Fixing broken U.S. government with Code for America

Profile picture for user jbowles By Jerry Bowles April 15, 2018
The U.S. spends plenty on social welfare. But government agencies waste money on too difficult to use projects. Code for America wants to help.

code for america

Given the almost magical faith that Americans have in the powers of free markets to solve all problems, most voters would probably be shocked to learn that the U.S. spends only slightly less per year than the Nordic countries on social welfare programs--about 19% of GDP compared to 20% — 21% in Scandinavia.   Unfortunately, our social outcomes are much worse.

JenniferPahlka, founder and Executive Director of Code for America, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that unites government and the open source software development community to make government websites and apps more useful and efficient, believes the solution is to make government more effective.

Charitable spending on the safety net in the U.S. is about $42 billion each year. That’s a lot. But government spending on those issues is over half a TRILLION dollars. There’s a valid role for charity and social enterprise supplementing where government programs fail to support our most vulnerable. But there’s an approach with much greater leverage: making that half-trillion dollars work as it should. What if we made government just 10% more effective? It would eclipse the impact of all charitable spending on the safety net in our country.

The difference between Code for America—which was launched in 2009--and most other social enterprises, Pahkla explains, is that her organization is not trying to work around government, or fill in a gap that government is missing, but to leverage open source software to make government function better.  Code for America aims to help more than 500,000 people in need with more effective government services in more than 70 cities, states and counties in 2018.  Said Pahlka:

The bottom line is you cannot fix society’s problems at scale without government playing a key role.

Pahlka was originally an events organizer for large enterprise software companies.  She went on to work for President Obama as his deputy chief technology officer in 2013 and helped found the United States Digital Service, which helps federal agencies improve their websites and simplify digital services.

As director of Code for America, a non-political and nonprofit group, Pahlka seeks to facilitate the more efficient use of technology by the government by pairing talent from its local volunteer brigades with the government, the end goal of improving services for constituents.

The Code for America Brigade Network is a national alliance made up of community organizers, developers, and designers across the country. Member groups use tech and tech-based projects in service of the communities in which they are located by pairing talent from its local brigades with the government with the aim of improving services for constituents.  At last count, the organization had 64 chapters and more than 22,000 volunteers. Code for America also offers fellowships for some efforts.

Success stories

One of the group’s early successes is called GetCalFresh, a program that helps eligible Californians easily apply for that state’s food assistance programs.  Applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, at the California state government’s site is a chore.

The application is 50 web pages long, takes an hour to complete and is not available on a mobile phone, making it useless for many low-income people who don’t have access to a desktop or laptop computer.  As a result, 40 percent of the eligible citizens don’t apply, giving California one of the worst participation rates in the country.  Adding insult to injury, the state site cost $800 million to build and has a yearly price tag of $80 million to operate.

A team of developers and designers at Code for America built a much simpler website and mobile app for SNAP applicants only called GetCalFresh with the support of philanthropy and now operate it in cooperation with state and county government.  The program is currently being used in 21 of 58 counties in California and has cut the average application time to apply to eight minutes. California’s participation rate in SNAP is rising.  Said Pahlka:

A $1 million gift in 2017 to Code for America unlocked $180 million in government assistance that’s proven to work. And that isn’t a one-time benefit; it continues going forward, and with accelerating impact. This is philanthropy that’s highly leveraged, scalable, and long-term sustainable, because it invests in our government.

Building on that success, Code for America, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Nava PBC have formed the Integrated Benefits Initiative to build new human-centered approaches to improve enrollment and eligibility for people who apply for not just food-assistance but multiple programs.

Tens of millions of people are still falling through the cracks—going without the benefits for which they are eligible because of technology problems, complicated enrollment requirements, and communication failures.  As with all of Code for America’s work, the ultimate goal is not to build and sell a service as a third-party vendor would, but to optimize the work already being done by vendors.

Brigades at work

Here are other examples of projects in which Code for America brigades have been involved.

  • San Francisco and New York partnered with Yelp, the repository of crowdsourced reviews of local businesses, to create a standard way for cities to add available restaurant-inspection data to Yelp’s restaurant pages.
  • The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission partnered with Code for Philly to collect data from Philadelphia bicyclists’ daily riding habits, which were then used to help determine where to locate new bike routes.
  • A dashboard created by Code for America and the city of Louisville lets judges and officials monitor jail conditions in real time and respond to overcrowding.
  • Ad Hoc, a start-up founded by people involved in the rescue effort, is working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to create a simplified site for benefits.
  • Go L.A. is a mobile app that shows users the different ways--and costs--of getting from Point A to Point B in Los Angeles. It includes both public transportation and private options like Uber and Lyft.
  • A mobile app built by the Boston mayor’s office that collects G.P.S. and accelerometer data from drivers’ phones, which is then used to determine whether a bump was a pothole that needed filling.
  • Code for Atlanta has petitioned Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to direct that a blameless post-mortem is conducted of the March 2018 ransomware attack, and for the write-up to be shared with the public.

 My take

Code for America has amassed a number of impressive wins but it is far from clear whether digital nonprofits in the civic tech sector represent a sustainable model over the long term.

Volunteer organizations like CfA are operating in uncharted waters in terms of funding—stuck somewhere in between governments with little money, competing commercial software companies, and philanthropic organizations with varying agendas.

In the case of GetCalFresh, the state of California awarded the developers a two-year “outreach” contract through federal money designed to reimburse nonprofits that help clients through the application process for social services.  The organization’s recent transition from a paid “fellowship” model to local volunteer brigades—with fellowships for a few leaders—suggests that Code for America is struggling with the same problem that befuddles startups in all sectors—great idea but will it scale?