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Code for America Shows How Empathy and Technology Can Improve Government

Raz Godelnik
| Friday April 4th, 2014 | 0 Comments
sfteam with mayor lee

The Code for America SF team with Mayor Lee.

“We can’t do without government, but we do need it to be more effective,” Jennifer Pahlka, the founder and executive director of Code for America (CfA), told the audience in her 2012 TED talk.  I guess some people would disagree with the first part of her statement, but probably 99.9 percent would agree with her about the second part.

But how do you do it? Well, for some it might look like an impossible mission, but to Palhka and her small army of talented developers, designers and researchers, who serve as CfA fellows working with local governments, this is a difficult yet doable challenge. “You just have to architect the systems the right way,” explains Pahlka.

Technology is definitely key in CfA’s work helping government become more engaging, user-friendly and effective, but I believe that there’s also a secret sauce that makes it work – empathy.

A great example of how Code for America successfully converges technology and empathy is the story of Promptly, a text messaging notification system that was developed by four CfA fellows working with San Francisco’s Human Services Agency in a project funded by the Vodafone Americas Foundation.

The problem the fellows were addressing is the fact that about a third of the 52,000 people receiving food stamps are terminated from the system even though they’re still eligible for food stamps. And the reason is that they receive by mail a notice of action, a letter explaining them that they won’t receive food stamps anymore because they didn’t fulfill one or more of their obligations such as sending the Human Services Agency a quarterly report.

The problem with this letter, explains Jacob Solomon, one of the fellows is that, “It is really freaking confusing and it’s intimidating, and most people who see this don’t know what to do.” So many times the people who get the letter put it aside and do nothing, and by the time they figure out what the letter wants they already lose a couple of weeks of benefits. From the agency’s perspective, Solomon explains that this is known as churn – “when somebody aimlessly falls off and comes right back on a program.” This is bad for the agency as it wastes its resources, as well as for its clients. In other words it’s a lose-lose situation for everyone.

Solomon and the three other fellows decided to find a way to reduce the churn rate. Now, you might assume they started with technology in mind, looking for the best technology to solve this problem, but they didn’t. They actually began working on this problem with user needs in mind, asking: “What would the ideal experience be for clients?”

Utilizing a design thinking approach, which IDEO CEO Tim Brown describes as “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity,” the team started with interviewing clients, the agency’s staff and other stakeholders. One of the fellows, Rebecca Ackerman, even enrolled to receive food stamps and had the “pleasure” to receive about 20 of these letters during her seven-month enrollment.

These efforts to understand user needs and observe users were basically efforts to empathize with the users, or in other words to “gain empathy to who they are and what is important for them.” As Jacob Solomon puts it: “An empathetic service would ground itself in the concrete needs of concrete people. It’s not about innovation, big data, government-as-a-platform, transparency, crowd-funding, open data, or civic tech. It’s about people.”

What the team learned in this process was that the ideal experience for would be “direct, empathetic and would meet clients where they are.” Based on these lessons they decided to supplement the lengthy, intimidating yet mandatory letter with a simple text message, saying for example “CalFresh (Food Stamps): Your CalFresh benefits may stop at the end of this month. Questions: Call 415-558-4159”

It might sounds simple to you and I, as we’re used to get such messages from the bank or the insurance company, but as Ashley Meyers, Development and Engagement Manager at CfA told me, it was a was groundbreaking work – this was the first time that a San Francisco agency texted its clients. And this is not just about San Francisco:  The team believes this was the first time a human services agency in the country is using text messages in order to reduce churn.

Meyers told me that so far this new service, which is called Promptly, is a huge success. Since it started last October more than 2,000 clients are enrolled to using Promptly and about 80 percent of those who received a text successfully contacted the agency and keep their benefits. In other words, even now when it has just been launched, this simple solution shows it can significantly cut the churn rate — transforming a lose-lose process into a win-win.

Apparently, the use of Promptly won’t be limited only to the San Francisco Human Services Agency – Meyers told me that other San Francisco programs and agencies are working to adopt Promptly soon and other counties in California have expressed interest in adopting it. In addition, one of the fellows, Andy Hull has partnered with other fellowship alumni to start a consulting organization, funded by the CfA civic startup Incubator, to support the development and reuse of Code for America applications, including Promptly.

We definitely need more of these sorts of innovation in government, using design thinking and smart technology to generate effective solutions. We would all be better off if Code for America’s approach and fresh thinking was widely adopted, and especially the notion that in order to build an effective system you need to start with empathy. It won’t fix politics, but it can definitely help fix government.

Image credit: Code for America

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School of Design. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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