Nonprofit coders hope to keep improving how the government delivers services

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A nonprofit called Code For America seeks to improve government services through improved digital services. It’s been at it since 2011. For more details on the organization’s latest priorities now that the Biden administration has taken over, Code For America’s CEO Amanda Renteria spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Renteria, good to have you on.

Amanda Renteria: Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: Let’s review Code for America, you have been around for, I guess, a decade or more now. And in that time, customer experience, digital services – a whole lot of things have changed about how the government hopes to deliver services. Tell us again what you do?

Amanda Renteria: Sure. Well, I have to say not only has it been a journey, really for all of us in terms of digital services, but these last nine months while we’ve all had to be social distant, digital delivery has an even renewed energy and, really, understanding all across America. What Code for America has done and does now is really the intent is to partner with government to try and help government workers, caseworkers, social services, deliver resources, the services that are meant to deliver to people, how to do that well, efficiently, and with dignity and respect. That means actually doing quite a bit of work of sitting with government to understand it. But perhaps most importantly, what we’ve learned over the last 10 years, is really sitting with the folks who those services are intended to really reach. That part has been really the illuminating piece, because you really get to understand how people understand, see government. When you’re standing with them in a social services office, when you’re trying to help them on a form. And then you’re able to really recreate that with government workers themselves in order to make it all better.

Tom Temin: I guess that’s what they call “journey mapping,” is the term for that kind of work nowadays?

Amanda Renteria: Sure. There’s journey mapping, there’s process mapping, there’s design, and then perhaps what we have learned, most importantly, is there’s the feedback loop. How do we do? And just like any private sector orientation around product development. Did that work when you you know, work with your phone? Was that app right? Did it really reach you? Was the process right? And did you get the service you had really wanted? That part of it is different in government. And that’s what we’re really, have been trying to change over time.

Tom Temin: And what’s the mechanism by which your learnings get into the government, because the government can’t accept free labor. Do you work under contracts? Do you work under grants? Or how does it all happen?

Amanda Renteria: Well, we’re a nonprofit. So philanthropy funds us. In some cases, we will get a government contract for a specified period of time to help on a project. As an example, the state of California – we work with them on food stamps program, and how do you do it and what does it look like? In a place like Minnesota, where we are working on integrating benefits all across the state being able to really – when people apply for something they apply for all the state benefits. That is really something philanthropists fund in the state of Minnesota, but really around the country as well. Wanting to see that role model application and say, if we can do it in x state, can we then do it across the country? And the idea is, we shouldn’t have to be sustainably funded from philanthropy. This is something that should be and I am seeing embedded in state governments, local governments all across the country.

Tom Temin: And what about the federal government? Do you interact with it also, because the programs you mentioned, have a federal origin. And then there’s a whole range of direct federal programs that sometimes the public has a few issues with.

Amanda Renteria: That’s right. So we have a couple of different things. We’re in the space of both safety net benefits. And we are also in Earned Income Tax Credit. So this last year in 2020, we actually pilot – we intended to pilot a program where we worked with the volunteer sites to be able to do digital outreach, as opposed to the in-person volunteer sites that really help people build their tax forms. Well, in very short order, those volunteer in-person sites became very, very difficult, obviously, or are impossible to go to under COVID. And so we worked with 31 partners across the country, to put them online, but also to really simplify the forms, to work with community-based organizations so that you have trusted entities on the forefront of being able to reach communities. This year, we start with 102 partners, and now very closely aligned with the IRS in terms of what do the forms look like? How do we make sure we’re getting the forms to the IRS in the way where they can actually process them. So it depends on the program, really. For a lot of our social safety net benefits, yes, they’re funded at the federal level, but then they’re distributed at the state level, something like IRS is incredibly centralized. So that IRS relationship is what allows potential data sharing, is what allows for that smoothness of the process that really most the time, clients don’t see. But we want to make sure we’re improving it and really helping on both ends, not only on the information they get, but then how it moves through the process. And I have nothing but incredibly helpful, good words to say about the folks who have been working really hard at the IRS, both last year when you have a stimulus and you have tax forms, and again the challenge this year, with all the moving pieces coming at them as well.

Tom Temin: We are speaking with Amanda Renteria. She’s CEO of Code for America. And what about Small Business Administration and those gigantic spending options they had, because of COVID relief, and so on – the PPP loans and direct payments to individuals still coming?

Amanda Renteria: That’s right. I mean, when you look across the entire just stimulus in general, you can see why there’s a real need to upgrade how we do things digitally. And I have to say, you know, the first nine months really taught us, I mean, the key takeaway, and this is not any major news, but the key takeaway is those states, those agencies that had the kind of infrastructure where data was clean, where they had systems that can be flexible, were able to respond to the pandemic. And what has been the real lesson for everybody is you’ve got to put those systems in place, so that not only you can deliver, but in an ever changing world, where you know, you have a federal government that might want to increase services or decrease services, you’ve got to be able to flexibly move a system forward. And so SBA certainly all across the country had a renewed application process and quite a bit of interest. And you are seeing as this administration is putting folks in place, they are doing it thoughtfully with what we often view, do they have technologists in place? Are they putting money into delivery of services? And we’re seeing that they are. And so that is a lesson learned in the last nine months, that if you don’t do that, almost a year now I’d say if you don’t do that you really get stuck in the money can’t get out. And you can’t reach people in the way that you should.

Tom Temin: Yes. So you’re optimistic that perhaps if the Biden administration gets the $9 billion, it’s asked for federal systems upgrades from Congress, then that would be a good thing?

Amanda Renteria: I do, I believe it would be a good thing. But I think you also need to make sure there are parameters around it. So I think it’s really easy to get resources for technology, and then put it into the technology department. And let’s see what happens. It can’t be bifurcated like that – technology must be integrated. I learned this as the Chief of Operations for the California Department of Justice. We ended up elevating the technology’s CTO to a cabinet or an executive on the team. And it made a real difference when all of a sudden technology is at the table of those leadership tables. Because it ends up just moving into policy and all throughout the organization. But, you know when you think about policy, we need to make sure that there are incentives so that when states think about technology, it’s not just the Help Center or the it center. But it is in how you think about program delivery in each of the programs that you run.

Tom Temin: So there needs to be, I guess, a vertically governmental type of coordination in all of this so that what may be envisioned as a best practice in one place, has some sense at the federal level, and then maybe gets rebroadcast so that there’s some unity of what people can expect across the country.

Amanda Renteria: That’s right. I think there’s this big hole, though, in the last four years that we’ve got to make sure to pay attention to, which is the integration of states and federal. You know, states have done largely for the last four years been left alone to do what they need to do in order to get services out, right? Do what they need to do in order to get COVID and testing. And now coming together, in some ways, it’s almost harder, because state systems have actually done what they needed to do. And now we’re at a time where How do you put it together? And then the systems you’ve invested to how do you connect them to what’s happening at the federal government? But I think you’re going to see in the next couple of months, is having those incentives in place for state governments to make that connection is going to be incredibly important, because for some states and some systems, you are going to have to start over. Should the federal government create centralized processes and a centralized pot of money in order for it to be integrated? That part is hard to do, you know, and I have a real special place in my heart for public servants who – you’re trying to make it work in a crisis, and then all of a sudden, you think you’ve got it in play, and something new happens. And that’s why it’s important as the federal government comes in, that they make not just a concerted effort in year one, but that this is a multi-year, stay-in-power investment, so that we have the kind of government that is not only filling gaps, but is a real competitive advantage as we think about this country and where we go in the future.

Tom Temin: And a final question, I hear this term now suddenly, everywhere. What is equity? And is it adding bias to a system or taking away bias from a system?

Amanda Renteria: You know, it’s making a system actually see all people. What I mean by that is, for a very long time, I’ll just give you an example in the state of California for very long time, food stamps, you had to have a desktop and a computer. Well, when you really thought about the people who were using those services, so few of them had a desktop, and by the way, had internet access that would keep it open long enough so that you can finish the form. And so we’ve got to recreate systems so that it actually sees all the people it is intended to serve. The inequity in it is that of course it only reached people who had enough means to have good internet access and to have a computer who you can reach. You know, I’ll also say we see this quite a bit as well in forms is that oftentimes if there’s cultures that have accents in your name, you get thrown out, you get thrown out of the system. And so it really is taking those kinds of barriers away, that actually exclude certain groups of people from the systems that are supposed to help them. And that’s really what we see what it’s about. And all across the board, I have to tell you the inequities that show up, show up even more on digital systems because you’re moving, you know, when all of a sudden the form doesn’t have enough boxes, squares for your name. You can imagine they get kicked out a little bit sooner on on the internet, and all of a sudden, you’re out of that form. And that’s what I think is really disempowering, particularly for communities that have been left out for so long.

Tom Temin: Amanda Renteria is CEO of Code for America. Thanks so much for joining me.

Amanda Renteria: Thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: Find this interview at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Subscribe to the Federal Drive at Podcastone or wherever you get your shows.

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