Accelerate This!
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Accelerate This!

Neglecting the machinery of government is a choice

Working at the intersection of government and tech, I have a thousand criticisms of government’s risk aversion and slowness to adapt, and am maniacal about these costs to society. But equally frustrating is the technology world’s tendency to reduce the problems we face as a country to those that they already know how to solve. It’s too commonly accepted in tech circles that our country’s social problems can be solved by startups or social enterprises. Michael Seibel of startup accelerator Y Combinator (which now funds both for-profits and nonprofits) recently tweeted that “Almost all of the items on YC’s Request for Startups page are problems that one would expect a well-functioning government to be working to solve.” There is certainly space for startups and social enterprises in solving our most urgent problems, but as Marshall Ganz and his co-authors point out in a recent article in , even the few social enterprises that break out and are considered successful rarely scale up. What about the larger role of philanthropy? Scale remains the problem. Charitable spending on the safety net in the U.S. is about $42 billion each year. That’s a lot. But government spending on those issues is over half a TRILLION dollars.

There’s a valid role for charity and social enterprise supplementing where government programs fail to support our most vulnerable. But there’s an approach with much greater leverage: making that half-trillion dollars work as it should. The United States isn’t spending less on social programs than other countries — about 19% of GDP compared to 20% — 21% in Nordic countries, for instance — but our social outcomes are much worse. What if we made government just 10% more effective? It would eclipse the impact of all charitable spending on the safety net in our country. The bottom line is you cannot fix society’s problems at scale without government playing a key role.

Take the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. According to the US Department of Agriculture, “children who receive food assistance see improvements in health and academic performance and these benefits are mirrored by long-run improvements in health, educational attainment, and economic self-sufficiency.” But where I live in California, the online application takes an hour to complete and doesn’t work on a mobile phone, making it inaccessible for many low-income people. This contributes to more than 2 million eligible people not getting the food assistance they need, which means we pay for more expensive interventions later. This online application system cost Californians $800 million to build and we pay $80 million to maintain it annually. It’s outrageous that government seems like the one place where technology does less and costs more every year, but it’s also outrageous that Californians are missing out on so much of the social benefit of SNAP because of something so mundane as a website.

This is fixable. Already, more than 230,000 Californians have taken advantage of a new way to apply for food stamps on a mobile phone that takes about 10 minutes and treats the applicant with respect and dignity. A team of mission-driven developers and designers at Code for America built this service (called GetCalFresh) with the support of philanthropy and now operate it in cooperation with state and county government. And now California’s participation rate in SNAP is rising. That means that a $1 million gift in 2017 to Code for America unlocked $180 million in government assistance that’s proven to work. And that isn’t a one-time benefit; it continues going forward, and with accelerating impact. This is philanthropy that’s highly leveraged, scalable, and long-term sustainable, because it invests in our government.

It takes less than 10 minutes to apply for food assistance using GetCalFresh.

Food assistance is just the start. We’re now working with four states to pilot this same approach but combining access to SNAP, Medicaid, and other safety net programs. But the principles and practices of the digital age can improve every aspect of how government serves the American public, and at Code for America, we’re tackling criminal justice and workforce development in addition to the safety net. We’re working with government programs that operate at massive scale, but we’re also scaling by building a movement that enables anyone to help government improve. Seventy-two chapters, called Code for America Brigades, organize 22,000 people around the country who believe that helping their local government work better is the best way they can make a difference for others in their communities.

At Code for America, we like to say that real change is made by the people who show up. All over the country, people are showing up and proving not only that government must work better, but that it . Yes, we’ve neglected it, but as Brian Lefler of the United States Digital Service says, “not caring about the machinery of government is a choice.” The people of Code for America are making a different choice, and so can philanthropy. Government can and should do better — for the people, by the people — and real social change is possible if we invest in it.



Accelerate This! Government as Social Innovator features leaders at the intersection of philanthropy and government offering ideas about how non-public dollars can be used to drive innovation and systemic change on complex social issues.

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Jennifer Pahlka

Author of Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better, out May 23. Pre-order! (thank you)