Inside the ‘wild ride’ of Pennsylvania’s digital services overhaul

CODE PA Executive Director Bryanna Pardoe shared what her office has done in its first six months, from making forms that "suck less" to overcoming institutional "boulders."
Bryanna Pardoe
Bryanna Pardoe, executive director of CODE PA, speaks with the press at the unveiling of CODE PA in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on April 25, 2023. (Commonwealth Media Services)

It has been a little over six months since Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro announced the Commonwealth Office of Digital Experience, or CODE PA, a new office tasked with improving the state’s digital services.

Bryanna Pardoe, the new office’s executive director, entered the public sector from the health care industry, where she led a digital team at Main Line Health outside of Philadelphia. She told StateScoop she wasn’t really sure what to expect coming into the job, but that so far “it’s been a wild ride.”

“When I was working in health care, I sort of understood the rules of the road and the scope and what we were talking about,” Pardoe said. “Government is just so big, and the scope of this role is so big. So I think the first six months have really just been trying to absorb not only where CODE PA could be beneficial, but also everything that will go into that.”

One of Pardoe’s first tasks at CODE PA was to start building a team. When Shapiro announced the new office, he said it would be made entirely of full-time state government employees, not consultants. The team would be tasked with working across state agencies to create digital programs, streamline online services and write code for applications and digital products.


Six months in, Pardoe said, the team has been built in this image and has expanded in a few core areas, hiring staff in operations, procurement, software development and product management. She said the team has also hired a content director to ensure digital services use understandable language and to make things more exciting, because “there’s just there’s no shortage of opportunity for us to have some fun.”

CODE PA has also hired user-experience research and design staff, some of whom Pardoe said come from the private sector.

“They’ve brought a really cool flavor to what government applications can look like, and how we’re prioritizing research at the front of our efforts and initiatives,” she said.

The office’s early work has led to the launch of its first official product: the PAyback system, a website launched this month that allows residents, businesses, charities and schools to check eligibility for refunds on permit, license and certification application fees.

Pardoe said the team started the project by imagining the permit process from a consumer perspective and then wrapping considerations of user experience and optimized business processes into the development process. She said the team also engineered the new website so it could be used by agencies with different permitting processes.


“I never thought I would talk more about permits and my whole life, but here we are — we love a good permit,” she said.

Removing ‘boulders’

Pardoe said Shapiro and his administration have been supportive of CODE PA’s efforts to overcome the “boulders” impeding the state’s project of enhancing the digital experience, an effort that includes data-sharing and identity and access management.

“I think my role is really important in connecting the dots and storytelling of how technology needs to be built in a way that can enable the goals of the executive branch,” Pardoe said. “And so when we come to the table and talk with the governor and his staff about the need to make it easy to log in or the need to make it easy to go to one place to apply for benefits and understand what you’re eligible for — he knows that that is really important.”

Pardoe said Shapiro’s support of the digital services push is actually a family affair. Lori Shapiro, the first lady of Pennsylvania, who worked on federal technology policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Clinton administration, hosts CODE PA’s user experience research listening sessions, she said.


One recent session was for an app CODE PA is developing in partnership with University of Pittsburg that’s meant to provide postpartum mothers with resources such as information about the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children program.

“We plan on continuing that dialogue in partnership with the first lady with lots of different constituent groups — veterans, business owners, grant seekers — so that we can continue to put their voices at the center of all the digital experiences were designing,” Pardoe said.

‘Forms that suck less’

Pardoe said the office will launch a few new digital services products early next year, but declined to share details of what they are.

“I will say that continuing to streamline the application process for government services is something that’s really top of mind for us,” she said.


Pardoe said the office is also “daydreaming” about a fellowship program that would be called the “Forms That Suck Less Fellowship,” a nod to the many complex forms that residents and businesses must fill out.

“I think forms in general are something that’s really top of mind for us in terms of digital experiences, because it’s the root of so many of the interactions that folks have with the state. So we are taking a keen eye to all of the different forms and applications that exist on,” she said.

But for a team that’s just barely six months old, CODE PA still has some room to lay out its goals for the future — and Pardoe said they are well on their way.

“What has me so motivated going forward, as we’re planning what is 2024,” she said. “What is the next five years for CODE PA? We’re really starting to be able to articulate who we are, what we’re doing and the actual path to get there, which is exciting and overwhelming, but really, really cool.”

Keely Quinlan

Written by Keely Quinlan

Keely Quinlan reports on privacy and digital government for StateScoop. She was an investigative news reporter with Clarksville Now in Tennessee, where she resides, and her coverage included local crimes, courts, public education and public health. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Stereogum and other outlets. She earned her bachelor’s in journalism and master’s in social and cultural analysis from New York University.

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