A fresh approach brings government services to those who need them
Code for America
Pat Soberanis is a former teacher and writer. Though a lifelong resident of San Francisco, rising costs forced her to move into senior housing in Marin County. But her Social Security income still didn’t cover much beyond rent, and by the middle of the month she ran out of money for food. She went to a government office to apply for CalFresh food assistance (formerly Food Stamps), but was faced with long wait times and a process she didn’t understand. After searching online, she found another way to apply that brought her the help she needed.
It’s a mobile-friendly application created by Code for America called GetCalFresh. Code for America’s staff, fellows, and volunteers use technology to give residents easier access to government services and to spread best practices. They recognize that there are barriers to accessing government services—and the Internet in general—that affect people for many reasons beyond any physical challenges. Lack of funds, inexperience with technology, geographic location, and language barriers all can make access difficult.
Code for America staff, fellows, and volunteers use digital practices to change how government serves the American public, and how the public improves government. And the Code for America fellowship program gives civic-minded technologists a one-year paid position with a partner government agency at the city, county, state, or tribal level to help redesign services.
Microsoft backs Code for America’s work, including their annual Summit, which shares best practices. The conference draws 1,200 people to Oakland from across the United States Microsoft’s commitment to technology and civic engagement aligns with the company’s mission to enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential.
Code for America staff, fellows, and volunteers use digital practices to change how government serves the American public.
Code for America’s GetCalFresh project exemplifies how the practices of consumer technology can help government to achieve its goals for residents. A hard-copy application for CalFresh food assistance takes 45 minutes to complete and can be very confusing. Applicants need to submit documentation, then schedule—and often reschedule—appointments with couView Storynty government representatives. Many people who are eligible for the benefit aren’t enrolled because they haven’t been able to get through the process.
In contrast, it takes less than 10 minutes to apply via the CalFresh app, which is written in plain language. The information that individuals submit is securely transmitted to the benefits databases in California counties.
But the Code for America team doesn’t just simplify the CalFresh application, they improve the entire process: They make the application accessible on a mobile phone or tablet, answer questions via online chat, enable users to upload photos of their documents rather than faxing or scanning them, and send reminders and updates via text or email. The team’s goal is to scale GetCalFresh to all California counties and close the participation gap, ensuring every eligible Californian is enrolled in CalFresh by the end of 2018.
Inclusive design illustrated
Lisa Ratner is a user experience designer at Greenfield Labs who spent 2016 as a Code for America Fellow, working with the City of Long Beach. Ratner and two other fellows collaborated with city staff to develop an online business portal that would help entrepreneurs navigate the process of starting a business that complied with local regulations. The design approach focused on accessibility and inclusivity to ensure that the needs of underrepresented users were met and that the portal provided all the information that an entrepreneur would need.
Making a government website—or any website—accessible involves many factors. There are specific rules for things like font size, color, contrast, and compatibility with assistive technology that must be applied to federal government sites. Those “508 standards”—named after Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as amended in 1998—make them accessible to people with disabilities and are adopted by many website developers as a best practice. Yet disabilities are only one dimension of the challenges to accessibility that users can face when trying to access government services.
Ratner’s team researched the needs of underrepresented users who might have obstacles that could be addressed through the design and content of the website. They identified non-English speakers and those with low income or digital literacy as key audiences.
English is a second language for many residents of Long Beach, and the diversity of their backgrounds meant that even translating content into the top three most-spoken languages would leave many users behind. And since the average American reads at an eighth-grade level, it was important that the text was straightforward and jargon-free.
“We had to rewrite all of the content,” explains Ratner, “because it was written at a 16th grade reading level” by government lawyers. After using an app that analyzes writing and suggests changes to simplify it, they integrated translation technology so users can select from an array of language options. The simplified content also helps the translation algorithm function accurately. Ratner notes that using a native speaker to translate or check the content in the many languages is impractical, for cost reasons and because it slows revisions to content.
A well-designed, informative website or app that addresses people’s needs pays off.
A limited income also limits access to the Internet. An in-home plan is expensive, and though public libraries offer visitors computers, Wi-Fi, and outlets for charging smartphones, the days and hours that branches are open are limited.
It’s not uncommon to see people who may be homeless using a smartphone, and that’s because of a law passed in the 1980s that guarantees phone access to support for people who are dependent on government services. Beginning with the Obama administration, people were given the choice of a landline or a smartphone, since the costs of mobile phones and services had fallen.
Most people with low digital literacy never learned to type or use a mouse, and educators have found that it’s often easier for a new user to navigate the Internet with a consumer-friendly smartphone. Ratner emphasizes the importance of a mobile-first design for public-facing websites, and feels that the limited real estate of a mobile screen helps create discipline around content and site hierarchy.
Code for America’s accomplishments prove that a well-designed, informative website or app that addresses people’s needs pays off. It leads to efficient use of time and resources for the user as well as the government entity. And isn’t that the way it should be?
This issue of Catalyst is devoted to accessibility. Over 1.2 billion people around the world have physical and intellectual disabilities that hinder their access to vital services and resources. Many more people lack access due to “unseen” factors such as language, location, poverty, and lack of education.
Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. That mission is only possible because of partners like the six organizations profiled in this issue. These individuals and organizations are using technology, education and advocacy to tear down barriers and make the Bay Area a wonderful place for everyone to live and work.
I hope that you will be as inspired as we are by these organizations, and that you’ll consider supporting their work and championing accessibility in your own lives.
Sid Espinosa Director of Philanthropy and Civic Engagement