Code for America is a nonprofit that focuses on reforming government services to make them simple, easy to use, and accessible for all Americans. Founded...by Andrew Turner
June 12, 2019
Code for America is a nonprofit that focuses on reforming government services to make them simple, easy to use, and accessible for all Americans. Founded in 2009, the organization’s first initiative was to create fellowship programs that connected small teams of developers with city governments to solve problems in the community, such as reporting blighted properties or helping parents determine which public school is right for their child, using lightweight technology and design. However, creating and implementing effective services is harder than it sounds.
This is where Code for America comes in—the organization’s mission is to make government work in the digital age to improve people’s lives at scale.
When Code for America first began creating more efficient services for the government’s use, they followed a fellowship model: small groups of developers and designers were sent to a city to address a certain problem, partnered with government officials to build tools to improve government services, then handed them over when the project was completed. However, after several years it became clear that this year-long fellowship model was not enough to effect change at scale.
So Code for America broadened the scope and ambition of its goal: to make government work for all Americans, by all Americans, in the digital age. They realized they needed to create teams within the organization to run these reimagined services in order to effectively support both the government agencies and the communities they serve in the long term. By having full-time teams managing these applications and working with non-technical folks—on the government and on the citizen side—Code for America discovered actionable insights to improve these services further, such as using simpler, direct language and on-screen procedures to make their programs accessible and easy to use, regardless of an individual’s technological proficiency.
Many government services still need to be digitized, but Code for America decided to prioritize improving services that impact vulnerable populations, including programs around criminal justice, the social safety net, and workforce development.
For example, in the United States, 1 in 3 adults has a criminal record, but fewer than 5% of them clear their record because the process is complicated, costly, and time consuming. Code for America’s Clear My Record is a service that aims to automate the process of record clearance. By running automatic eligibility checks and allowing forms to be filled out online instead of working manually with the state’s probation department to prepare an expungement report for a court—which can involve showing up in person and countless phone calls—the burden of work shifts from the individual to the government.
Additionally, Code for America’s GetCalFresh program has expanded from a fellowship project in just a few counties to a full-fledged government service that is now available in all 58 counties in California. GetCalFresh helps improve access to The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps. The program provides $70 billion of food each year to Americans who are eligible for the program, but there are over 10 million Californians alone who are eligible for SNAP but aren’t receiving the benefits due to ineffective outreach efforts and complicated application processes. GetCalFresh has digitized and streamlined the process for applying for SNAP, reducing the application time from 45 minutes to 8 minutes.
To date, GetCalFresh has helped nearly 1 million people apply for and keep SNAP benefits in California.
This year, the California state government is reversing the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Cash-Out policy, under which SSI recipients have been ineligible for CalFresh. As a result, Code for America is anticipating 100,000 new SNAP applicants through GetCalFresh. This will be a critical moment for the nonprofit, as the expansion is a result of a successful partnership with the State of California.
To ensure that the platform is always available and accessible to those applying for SNAP, the organization uses PagerDuty to alert its team in real time when GetCalFresh isn’t operating correctly. As more and more people use GetCalFresh, teams of engineers will be on call and working within the PagerDuty platform for logging metrics and alerts to ensure the service stays up and running.
While government services have traditionally presented vulnerable populations with complicated processes and no direction to navigate them, Code for America is reimagining those services in a way that meets residents where they are and provides them with knowledge and agency.