Your Government, Winning

It’s been a good couple of days for government that works for people. Mollie Ruskin posted yesterday:

Sure, lots of stuff is rotten and broken and depressing these days. This, most fortunately, is not. On the contrary, here is some A+ design and tech nerdery genuinely changing peoples’ lives.

It’s pretty simple. Veterans in our country are entitled to healthcare. Many of them don’t get it, and while there are a variety of barriers that are difficult to address, here’s one that should have been easy: the online application did not open for most users. It’s been that way for some time.

The team at the Veterans Administration Digital Service just fixed that. In some ways, it wasn’t hard to do. They did what any of you out there would do: they started with users and engaged the VA stakeholders with respect and positive intent. They built something that works for users. It’s well worth your time to watch the user research videos in this post about their process. But of course, in many ways, getting this fixed in the context of a large government bureaucracy was an incredible accomplishment. And they’re just getting started. The VA Digital Service is on a winning streak.

This winning streak is not limited to the VA. Yesterday President Obama announced the Data-Driven Justice Initiative, led by Lynn Overmann of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House. The DDJ initiative pulls together a bipartisan coalition of 67 city, county, and state governments who have committed to using data-driven strategies to divert low-level offenders with mental illness out of the criminal justice system. They’ve also committed to change how pre-trial incarceration works so that low risk offenders no longer stay in jail simply because they cannot afford a bond.

As Lynn says:

It will take hard work to reverse the decades of policy and funding decisions that have resulted in jails acting as de facto mental health facilities, but today marks a significant step forward.

This is incredible leadership from the White House, and it’s change that will be implemented at the local level. In fact, one of our Code for America fellowship projects this year is helping Seattle implement their existing policies to help mentally ill people encountering law enforcement get the care they need instead of incarceration. Seattle and King County already have a national reputation for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), a program that allows law enforcement officers to redirect low-level offenders to community-based services, instead of jail and prosecution, but if officers don’t have the information they need about people and programs when they need it, it can be much harder to avoid incarceration. Meredith Hitchcock, Grayson Wright and Katherine Nammacher are working with Bill Schrier and others at the Seattle Police Department to put crisis response plans for the people who encounter law enforcement the most into a mobile app. In the hands of first responders, the app is putting policy into practice. And that policy is good for everyone.

Speaking of change at the local level, here’s your government winning again. San Francisco launched a new Digital Services Strategy modeled in part on the United States Digital Service (of which the VA Digital Service is a part.) Their roadmap starts with hiring “a strong, experienced central leader who is empowered to guide our service design effort,” and moves on to building a “modern, expert product development team” that can create a “consistent and unified city brand & experience.” There’s a long way to go until the San Francisco Digital Service is racking up the kind of wins other Digital Service groups are, though the existing team there, including CfA alum Ashley Meyers, is doing amazing work (more on that later). And this is an impressive start. The whole movement, and of course the people of San Francisco, should get behind this one, starting with a grassroots effort to help recruit that leader. Know anyone?

Yes, lots of stuff is indeed rotten and broken and depressing these days. But I’m off to celebrate Independence Day in full red, white, and blue. This whole government for the people, by the people thing can work. We just gotta work it. And celebrate it!