Last Saturday, nearly 1,300 volunteers signed up to dedicate their time and skills to our annual day of collective action, National Day of Civic Hacking. Over the years, National Day of Civic Hacking has provided an opportunity for people to come together and work shoulder to shoulder with designers, developers, policy wonks, organizers, and more to solve local problems. Like with all events, things looked a little different this year as we connected with one another through our computer screens, but we were amazed at the energy, enthusiasm, and sense of community that felt stronger than ever in our first virtual National Day of Civic Hacking.

“Here's what gives me hope: that we're here today, bringing our collective skill, talent, energy together, because that is truly what is powerful. And if anyone has any doubt, the only way we ever change this country is with people coming together, seeing each other, and actually caring enough to do something to help.”
Code for America CEO Amanda Renteria

2020 has exposed many hard truths about this country—especially the need for a stronger, more human-centered social safety net. That’s why for this year’s collective action, we decided to plug the people power of our incredible Brigade Network into Code for America’s efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic through oursocial safety net work. 42 Brigades across the country hosted virtual National Day of Civic Hacking events to help those who are relying on safety net services in their local communities.

 

 

To set the tone for the day, we convened a kick-off panel of leaders from Code for America, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and SF-Marin Food Bank to discuss why the safety net matters, how to break down administrative burdens and put people’s needs first, and what’s giving them hope these days. To hear about these insights and more, watch the video or read the transcript below.

Highlights

Just how easy is it for someone to apply for food stamps, get Medicaid, or other support? Our teams worked on over 70 design audits of state benefits applications, finding the frustrations and even downright bizarre elements of each state’s online forms (did you know that in Oklahoma, you can apply to vote by mail… via telegram?)

Where are the services in your community? We worked with Mapbox engineers and with Brigades from San Diego, CA to Greenville, SC to learn mapping techniques that help community members find food and housing resources in 16 different localities.

How well did states adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic and problems like increased needs for food assistance? Groups from Honolulu, HI, San Francisco, CA, Gainesville, FL and others came together to assess their state’s performance with programs like the pandemic food assistance program (P-EBT).

  • Attendees spent 4,000 minutes* auditing benefits applications, with an average application time of 56 minutes per application.
  • Attendees went through 1,800 slides of applications,* with an average of 26 slides per application.

*Based off a sample of design audits from the event


Transcript

Amanda Renteria:

All right. Well, I think it's about time to get started. I am loving seeing all the different places folks are joining us. I want to make sure to get started because we have a lot to do today.

Amanda Renteria:

So first, let me just say hello and welcome to National Day of Civic Hacking. I am Amanda Renteria. Pronouns are she, her and hers and I am the new CEO of Code for America. I have to say, since starting on May 1st, I've been waiting for this day, because I want to say thank you, because the way I learned about Code for America was National Day of Civic Hacking. And so in some ways, this is all your fault that I'm here.

Amanda Renteria:

But seriously, this group, this day, this effort is really a message to all public servants, the country, that we all can and want to be part of this unique American experience that we, the collective we are creating a government of, by and for the people. And the way we do that is together. I just want to say thank you to everybody that is tuning in today, but that has really been part of this movement, Code for America, for years. And here we are today, once again, on a Saturday together. So, thank you.

Amanda Renteria:

Before I go into my remarks, I want to go through a few housekeeping items. So my team is going to post in our slides, our code of conduct, with Q&A and you can see social media toolkits. Please keep those coming throughout the day. We want to make sure that people see what's happening today. I think when you think about our world right now, the country needs hope and hearing about today helps everyone know that there are folks here on a Saturday doing what we can to make things better.

Amanda Renteria:

And on that note, I also want to thank our sponsors, Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation at Georgetown University, Carnegie Mellon. Are we there, are we good? Okay, Carnegie Mellon and Heinz College, shout out to Dean Krishnan of Info Systems and Public Policy School. I was with folks about a month ago encouraging them in the civic tech community, and Northeastern University School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. I'll be joining them a month from now.

Amanda Renteria:

So thank you so much for being our partners for today. But really, being our partners throughout this movement and doing what we can to make the world a better place.

Amanda Renteria:

I also want to thank the National Day of Civic Hacking Committee who has worked for months to plan an inclusive and exciting event, and to the National Advisory Council who has worked in support of these efforts. There's always a ton of work behind the scenes that we don't see. I want to just thank you for taking the time for months doing this in a new COVID way. I know that's taken some time. I really appreciate it.

Amanda Renteria:

And I also just want to thank the entire staff at CfA. It has been four to five months in this foxhole together, and I've truly loved getting to know the team, the passions, incredible talent that we have to drive our mission forward. So, thank you.

Amanda Renteria:

Today, I thought I wanted to kick off with first acknowledging the times we're in. It's hard to begin anything without really recognizing what kind of world we are living in right now. And just to name it, we are dealing with a pandemic, where we're losing 1,000 people a day. Just this week, there was a significant flood in our nation's capital. Strained school starts all around the country, and fires all over California, where we're headquartered and literally, that literally changed the color of the sky to orange. I know I've missed other news, because it's hard to keep up with all the ways we are testing our own resilience.

Amanda Renteria:

I have to say this week was only part of the realities that we as a country need to face and address racial injustice and economic hardship all across the country. And so if there's anyone wondering, we have a heck of a lot of work to do.

Amanda Renteria:

And what I like to do and what we do at Code for America is we really try and understand what's happening out in the world. And so to put some numbers on that, I just want to state it, because this is the world in which we are developing a strong social safety net. Right now, there's at least 13.6 million people out of work, nearly 30 million people are claiming unemployment benefits, a million people a week are making first time jobless claims. One in eight Americans, roughly 43 million people now receive food assistance. And if we get further into the data on black and brown communities, all of these numbers are even worse.

Amanda Renteria:

And at the same time, I know we are a resilient nation, but it's on all of us to maintain that. Now, here's the thing that gives me hope. So let me step into history just a bit. It's 1935, and it's just a few years after the Great Depression. FDR is working on policy after the Dust Bowl has been affecting our country, all around the country, but particularly in the South, in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Amanda Renteria:

To help the government create programs to move urban and rural farmers into a place where you can have collective government help, into the state of California. And so there were all these folks from the South moving into different parts of ag California. And by 1930, thousands were migrating to California every month and they came hungry, without an easy access to feed their family. Mind you, there were also already a lot of Californians who were struggling with food assistance or getting food to their family.

Amanda Renteria:

And the problem that DC was having as FDR is creating policy is that it wasn't quite understood what was happening out there. What was really happening in our rural and urban parts and how the Dust Bowl was affecting people, how food assistance or food wasn't getting to places where people needed it most. As one might imagine, 3,000 miles away feels a long way away even now, but you can imagine what that felt like in the 1930s.

Amanda Renteria:

So a photography project was established, which for me is the technology of that time. And the idea was that it would capture the experience that people were having. It would be able to actually show DC and our nation's legislators what people were going through.

Amanda Renteria:

And there's this photo that emerged called the Migrant Mother. You can see it here. It was taken just a few hours from where I grew up in the Central Valley of California. And for someone like me, when I looked at it, it's an all too familiar photo, as a daughter of former farm workers that grew up in a small town because the small town was built on labor camps for migrant workers.

Amanda Renteria:

And so when I look at that photo with her two daughters, this is the photo that became really the impetus for what's now called the Farm Security Administration. At that time, it was called the resettlement. And what it did is this picture went around the country and it really solidified support for what today is the modern day social safety net.

Amanda Renteria:

And as I think back on it, this one photo that I've grown up knowing about, because it's deemed to have made all the difference in how we treat communities, when it comes to the social safety net. And so while we all talk about this photo, and if you grew up in the Central Valley, you've seen it several times as the thing that made the difference. But when you actually think about it, it's not really the image. It's really what that image evoked in people at the time.

Amanda Renteria:

And having worked on the Hill for close to a decade, it makes all the difference about how we, we the collective we, respond when we see things like that, when we see humanity, when we see and actually get energized to do something about it. So what I like to say is that image created people power and used it for seeing people who had been invisible before. And in doing that, created real government solutions, so that no one would have to die from hunger.

Amanda Renteria:

And when I think about bringing that today, I know this is true for me, but there are quite a lot of images, tweets, realities that have ignited an energy in me, and we're seeing it around our country. So here's what gives me hope is that we're here today, bringing our collective skill, talent, energy together, because that is truly what is powerful. And if anyone has any doubt, the only way we ever change this country is it's about people coming together, seeing each other and actually caring enough to do something to help.

Amanda Renteria:

So it's Saturday, and I know you are completely Zoomed out, and yet, you are here to do something to help. And so it's with that tone, it's with that appreciation and gratitude that I welcome you all today and thank you for being here.

Amanda Renteria:

I know we have about 1,000 people signed up today. What we're here to do is really make sure that we get folks engaged. So please send the message out. We welcome folks all day to join us. Really, I want to give you a couple of ideas of what you can do to help not only be here today, but tell your friends about it. We also have openings that are right now we're looking for folks, so we welcome you to Code for America.

Amanda Renteria:

One of the things you can also do is, of course, donate and you can visit the link in the chat. I forgot to mention that we actually have matching up to $2,000 today, or over the weekend. So please help us out in that regard.

Amanda Renteria:

And then my favorite thing to do is to talk about the great team we have and I get a chance to introduce our panel today. Meredith Horowski, who is leading our network, she's our Brigade Network and fellowships. She always has a story for me about what is happening in our Brigade world and our Network.

Amanda Renteria:

And the truth is you guys are on the frontlines, doing this incredible work. And so it's my pleasure to really introduce and hand this over to Meredith and the team to take it from here.

Meredith Horowski:

Amazing. Thank you so much, Amanda. We're so grateful for your leadership and your energy. And thank you so much to all of you for being here today.

Meredith Horowski:

As Amanda mentioned, I'm Meredith Horowski, I'm your moderator for today, joining you from gray and drizzly Washington, DC. And personally, I'm feeling more energized than I have in a while, thanks to all of you. I'm honored to be in this work with you and as folks are introducing themselves in the chat, feeling so grateful for the energy and the community that we have together, which feels more important than ever.

Meredith Horowski:

We do know it's been a heck of a week, a month, a year. And many of you are juggling a lot right now and have been for a while, as we've all been navigating the multitude of crises that 2020 has thrown at us. So we really appreciate you calling in from wherever you are. Keep adding to the chat, telling people where you're coming from, and rolling up your sleeves and giving back to your community as part of our eighth annual National Day of Civic Hacking.

Meredith Horowski:

I think National Day of Civic Hacking has always been a special day to Code for America and the larger community of civic technologists that we're a part of. I think it epitomizes that big change starts small, by doing what you can with what you have, and starting right where you are. It's a day where all across the country, people can come together with skills that they already possess, and work shoulder to shoulder on community needs, things they're seeing right in their own cities.

Meredith Horowski:

And do that as designers, as developers, as organizers, as activists, as data gurus, as communicators. So whether this is your first National Day of Civic Hacking or your eighth, I know that's true for some of you, coming together as a community feels particularly important this year, as we're collectively exploring how we show up for each other, as the need across this country for food, for housing and relief from COVID-19 and its economic devastation, frankly, continues to skyrocket.

Meredith Horowski:

So that is why we're kicking off this year's collective day of action with a conversation about how we're going to put people's needs first, how we go about putting people over paperwork, particularly as it relates to our social safety net, which millions, millions more people are relying on than ever before. So in this conversation, we are going to talk a little bit about what the safety net is, why it matters, especially in the midst of a global pandemic, how we can make it more accessible, more responsive to people's real needs as opposed to beholden to administrative burdens and the jargon that I think characterizes this issue and this space.

Meredith Horowski:

We're going to get into a little bit community organizing in the age of COVID-19 and how the civic tech community as a whole has responded. And of course, we're going to tee up how we're going to take action together today, because today is about a day of action, and how we're going to use technology and importantly, its principles of technology to strengthen the safety net, and strengthen the set of supports that exist in our communities and our states.

Meredith Horowski:

And for this conversation, I am joined by some exceptionally bright and talented people. Going in alphabetical order, we have Tracey Patterson, she is the senior program director of the social safety net at Code for America, where she focuses on improving the outcomes, access delivery of social safety net programs like Medicaid and SNAP.

Meredith Horowski:

Good morning, Tracey, go ahead and unmute it. Tell us where you're calling in from today.

Tracey Patterson:

Good morning, everyone. Tracey Patterson , pronouns she, her, I am calling in from the gray, foggy smoke of the East Bay in California.

Meredith Horowski:

Welcome Tracey. Glad to have you here.

Meredith Horowski:

Next up, we have Liliana Sandoval, who is a senior program manager for CalFresh outreach for San Francisco and Marin Food Bank. She leads outreach directly to communities and community based organizations related to CalFresh application assistance and communication. Liliana, tell us where you are.

Liliana Sandoval:

Good morning, everyone. I am also in the East Bay in Oakland, California.

Meredith Horowski:

Thanks, Liliana.

Meredith Horowski:

Next up, we have Jen Wagner. She's the director of Medicaid eligibility and enrollment at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She focuses on the confluence of policy, operations, technology that affect the enrollment experience for programs like Medicaid. Jen, tell us where you are.

Jennifer Wagner:

Good morning from Madison, Wisconsin. Great to be here.

Meredith Horowski:

Fellow Midwesterner, love to see that.

Meredith Horowski:

And finally, we have Veronica Young, she's the senior program manager for the Brigade Network at Code for America. She organizes and supports our national volunteer network, many of you on the call today know her well. And that network is putting their technical adjacent skills to use in service of their communities. Veronica, tell us about where you're coming from.

Veronica Young:

Hi, everyone. Thank you for joining us today. I am in Oakland, California and my pronouns are she her.

Meredith Horowski:

Thanks, Veronica. So I'm going to start off as you can imagine with a few questions from our panelists, and then we're going to move pretty quickly into questions from all of you, because the spirit of today is a lot of collaboration, co-creation and working together with the knowledge and the skills that we all bring to bear.

Meredith Horowski:

Keep in mind that if you have questions for the panelists, use that Q&A feature, and that helps flag for our team the questions that you would like to see answered. Remember, you can also upvote questions there, that you would like to see asked to our panelists.

Meredith Horowski:

Please do continue to use that chat feature. Make sure to select to all panelists and attendees, so that everyone can see your contributions and as you're introducing yourself, where you're coming from.

Meredith Horowski:

I'd also like to seed some discussion for that chat, given that today's theme for our conversation is people over paperwork. If you have a story to share on that topic, we would love to hear it. If you've had an experience where a government agency or institution or perhaps a local nonprofit put people over paperwork, centering your needs over bureaucracy, we want to hear about that. And feel free to share that with folks in the chat.

Meredith Horowski:

Similarly, if you have a horror story about piles of paperwork and administrative burdens, we'd like to know that too. That's what today is about is identifying some of those barriers and then working collectively to fix them, prove them, make these services more accessible, more authentic to who we are and represent more joy and dignity, as we're interacting with these systems.

Meredith Horowski:

And our intention in this conversation is to be pretty conversational. So hopefully, you'll see that reflected in the next 40 minutes or so, modeling our theme of being pretty human centered, people centered. We're going to try and limit the acronyms and the alphabet soup that often characterizes the space.

Meredith Horowski:

So with that, I want to get right into it. Starting at that high level, we know that the demand for social safety net services due to the COVID-19 crisis is pretty enormous. This topic, which I think often doesn't get the attention it deserves, is now in the national spotlight.

Meredith Horowski:

So Tracey, help ground us in understanding what is the social safety net? Why does it matter? Can you describe it in an accessible way for those of us who may not be familiar with some of the ins and out?

Tracey Patterson:

Sure, thanks. So I think I would just start by saying first and foremost, our social safety net is people showing up for each other and helping them in times of need. So we all have our informal safety net, our family, our friends, our neighbors.

Tracey Patterson:

When we're talking today about the social safety net, the public safety net, we're really mostly referring to our federal programs that are administered federally and locally, because they are absolutely our biggest source and lever of change and support for people throughout their lives. I've used it myself, I've relied on programs like SNAP and Medicaid in times when I wasn't making enough to make ends meet, and you will hear about different names of programs.

Tracey Patterson:

Our social safety net is comprised of things like social security, that's our biggest program, whether you've aged out into retirement or are living with a disability. But then there are programs like SNAP and Medicaid, that are just there for the everyday. You don't have to be of a certain age or setting in your life, if you are income eligible, if your income is low enough to qualify, you can qualify. And with programs like SNAP and Medicaid, that can be immediate.

Tracey Patterson:

And so when we're talking about this moment in time, we're really talking about programs like that, and/or unemployment that can step up in a time where job loss, birth of a new child, family illness, things that impact us all, impact people in a way that is disruptive enough, that government help really is needed. And it's something we all pay into out of every paycheck in our life, our social dues for living in society together.

Meredith Horowski:

Thanks, Tracey. Thanks for setting that stage for how expansive these services are and how many people they touch on a day-to-day basis.

Meredith Horowski:

So on that note, Jen, I'd like to turn to you and ask you, what is the state of the safety net right now, given the COVID-19 crisis, when we know that demand for these services is enormous, and millions and millions more people are trying to access them now?

Jennifer Wagner:

The past six months has been a whirlwind for the safety net, as it has been for everybody else. There are tens of thousands of caseworkers around the country that determine eligibility for these programs. And they usually do it out of local offices, and they were forced just as suddenly as the rest of us to suddenly go remote.

Jennifer Wagner:

And for those of you who have interacted with government or worked for government, they do not do a great job of turning on a dime. And yet, they responded. I personally panicked when this was all coming that we would just shut down, that there would be no ability to access standard Medicaid, because governments typically are not good at being responsive. But they really stepped up and switched to remote work and have been processing applications and keeping people on and allowing the safety net to expand as it should be, in response to the crisis that we're facing.

Jennifer Wagner:

Fortunately, the federal government has stepped up and granted a lot of flexibilities to state. When we talk about paperwork, we talk about things like doing renewals every six or 12 months, making people send in more documents and pay stubs and proving that they still are eligible. In SNAP, that's been largely suspended. In Medicaid, you actually cannot terminate somebody except in narrow circumstances, right now.

Jennifer Wagner:

So the federal government has recognized that there are all these barriers that are really hard to overcome right now, when people can't actually go into offices. Some have limited internet access, and all of those challenges. So that has really helped people stay on the program and newly eligible people come in.

Jennifer Wagner:

And we've seen increased enrollment, the roles are skyrocketing as we expect, but is it enough? There's a big question of who is missing out. The person who doesn't have internet access, the person who can download an application and mail it in. So many people used to have the only option of walking into an office and sitting and waiting for hours to talk to a caseworker. Now that that's gone, who are we missing out there?

Jennifer Wagner:

And we also look to the future, where there are going to be budget cuts at the state level that are going to affect investments in technology, in case workers. And that demand is going to continue to soar as extra unemployment benefits have ended, and other stopgap measures are ending. And finally, these flexibilities that the federal government have offered are going to stop. And states are going to have to take on the full workload of maintaining the safety net, with fewer resources and with much more demand.

Jennifer Wagner:

So we need help. We need everyone to come together and figure out how to make sure that people continue to access these benefits that are foundational to people eating, accessing healthcare, and all those core things that are necessary for living.

Meredith Horowski:

Thanks, Jen. I think an effective rallying cry for why it's so important that we're all coming together today, to work on strengthening these services.

Meredith Horowski:

Liliana, I saw you unmute. So I'm going to toss it over to you, if you have anything to add to that.

Liliana Sandoval:

Yeah, I would just add to what Jennifer was saying that at the local level, we had to zoom in even further. So our role as an outreach team is to really take all of that information that's coming in and understand it ourselves, so that we can disseminate it for folks on the ground, for community members to really understand where they fit in. Whether they were already accessing benefits or they had never had to in their lives, and really try and make it easy for them in this new context that none of us had any prior experience in.

Meredith Horowski:

That's great. I want to follow up on that Liliana and alluding to a question that Jen raised, which is who is being left behind right now? Particularly in this environment where we're relying so much on remote interactions and in-person service that are critical to some of the structures we have in place, are no longer as accessible. So, who's being left behind, what's happening to them? What are organizations like yours doing to work on supporting them?

Liliana Sandoval:

I think Jennifer hit the nail on the head with some of those populations that are being left behind. So specifically unhoused folks, folks who may not have regular access to internet, who may not even have regular access to working phones. People who may not have a mailing address, seniors, or people who don't have a lot of knowledge around working with technology, or are navigating the internet and knowledge about how to find resources outside of physically going to an office. And when that was no longer available, we all had to change our mindsets and our models.

Liliana Sandoval:

Our program, again, is outreach. We are accustomed to 100% being out in the community, to finding people, and educating them about what this program is and making it accessible for them. We do that in person every single day. And through our partnerships, our partners provide a variety of other resources throughout San Francisco and Marin counties, and their models are for people to come to them.

Liliana Sandoval:

We all had to change what that looked like, in order to continue serving folks, moving to phone based, having to do social media outreach, which we were not really doing before, because we didn't really understand if the people that we were serving predominantly who in San Francisco and Marin are non-English speakers, what avenues are they accessing? Are they going to Facebook, are they going to Twitter, are they Googling, where can they get this information?

Liliana Sandoval:

So we had to really quickly adapt to try and figure out how to continue to provide these services to those folks, as well as to just keep up with the volume. I think someone mentioned earlier, just the huge increase in benefit access that folks were trying to gain. And we saw that as well, not just with our CalFresh or SNAP application assistance phone lines going from maybe 30 to 50 calls a week to 10 times that. And there's only three of us who are on our outreach team, everybody had to be all hands-in and really take on the work as it came.

Liliana Sandoval:

So it was really just a big shift, and trying to be as agile as possible with the changes that were coming what seemed like every single day.

Meredith Horowski:

I'm hearing this theme of agility and adaptation shine through pretty strongly, both on the government services side, as well as community based organization and outreach side, which are some of the principles I think that we try and live at Code for America and in our work, which is to center people's needs, and listen to what folks' needs... and understanding that those things change. And they can change pretty quickly, particularly in a crisis.

Meredith Horowski:

I want to sneak in a follow-up for perhaps Tracey, what has all this meant for organizations that are focused on strengthening the safety net, particularly using technology and its principles to try and meet people where they're at and to close the gap between folks who are eligible for services and actually getting them?

Tracey Patterson:

Yeah, great question. So I think one, it starts first and foremost by understanding what are the barriers in the state where you live, in the community where you live. The barriers are not all the same. I saw some folks in the chat talking about some states where it seems like the barriers are put up intentionally, whereas others are a form of technology.

Tracey Patterson:

I would say, as someone who's living in California, it's not always so black and white as that. California was actually one of the last states that required people to be fingerprinted to get food assistance, the last in the nation. So these regressive policies and attitudes impact places as the winds of politics and ideology change. And many of those barriers are intentional by design, to try to dissuade people from accessing help.

Tracey Patterson:

And so in using technology, one, it's really important to understand like, what is the core of this? Is this an intentional barrier and what is the way around that? And if it is not, what can we do with technology to smooth that over?

Tracey Patterson:

I think for a lot of us in the civic tech, social tech, it's one, if there is an unnecessary hoop there that we could use, if we can make things mobile friendly, if we can use text messaging, if we can use simple tools and actions to get people through some of those hoops, let's do that. But let's also understand when there are hoops that need to be knocked down and when the organizing to do that is broader than technology alone. And so it really takes working together to try to understand what is the problem we're trying to solve and what are the tools we need to do that?

Meredith Horowski:

I think this confluence of understanding what are systemic barriers, and what are the approaches to tackling those, as well as what are the kinks that can be smoothed over and both the short-term and long-term focus is really important for us to keep center of mind as we're thinking about today's actions. And in the longer term, how we approach strengthening the social safety net for five, 10 years and beyond.

Meredith Horowski:

On that theme I want to turn to you, Veronica, about what can people do in the short term or related to some of these kinks that we see with these services, what are we seeing on the grassroots organizing side from folks who are stepping up to provide skills and support in their communities?

Veronica Young:

Yeah, absolutely. So this year, we really saw the flexing of the organizing muscle that is the Code for America Brigade Network, really coming into action during these times. So as you may be familiar with and many of you on this call are Brigade members, Code for America Brigades and other organizations across the country really work to provide tools to people in their communities.

Veronica Young:

And really our focus was this year, helping people to be able to access the services that became available during COVID-19 response. And so many of our chapters across the country really quickly swung into action. A lot of people joined our network, because I think really people's first reaction is how can I help? But they need avenues in order to be able to do that.

Veronica Young:

And there are a lot of folks out there with technological skills, with research skills, with community organizing skills, who are able to use those skills to help people find access to these resources. So a lot of the projects that we saw popping up across the country really had to do with helping people map out where these resources were, find information, and be able to help in some of these support services.

Veronica Young:

Whether that was helping people find food, or helping people make sure that they didn't get evicted during this time, or helping people find access to information about healthcare. So there are really a lot of resources that are available and our ability to help people find these resources really came into action and response.

Meredith Horowski:

I think a lot of that helped inform why we're here today and what we're doing today. Can you speak a little bit to, what are the actions that folks can engage in today? What are the different avenues to use whatever skills you have? Whether you are a designer, an engineer, an organizer, an activist, what can folks who are on the call and eager to get involved today do?

Veronica Young:

Yeah, well, we're really excited, because we're going to be really spending the day taking action to be able to really level up our ability to have impact within our communities. So we have three key actions designed for today. Those actions are going to be looking at our government services and how accessible they are to folks.

Veronica Young:

So we're going to be doing a design audit of our benefits application, state by state. Code for America has a 50 states assessment that really evaluates the ability for folks to be able to access government services. And so we're really doing a redo of that during this COVID-19 response time. So seeing how easy or in some cases, difficult it may be to access these services online. So we'll be doing a design audit.

Veronica Young:

The next step is really where are there resources available in our communities, that are filling in the gaps where government might not be meeting people where they are? And so this goes back to the mapping that I was just talking about, that a lot of our Brigades have been engaging into helping people find resources. So you can actually work with others across the country today to build asset maps for your community, so that people are able to more easily access various services.

Veronica Young:

And then the last action we'll be taking is in our problem statements area. So there are a couple of questions that we've developed with the safety net team here at Code for America, about how can we better respond in this crisis and any future crises that come up? So really looking at those problem statements, and there will be a couple of different outputs from those problems statements. Whether you're creating a prototype of a service that could be developed to help people access services, or whether it's creating a policy memo.

Veronica Young:

So there's three main actions that people can take today. We'll be breaking out into breakout rooms after this, to discuss those actions. And after that, you can work with your local Brigade. We have over 40 different groups participating today across the country, where you can join and work with others to complete these actions.

Meredith Horowski:

Thanks, Veronica. I know I speak for I think many of us on this call and many of us at Code for America and in the larger network, how inspirational and critical the rising to the challenge has been of folks within our network. And the fact that, particularly in times of crisis, bringing whatever skills you have to bear, and finding ways to apply them in a way that is asked for and authentic to your community is incredibly important.

Meredith Horowski:

I want to double click on this action around identifying problem statements and working in partnership with your community to figure out what some solutions to those things are. And often that happens in partnership with community based organizations, which I know you work very, very closely with, Liliana.

Meredith Horowski:

Can you tell us in this time where our social structures feel pretty shaken and uncertain on so many levels, from government to education to all over the place, community based organizations are often really trusted messengers, are deeply rooted in the community, understand the needs. From your vantage point, what do these organizations need? What kind of support, technical or otherwise, do you think they can use in this time where they're a critical pillar of our community support?

Liliana Sandoval:

Yeah, great question. I really do think it just depends on the spectrum of CBOs. So you have really small organizations that are maybe less than five people. And then you have larger ones. Our organization is about 100 or so folks. Really, it depends on the capacity of the organization, it can go from a basic, static information website that no one in-house has the ability to create or to update, to straight just people power. A lot of our organizations just flat out shut down over the last six months, and are just starting to come back online.

Liliana Sandoval:

And so, just communications tools, information dissemination. I think like what Veronica mentioned is already happening, mapping of assets, mapping of where to access, where people who need resources live, the languages that are necessary. Things like that, just from really basic, to going out and creating tools that would help organizations to really gather all the information and disseminate it easily in multiple languages, things like that. It can be very broad.

Liliana Sandoval:

So really, I think everyone has special gifts and experiences and skillsets that they can bring. It really is just about working with what is available to you, and engaging with those organizations and really figuring out what they need from you.

Meredith Horowski:

Thanks. We've heard this already and will continue to hear it, the importance of life first, listening to users, people who are engaging with services, but also community partners and folks who have been deeply entrenched in this for a while.

Meredith Horowski:

I want to move to the action around auditing services, social safety net services and your state websites related to those services, which is, as Veronica mentioned, one of the actions for today. Tracey, Jen, what can folks expect to see when they do that? I imagine they can expect to see a lot of different things. Tell us what comes up for you.

Tracey Patterson:

Sure. I would say one, first and foremost, we've seen this year in particular, that online has become the only avenue for access, which until now, it had been really treated as like a maybe nice to have extra. And so what you'll see in most states, not all states, but most states, will be a not very user friendly experience as you go through the application. You may notice lots of repetitive or confusing questions.

Tracey Patterson:

You may also notice and I would ask you to think like, does this question seem to apply to someone who might have three part-time jobs or an informal job? Is this structured in a way that is often, that would make sense if you had to answer the questions yourself or on behalf of someone else?

Tracey Patterson:

And some of them may seem repetitive, nonsensical. Some of them, you may be wondering why the heck is this question on here? Why are they asking me if I'm a fleeing felon right now? So some of the things I will say are there, because they're required by law, and they might not make any sense. But please call them out, put a bubble around that, ask, why are you asking this? What are you going to gain from this?

Tracey Patterson:

I think it's really important to look at those with a beginner's eye and think about the ways that you need to fill out forms or information before and think about that also in a time of stress, because we're all living through a crisis right now. But when these things happen, when the world is not in crisis, people are still experiencing their own personal crises.

Tracey Patterson:

So thinking about like, what is it like to fill this out when you're feeling okay? And think about what it would feel like to be filling it out when you're not. Because those emotions really do matter. Many of the civil servants administering these programs really do care. Most people don't get into social services, because they want to harm people. So calling out the ways in which the casual cruelty can be really stark is important, because people do want to make change for the most part.

Jennifer Wagner:

Yeah, and just following up on what Tracey said, I would encourage you to have as much constructive criticism as possible. It'd be pretty easy to just lambaste the policies and the way people go about this. But as Tracey said, the people who are within government are trying, are doing their best. And it's hard to imagine the crises that they have to jump from on a day-to-day basis and what they're facing.

Jennifer Wagner:

And most of the roadblocks, some are intentional. I'm not minimizing what's happening in Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, lots of different places. But many of the, just sludge in there, is the result of over many years, people adding on a question, a federal policy changing, that forces you to reframe something. And instead of really analyzing, how are households asked about it, how can we do this in a comprehensive way, it just adds another question and adds another question.

Jennifer Wagner:

And unfortunately, a lot of state governments don't have the ability to take a step back and say, what is this like from a user perspective? How is this affecting people? From their perspective, oh, we have an online application, check the box and move on to the next 27 crazies that are waiting for you that day.

Jennifer Wagner:

I'm really excited about today. But I'm more excited about next week, to see what you all come up with, and the feedback that you have. What a difference this can make. Anybody can say how ridiculous an online application is. Don't look at it that way. Look at, there's overworked people within a government that don't have the ability to hire somebody to do what you're going to do today.

Jennifer Wagner:

So use feedback that will really help them, when they have the opportunity to open that up and make changes, because they really want to make this better. And I think you can give them the tools and information to make that happen.

Meredith Horowski:

Great, I think helpful reminder that, while some of these questions are absolutely intentional, or are there because legislation mandates it, there's also things that aren't. It's being able to highlight and communicate those things and point out like, hey, this language doesn't make sense or this question is asked twice. It's actually quite helpful in terms of thinking about how we can redesign these services in a way that's more accessible. And the great news is, you don't need to bring any particular skill to that work, other than going through it yourself as a human, as someone who might be trying to interact with these services.

Meredith Horowski:

I want to pivot to questions from our fantastic audience today. The first one, one for Tracey or Jen. We have here, it sounds like a lot of administrative burden has been lifted. For example, people don't need to send in paperwork every six months, as you mentioned, or reaffirm their eligibility. And that's happening during this time, during this crisis.

Meredith Horowski:

And the question is, how likely is it that that's going to continue after COVID-19? Will government be able to justify going back to the flip of our theme, more paperwork over people framing and services after this?

Jennifer Wagner:

I fear that there's going to be a backlash after this, where really the doors have been open and people have come on, there's going to be that person who was on Medicaid, but now has a high paying job and didn't cancel their Medicaid and was left on for a year or whatever it might be. And that can create a lot of backlash, and there's a concern about that.

Jennifer Wagner:

But on the other hand, state governments and others are realizing that a lot of what is happening, a lot of the applications are actually a result of churn. And churn is when somebody loses benefit at a redetermination, or at some point, because of paperwork. They actually continue to be eligible, but maybe they didn't send in pay stubs or respond to some requests for information from the state.

Jennifer Wagner:

And that's not happening right now, because not a lot of cancellations are happening. I think that's going to make states realize that this is real and this is causing a lot of work for us. Obviously, it's hurting people as well. But it's causing a lot of work.

Jennifer Wagner:

And the fortunate thing is that there are good provisions that allow states to be more efficient in some of these processes. For example, in Medicaid, states are actually required to first look at electronic data sources and see if they can confirm ongoing eligibility, before they even send out a notice to the client. And if they can confirm ongoing eligibility, they automatically renew, send a notice to the client, say, hey, let us know if anything's wrong, but you don't have to respond.

Jennifer Wagner:

So how can we use the information from this crisis and the changes that have been made to really push through better policies, and push states to take advantage of existing policies and flexibilities to make the system overall more efficient, and make sure that eligible people stay enrolled?

Meredith Horowski:

Thanks, Jen. Tracey, anything you want to add?

Tracey Patterson:

Yeah, no, I think I would say too, like in crisis, all of those changes have also been piecemeal. They've been state by state waivers. So some of you in some states might be saying, what is she talking about? Paperwork hasn't been removed. So I would also just say there may be a backlash because of that, there may also be the fact that some states haven't seen this type of relief, whereas others have applied for waivers and things like that.

Tracey Patterson:

And so I think we really need to lift up what can be different. It's not always going to be creating a new app or things like that, but it will take really a concerted effort, because I think we're seeing right now in the news when we hear so much about unemployment and things like that, it's that a lot of these indignities in the system that people have been going through all along, are now being seen by so many more people who've not accessed safety net services before. And that's often the first step, just like the photograph Amanda showed. It's seeing how this really impacts people on the ground that leads to the change. It's not always the...

Meredith Horowski:

Thanks, Tracey. I want to kick this over to Liliana as well. You mentioned the ways in which San Francisco and Marin Food Bank has changed some of their strategies and their tactics in response to this crisis. Do you see those things continuing after this crisis?

Liliana Sandoval:

Yes, definitely. A question that we continually ask ourselves during very local crises, and now in a national crises, how do we continue to serve people with dignity, with equity? And even beyond that, who are the people that we are not serving and why, and how do we make sure that we provide access to them?

Liliana Sandoval:

And so we had to grow many of our programs within a very short period of time and also create new programming. It's been really successful. We also stripped away a lot of, just some of the internal bureaucracies that we had created, to really just open up the doors to people who had whatever qualms about accessing food pantries in the past. We created home delivered groceries programs and expanded them for people who were considered high risk and could not go to grocery stores. And folks who did not have other people in the home to be able to go get groceries or that sort of assistance.

Liliana Sandoval:

So it's definitely some conversations that we're having. I know that a lot of our partners are also considering just maintaining this expansion of programming, that has had to be created in order to serve this vast new need.

Meredith Horowski:

Thanks, Liliana. Now, this probably doesn't feel like news to anyone, but it really does feel as though there really is no going back, if you will, there is no going back to normal in so many different ways. I think this is a flavor of that.

Meredith Horowski:

Veronica, what about on the organizing side? I think the fact that we're relying so much on in-person or not in-person connection and Zoom and other tools has changed the way we organize. Do you see that sticking around?

Veronica Young:

Yeah. So I think that we really are making a shift into how can we help with active projects that are happening in our communities? So there's a lot more cross collaboration that we've seen within the network between folks wanting to contribute, not just with their local Brigade, but also with projects that might be happening somewhere else as well.

Veronica Young:

So there's really a coming together of folks to reach beyond what their normal geographical boundaries were previously, to creating more coalesced efforts to be able to make contributions in other places. So it's cool to see that the fact that everybody is online, even in a more tech focused volunteer space, is still making people even more dependent on those online capabilities, but also is bringing people together, I think in a way that we hadn't seen to this extent before.

Meredith Horowski:

I want to shift to another audience question, which is about the narrative, the national narrative around poverty and the safety net. How do you all see Code for America shaping that narrative and how do we measure how it changes? How do we address it? What is our opportunity there to change how we think and talk about poverty?

Tracey Patterson:

Sure, I can take that for the Code for America perspective, in the question. I love this question, because I think it is absolutely critical to both the work that we do and how we bring about change in society. Because I think the technological systems that we see, the policy systems that we see, these are all a representation of culture, and culture and beliefs. And I think until we really start to take on the stigma, and the ways in which people are often individually shamed and feel shamed for struggles that are often structural and systemic, is at the root of how our programs are designed.

Tracey Patterson:

Our programs are often designed to be an emergency system. When the truth is, our ongoing economic system does not serve people equally. So that working a full-time job pays all of your costs, or the fact that you can't work a full-time job does not make your humanity any less.

Tracey Patterson:

And so I think both in ways that technology itself can be more accessible, whether that be through phone, making sure that things are designed for accessibility, all the ranges of accessibility, and what that means. So that people really see themselves as belonging, as being part, as not feeling like this is not for me. That's central to what we do, whether it's the images we use, the words we use to describe.

Tracey Patterson:

I'm really big on always just talking about this is about we, not they. And so making sure that we recognize that we are all, maybe not all of us, but most of us are just one life crisis away from being in the same position as someone else who you may feel apart from. I think we really need to use technology as a way to connect people in our humanity and not reduce ourselves also to another way of how we can be set apart.

Meredith Horowski:

Thanks, Tracey. Anyone else want to pile on to that one? It's a big question.

Jennifer Wagner:

I think it's an important opportunity, where a lot of the people who are on these programs, unfortunately, in the past have been invisible. But when you look at the 2008 recession, when you look at now, it's the person next door, it might be somebody in your family who's trying to navigate the unemployment system or trying to get on Medicaid, but they can't work right now. And that makes it real. And it's wrong. The people who are in the programs before were real and deserved attention before, and deserved improvements, more dignity. But this lifts up these programs and experiences that folks are going through.

Jennifer Wagner:

And so how do we take that moment and say, your neighbors should be treated with dignity, the same way that somebody who lost their job and is trying to raise their kids, and has been on food stamps for a while, they should also be treated with dignity. And how can we make sure that we're making policy for the 99% not the 1%? When there's stories that emerge, it can lead to bad policy.

Jennifer Wagner:

My favorite question, and I don't know if any folks in Arizona will come across this today, but my very favorite question is do you have any rare or exotic animals? There is an asset test for SNAP in some states and different things count for assets, it's not just cash in the bank or retirement accounts and things like that. I think there was one person once who had some special monkey that was worth a lot, and that single person led to this question being asked hundreds, thousands, millions of times to everybody.

Jennifer Wagner:

So how do we really take a critical eye and say, are we going to focus on, is everybody enrolled, eligible? Or are we going to really shift the focus to, is everybody eligible, enrolled? Because that's where it should be. That's where it needs to be going forward.

Meredith Horowski:

Love that framing. Thanks, Jen. Feels like a great segue into us wrapping up, so we can end on time and move into the action for the day and our collective day of action, in eight annual National Day of Civic Hacking. So, final question for each of our panelists and also invite audience members to add your reflection on this into the chat.

Meredith Horowski:

What's something that's giving you hope right now? There's a lot to despair. And I think important that we find some grains of things to hang on to. So rapid fire, what's giving you some hope? Let's start with Liliana.

Liliana Sandoval:

Honestly, not to be trite or cheesy or anything, but forums like this. I think seeing so many folks enrolled in here on a Saturday morning or early afternoon, just really standing up and saying, I'm here to help, how can I help? That is really giving me hope, because that's something that we need right now.

Meredith Horowski:

Veronica?

Veronica Young:

I was actually just going to say the same thing. I'm seeing hundreds of people here showing up today to be part of making positive change in their communities, is just extremely energizing and motivating and thank you all for being here.

Meredith Horowski:

Thanks, Veronica. Jen, Tracey, go for it, Jen.

Jennifer Wagner:

Okay. I've got a lot of hope about what we can learn from this current crisis. There's been a lot of horrible things. But there are things that are being brought to the forefront. Previously, having a mobile friendly application was considered a nice to have, now it's a must have, and how do we take the lessons and what's happened and what states have accomplished during this crisis, and continue going forward to make sure that everyone is served?

Meredith Horowski:

Interesting.

Tracey Patterson:

I was going to echo everything everyone said. I think even just thinking like, we may not feel like a month from now is going to better or we may not know if there's literal and figurative clear skies right around the corner. But when I think of five years from now, looking back that all of you decided to spend a Saturday trying to help society in some way, that each of us can say, what did you do during this moment, and that we really did do something. I think that for me makes me feel like we are headed somewhere better, even if we don't know exactly what that looks like just yet.

Meredith Horowski:

With that, thank you so much to our panelists. I'm going toss it over to Amanda, feel free to chime in on that question and wrap us up.

Amanda Renteria:

Thank you, and I love that question. It's why I'm at Code for America. It's why I'm with all of you today. I got to tell you, what does give me hope is that the only way we actually change our country, the only way we make it better is all of us coming together, not only how we should treat people with dignity and respect.

Amanda Renteria:

And so I want to just leave you with this idea. Imagine you lost your job on Monday. And on Tuesday, you received a text from the government that says, we're sorry to hear you're unemployed. We've got your back. We signed you up for unemployment insurance, your prepaid debit card is on its way. Next week, we'll send job opportunities. Is there any other way we can support you?

Amanda Renteria:

Now I know that might feel really far for folks right now, to imagine a government that can do that, or a phone app that can do that. But that's what we're creating. That's a one day at a time. That's the paperwork and the questions that we're changing, that's putting people at the center of it.

Amanda Renteria:

And so I am excited to see all the work that's going to happen. I can't wait to pop in to the meetings on these projects, and just want to thank you all for being with us. I am giving you a virtual hug.

Veronica Young:

Yes. And just to follow up with where you can go from here, we are breaking out into our three action breakout rooms. So just put those links in the chat. If you do anything today to be able to participate in the day of action, make sure that you look at the FAQ doc, which I'm going to put right here in the chat, as well as joining Slack. You'll be able to get all the information that you need for the day.

Veronica Young:

And then if you move immediately into one of the three breakout action rooms right now, you can learn a little bit more about each action, go through a bit of an onboarding, and then get the tools that you need to actually take action today. So those are in the chat as well.

Meredith Horowski:

Thank you all so much for being here to kick off our eighth annual National Day of Civic Hacking, feeling so energized and inspired by this panel and of course, all of you. So with that, we hope you head into the next action breakout room of your choice, and then join a Brigade meetup or a group of folks who are taking action together today.

Meredith Horowski:

Thank you. Have a great rest of your Saturday and Happy National Day.

 

Tags:   National Day of Civic Hacking COVID-19