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Biden could hit refresh on Obama-era partnership between tech and government

Code for America’s CEO says the government needs new systems and more funding to improve the way people access services.

Biden could hit refresh on Obama-era partnership between tech and government
[Photo: Code for America/Flickr]
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As the Biden years begin, there are hopeful signs that the new administration is serious about using technology to streamline the work of the government. The U.S. Digital Service and 18F—tech-forward “startups” that formed within the government during the Obama years—may get renewed attention and funding. While those groups were successful within government agencies, much work needs to be done to better coordinate federal programs with states and counties, work that was largely ignored during the Trump years.

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Code for America CEO Amanda Renteria hopes the new administration will put in place the people and technology needed for that kind of coordination. Renteria, who was once the political director for Hillary Clinton, has a uniquely clear view on the subject. Code for America has used technology and the principles of user-centered design for a decade to help more than 100 state and local government agencies improve the way they deliver services. That work is done by a large volunteer network (25,000 people at any given time) and a more modest full-time staff of 110 researchers, designers, engineers, and government relations people.

I spoke to Renteria to understand how she thinks the Biden administration will approach using technology to improve government, and how the government’s in-house startups could supercharge that process.

(The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Fast Company: How effective were technology groups such as the USDS and 18F during the past four years? Were they considered a priority during the Trump administration?

Amanda Renteria: A lot has happened since those early days of U.S. Digital Service. Under Obama the USDS gets formed, 18F gets formed. But these teams were a little on the periphery to what was happening in the White House and what was happening within the agencies. And it wasn’t enough. During the Trump administration, most of it was largely left there, although it wasn’t gutted in the way that we saw some other agencies during his administration.

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The big “aha” [moment] though was that during [the Trump] years the external ecosystem really built up. There’s a lot more coordination among civic tech organizations [such as Code for America] than there used to be. We’re talking about not only our recommendations, but how we’re making sure that people are placed not just in the White House, but in agencies, and at the state level as well, and on the Hill. So that has really blown up in terms of civic tech engagement externally.

The second piece of that is states became a lot more active in terms of building digital teams themselves. I would argue that many states were realizing how important it is to have the federal government engaged and involved to figure out how to do [digital] infrastructure right, but there just wasn’t that partner in the last four years.

FC: How do you think the Biden administration will fare in terms of getting the right tech skill sets into the right places within the agencies during his first year?

AR: There were a lot of early conversations with transition teams. A lot of people on the teams themselves came from USDS, or were in those circles early on in the Obama administration. What you’re seeing come out of that is tech talent not only moving into the White House but also into USDS specifically. And [there’s been] a reemergence of 18F.

You now have tech people in the agencies, in the Department of Labor, and in Health and Human Services. Sometimes they’re called tech [groups], sometimes it’s called modernization, sometimes they’re called integration, sometimes they’re called delivery systems. We’re beginning to see personnel in all of those different places.

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Now, as we’re starting to see legislation, [the question is] how much of the legislation is taking it to the next level. This means funding infrastructure within the agencies and White House, funding coordination with the White House and across agencies, and then funding infrastructure to bridge state and federal processes, especially as it comes to distribution of benefits or tax [refunds].

FC: Should we expect to see more people from tech companies moving into organizations like USDS or 18F under Biden?

AR: There’s a really good vibe right now that I think people feel hopeful. I’m just seeing this in the tech talent and people raising their hands to say, “If they need my help, I’m ready to jump in.” It hasn’t felt like that in a long time.

The other piece is there’s been a real concerted effort by folks who are in USDS or 18F or were formerly there to speak out and say, “As you come in, listen first.” Because I think there is this reputation in general of sometimes people looking at government [and saying,] “Oh it’s so easy, you should just do XYZ.” I think people are approaching it differently today.

FC: I’ve heard people say that sometimes people from the tech sector enter the government with the idea that they’ll use a Silicon Valley approach to reinvent the way the government does things.

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AR: Sure, true, and that culture has changed. The style has changed, and I think it’s been on both sides. I think government has recognized the importance of delivery systems, processes, and technology not as a nice-to-have, but as a must-have. And I think tech has come a long way to understand that systems are hard and you don’t get to just blank-sheet it. There are different mechanisms within government that you’ve got to work through and understand.

Yes, it will be more efficient, but will it also be more efficient at perpetuating those inequities?”

Amanda Renteria

And then I’ll add this other piece to it, which is the Biden administration’s focus on equitable outcomes. There’s this realization happening now that if you just go from paper [systems] to online, the inequities will just be perpetuated through tech. Yes, it will be more efficient, but will it also be more efficient at perpetuating those inequities?

There must be an intentional effort to say we’re going to change our process and our way. And that opening allows for tech to be different, but it also allows for government to be different, and so there is that mutual coming together. That allows for an interesting, unique opening that I’d argue a lot of folks haven’t seen from both government and tech in a really long time.

FC: How does Code for America fit into all this?

AR: We’re working directly with state governments that are working directly with federal agencies. So we’re basically partnering with government to help them improve outcomes in low-income programs, and we leverage technology to do that. But many times we’re not just leveraging technology; we’re changing processes too. It’s not just about a perfect app; it’s about how the full system works. Sometimes that includes data matching. Sometimes it includes building a website. Sometimes it includes process change within a state government. Sometimes it includes pushing vendors, [saying] “You did that in California; you can also do that in Minnesota.”

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We’ve been in food stamps for a long time, so Get Cal Fresh is actually powered by us in the state of California. The second piece is our tax benefits work. We do help you get your [tax] refund, which is a mobile online app. The third bucket is automatic record clearance, where we are working with district attorneys across the country. If you need to have a marijuana conviction expunged from your record, we make that an automatic process.

[Image: courtesy Code for America]
In addition, we have volunteer brigades that work directly in their own communities. A good example of this is Code for Boston. When the government’s vaccination site wasn’t working or was confusing, Code for Boston actually teamed up with some of the other civic tech organizations in the area, and they built their own site.

FC: What do you think is the motivation for tech people to volunteer?

AR: The uniqueness of our volunteer brigades is they show up going, “I’m acting with intent to do something to change my environment, to better my community,” and I think that’s why it’s lasted for so long.

Obviously, all of this has become much bigger during COVID-19, because of the need to be distanced, and then I think there’s the other aspect, which is there’s not enough tech talent within government. What we feel like we’re doing is we’re fostering a kind of environment where people see themselves as potentially being able to be helpful in government.

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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