, verging on the criminal world. The criminal.
AMANPOUR: The public roots for you, which actually goes to the depth of what many, many women suffer in silence and are never take it matters into
any sort of accountability. And just about "Bad Sisters," there's another series that's been green lighted?
HORGAN: Yes. I was just trying to write it.
AMANPOUR: But it will be different?
AMANPOUR: It will be all yours right now because it won't be the Belgian one who just won.
HORGAN: Yes. Well, now, you're making me extra nervous.
AMANPOUR: I think you can handle it, Sharon Horgan.
HORGAN: I'll tell you, what we have is five great girls, and that is all I need, I hope.
AMANPOUR: All right. Thank you so much.
HORGAN: Thank you.
AMANPOUR: Thanks for being with us.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: And that is it for now. If you ever miss our show, you can find the latest episode shortly after it airs on our podcast. And remember, you
can always catch us online, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Thank you so much for watching and goodbye from New York.