‘We’re thinking bigger than I even thought was possible’: Behind the Scenes with USDR’s Response to the American Rescue Plan

Americans were a year into the COVID-19 pandemic when welcome relief came with the passing of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in March 2021. The act ushered in an astounding $350 billion of funds that would be pumped into local, state, tribal, and territorial governments. After months of racing to meet the demands of COVID-19 response, state and local agencies found themselves in a new sprint of implementation trying to “build a bridge to an equitable economic recovery” through efforts such as extended unemployment insurance (UI) benefits and emergency rental assistance (ERA). ARPA presented local governments with the dollars to make major investments in improvements for the communities they serve. However, a new truth emerged: many government teams needed additional support to handle the influx of funds so they could connect community members with these new lifelines in an efficient way.

Our government leaders had a limited timeline to prioritize technical solutions and ensure our communities are more resilient for the next crisis. To help meet this need, U.S. Digital Response (USDR) established a team and launched a series of engagements to support our partners in ARPA response. Several months in, and with the recent passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, we wanted to pull back the curtain and talk about our process and how this approach will lay the groundwork for our 2022 program areas.

Tackling mass problems, with an individualized approach

Working with more than a dozen government partners on ARPA-related requests, USDR helped spin up tools that could be easily implemented for state and local agencies, no matter what size. This new economic stability-centric portfolio included the Grant Identification Tool, a portal that allowed states to more “easily identify federal grant opportunities, coordinate application processes internally and efficiently access funds for their communities.” Prior to this tool, our government partners needed to manually search grants.gov for grant opportunities. But utilizing a custom API, the tool pulls grant opportunities specifically filtered for partner’s needs and allows them to work collaboratively within their own agency to submit the grant.

Teams also developed the Federal Stimulus Tracking tool, created to make it easier for states to apply and document the spending of federal stimulus funds. These two tools were originally built to help partners with the CARES Act funds in 2020 and then updated to meet the new needs of our partners. Similarly, USDR continued and built on its work launching small business loan eligibility tools and assisting in launching a unified Emergency Rental Assistance portal in Memphis that gained recognition from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

When a tsunami of benefits applications hit state agencies as millions found themselves laid off or furloughed, USDR lent support to modernize unemployment assistance programs. We worked on sample PUA applications for multiple states, implemented online screeners so workers understand their rights and what benefits they are eligible for, and advised states on rebuilding their UI programs for the future.

“USDR is really great about putting hypotheses in motion — we can question if there will be value in something and experiment. We have the opportunity to bring people together who might not know how to talk to each other to begin with,” Jessie Posilkin, Program Senior Advisor at USDR, said. “USDR’s volunteer model allows us to be in lots of places at once. What does it look like to build things for resiliency across the country? We’re seeing it at a high-enough-level view and can translate the solutions.”

Encouraging experimentation with little room for error

USDR commits to moving at the speed of need, and we looked for creative talent and partnerships so we could move quickly and begin building. In addition to Posilkin’s key role, the team includes Marcie Chin as Product Manager-in-Residence with a focus on unemployment insurance and former NYC[x] Innovation Fellow Meg Towle as Sprint Lead on American Rescue Plan policies. Their efforts are also bolstered by the recent addition of eight fellows from the Google.org Fellowship Program, a “pro bono program that embeds Google employees full-time for up to six months with nonprofits and civic entities.”

“Google.org Fellows are able to support governments in trying riskier projects and new approaches to delivering digital services that may not otherwise be funded until they’re fully proven out,” Rasmi Elasmar, Tech Lead at Google.org said. “I think we’ve seen as a result of that, governments have been able to make the case for investing in strong digital services teams that can build solutions in-house.”

The combined efforts are resulting in intentional improvements across the economic stability space. USDR and the Google.org Fellows have focused their efforts on helping create user-friendly tools for governments to deliver benefits programs, such as UI modernization and ERA, as well as offering support for CiviForm — an open source benefits application tool built initially with support from a team of Google.org Fellows embedded with the City of Seattle. Since July, the team has worked on over a dozen projects within the USDR economic stability portfolio and also offered their expertise to other USDR focus areas.

“The Google.org Fellows experience has been incredible,” Jessica Watson, Chief Experience Officer at USDR said. “It’s been this beautiful marriage with being able to combine their technology expertise with the right government partners to really develop solutions quickly.”

Many of the solutions the team is working on are driven by the desire to help enable government workers to be more effective in their day-to-day efforts.

“Hearing the stories of what government employees do, listening to a problem that they have and telling them that we can help make things easier for them, it’s the best feeling,” Kimberly Stredney, a Google.org Fellow, said.

Elasmar points out that given the stakes of supporting those in need, there is little room for error, and the urgency to deliver effective solutions is high. The team is taking an iterative process to developing solutions and focusing on broader patterns in the problems they’re encountering, with the hope that solutions can be replicated across different governments instead of reinventing the wheel each time.

“We’re thinking bigger than I even thought was possible, because we have a leadership team that supports the idea of thinking big. We have the talent on our team, we’re able to change how people think and experiment how technology can solve problems,” Posilkin said.

Shaping tools for the future

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing stories that will dive even deeper into the projects we’ve been working on to help our partners use ARPA funds, deliver services to their communities at the speed of need, and build economic stability for all Americans. Stay tuned for guides on selecting vendors, tool demos, and more.

Looking for even more help? If you are a state or collaborating agency looking for solutions with ARPA or economic stability related projects, please reach out by filling out this brief intake form. We have a team ready to assist, and will be in touch quickly.

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U.S. Digital Response (USDR) places experienced, pro-bono technologists to work with government and organizations responding to crisis, to quickly deliver services and infrastructure that support the critical needs of the public. We’re nonpartisan, fast, and free.

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U.S. Digital Response

U.S. Digital Response

Connecting governments and nonprofits with pro bono technologists and assistance to quickly respond to the critical needs of the public.

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