Tech Helping Make Big Impact on Local Government

For people needing food from San Francisco’s main food bank, one of the biggest hurdles was actually filling out the online form for food stamps.

The application was long, with more than 200 questions. It didn’t work on mobile phones. For people without home computers, it was hard to get through the process.

But the San Francisco Food Bank, which provides fresh vegetables and dry goods to more than 200,000 people in northern California, partnered with a technology nonprofit that helped bring the application process into the digital era.

“We made a really simple online form that’s mobile first and only takes seven minutes,” said Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America, which helps government programs work better by using technology. “It uses really clear, simple language, and then we help people get through the process by supporting them by text message because that’s what people actually use.”

A new bill from Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris promises to help local government form tech teams. With support from Code for America and the Center for Democracy & Technology, Harris is calling it the “Digital Service Act,” which she says will empower state and local government to invest in digital services to update and rebuild government services using technology.

“Americans deserve a government that works for them and that just plain works,” Harris said in a press release. “We must do more to empower our state and local governments to tap into the power of technology to provide seamless, cost-effective services for the 21st century.”

The Digital Service Act would authorize $50 million annually to grow the United States Digital Service, a group of technologists working in government to help improve programs.If approved, the Digital Service Actwould also authorize $15 million for state and local governments to receive two-year seed grants to establish and strengthen digital services and require that at least 50% of each grant be used for talent.

Harris is not the only presidential candidate to talk about tech. Others are also looking to tech to solve civic problems and create more local jobs. Still, others have attacked tech.

Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders has criticized Amazon’s treatment of its warehouse workers. And fellow Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed breaking up tech giants like Amazon and Facebook.

President Donald Trump, who is seeking re-election in 2020, has met with U.S. tech industry leaders to talk about what government can do to help the United States maintain its leadership in key technological areas.

Harris’ proposal to get tech involved on a local level makes sense to Francesca Costa, outreach manager for CalFresh, the local food stamp program.

“I think investing in technology is crucial for government assistance programs,” said Costa. “It’s a good strategy to eliminate those technological barriers so that we can focus on any other barriers that might exist in the business process.”

Pahlka said local governments don’t need “fancier technology.”Instead, what’s needed is a new approach, she said, one “that puts all of the compliance and laws and regulations that make government services so complicated and then really, really hard to use. Push those to the background and make things that really work for people.”

In another project, Code for America helped local California governments clear the criminal records of people convicted of marijuana-related crimes. With a number of states having legalized marijuana, many convictions were overturned, but the process of digitally clearing them had stalled.

“It’s remarkable to see the number of people in government who never thought that was possible, even though it’s actually quite easy,” Pahlka said.

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