“The City of San Francisco is proud to have Code for America in our innovation ecosystem. We have partnered with Code for America on many of their initiatives, and we are very excited to work with them to bring passionate web developers, designers, and entrepreneurs here to help make San Francisco more open and efficient”
- Mayor Ed Lee, City of San Francisco
The City of San Francisco has a robust open data portal where they publish information on everything from crime, to business registrations, to motorcycle parking, to public health. The city is known for tech innovation and government officials are well-versed in open data policies and the idea of government as a platform. The local Code for San Francisco Brigade is an active one with a regular Wednesday hack night at Code for America Headquarters. To get involved visit the meetup group.
San Francisco Spotlight at Code for America’s Summit
The Affordable Care Act is driving system-wide change in human service delivery and it’s in this environment that the San Francisco Human Service Agency (HSA) and Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation (MOCI) enlisted a team of 2013 Code for America Fellows for help. Committed to building a more efficient and client-centered system, HSA contacts Vakil Kuner (Chief Information Officer), Tiana Werthheim (Senior Administrative Analyst) and Noelle Simmons (Deputy Director of Policy and Planning) challenged the fellows with three problem areas:
1. Help SF residents find services;
2. Make sure HSA clients receive all of the services for which they’re qualified;
3. Reduce churn – the number of clients unnecessarily dropping off and then returning to services.
Fellows Andy Hull, Rebecca Ackerman, Marc Hébert, and Jacob Solomon – dove into hands-on research interviewing HSA staff, shadowing eligibility workers, visiting nonprofits, touring continuation schools and experiencing the city’s shelter reservation system. The fellows even volunteered for the city’s biennial homeless count, learning that over 4,000 people had slept outdoors that evening.
After nearly 100 interviews, they coalesced around a single mission:
Empower HSA to focus on the client experience
Towards this end, the fellows worked on three projects:
1. A workshop series teaching city staff about user experience (UX) research and design;
2. An internal process that helps HSA staff add capacity around client-centric technologies; and,
3. An app that improves the client experience for CalFresh benefits.
Perhaps the hardest part in building a better client experience was changing how HSA staff approached the problem. Budget constraints and outdated processes made it difficult for the HSA to improve how clients experience service delivery. The CfA fellows sought to use their expertise in technology, research and business processes to find a way to help.
It’s for this reason that they lead a UX research workshop series. Staff from across city departments were asked to consider new interview techniques, design thinking and usability testing before building their next service plans. The goal was to get people to realize that the needs of clients and staff can be baked directly into the the design of a service itself.
That being said, once staff had embraced these new design principles, there remained the question of staff capacity. As the number and quality of web services expand, internal HSA staff have a growing capacity to solve their own technology problems.
The fellows worked with HSA IT to serve in an advisory role for HSA programs, beginning with JobsNOW. This involved convening JobsNow staff and HSA IT to pilot a process for HSA program staff to identify tech-savvy employees. Staff are on the lookout for to involve those who can manage projects, involve IT in a guiding role and produce solutions that are easy for others to maintain. It’s with a design-centric approach and a new process for capacity building, that the HSA and fellows built Promptly.
One problem that HSA clients face is the fact that many of them are unaware when they’re about to lose their CalFresh (Food Stamps) benefits. Some find out when unable to pay for groceries and they’re forced to reapply for the same services from scratch.
The fellows developed Promptly to ensure that recipients receive fair warning via text message before they’re disenrolled from services. In late August 2013, San Francisco HSA was one of the first human service agencies in the country to use such a text-based service. The service has worked so well that in the first few days of the Promptly pilot program, one HSA client called in a panic hearing that her Food Stamps were to be cut off and averted the disaster. The woman’s case was examined and she continues to retain her benefits.
In addition to ensuring that HSA clients are well-served, the fellows found a way to use technology as a starting point to create culture change within HSA. As the agency explores new avenues for service delivery, the work they’ve done to account for a better user experience and greater internal capacity will only increase their future success.
Vodafone Americas Foundation
Is there any greater test of one’s patience than dealing with local government? Whether waiting in line at the DMV, applying for a building permit, or fighting a parking ticket, I’m always left wondering why there isn’t an app for that. Now cities are getting a high-tech boost thanks to Code for America, a nonprofit organization founded by Jennifer Pahlka.
It’s not enough anymore for young web designers and computer programmers in the US to merely complain about local government. Now they actually want to DO something to make it better. “Code for America” is an initiative that originated in San Francisco.