Recap of 2015 Code for America Summit

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Jennifer Pahlka giving closing remarks at the 2015 Code For America Summit.

“Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”

There, I did it. This may be the first time a Berkeley grad started a blog post by quoting Ronald Reagan. Yet, it encapsulates the general sense I took away from the Code for America Summit last week.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a doom and gloom post. I actually came away from the conference feeling pretty optimistic.

Basically, the biggest lesson I took from the event is that if there is any hope of government being effective in its role to serve people, then it’s going to have to become much more efficient at how it does business.

Part of the inefficiency of government has to do with the simple fact that the United States is a big country. Many of the programs that affect our daily lives involve multiple layers of government – local, state, and federal. So there’s just a lot of hoops to jump through in the course of a policy being implemented.

There are also problems that just shouldn’t be there. One example discussed at the conference involves feedback loops, or being able to truly measure the impact of a given program and then using this information to determine future action. The speakers made clear that there are oftentimes major gaps in government feedback loops. I heard an official from Seattle talk about how her department, which works in homelessness support, doesn’t actually know exactly how much money was spent on homelessness programs. Therefore, she isn’t able to do a reliable return on investment analysis of her department’s work.

Then there is the general theme of how difficult it is to access city services. An example of this can be seen with the process for signing up for California’s Food Stamps program, which for a time involved filling out dozens and dozens of forms. Many people would just get discouraged and decide it’s not worth the time.

So, oftentimes in government, program and policies that stand a chance of doing a lot of good are tripped up by government inefficiencies.

Which brings me back to the Code for America Summit and the civic tech movement. For all the spectacle and high production value of the conference, one has to admit that the techies really are doing some good work to help government be more effective at its job of serving people.

Let’s look back at the food stamps problem. To help more eligible people complete the registration process, a couple Code for America fellows designed a streamlined signup portal. As a result, signup time was slashed from hours to minutes. The same team also built a tool that sends food stamp recipients a text when their paperwork is soon to expire, which has helped a lot of people take steps to keep their benefits rather than suddenly being dropped from the program.

Another success story involves helping the city of Pittsburgh Parks and Recreation department solicit more bids for the parks contracts they put out. For a while they were lucky if they had one or two submissions. But with the help of a couple Code for America fellows, they launched a new website that made it much easier for prospective vendors to learn about and submit bids for the contracts.

Sometimes civic tech gets criticized for being disconnected from the people its meant to benefit. To better involve the community in the process of building solutions for them, Sonja Marziano organizes civic user tests in which she’ll invite Chicagoans to meet her at a library and then give feedback on new websites and apps that her team creates. In addition to getting valuable input on the tech, Sonja will tell you how people genuinely have fun at these events. People enjoy thinking critically about how to solve problems, and this practice has allowed civic tech volunteers in Chicago to develop a closer connection with the community they’re serving.

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Sonja Marziano talks about the Chicago civic user testing group.

So, I while I came away from the conference with that Ronald Reagan quote in my head, I also had another thought – what if we could solve the problem? What kind of a force for social good could government be if it took a couple leafs from the book of the booming technology industry? Perhaps the wisdom of another president can help us appreciate the full picture:

“We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

 

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