What Civic Tech Means in 2021: An Interview with Code for America CEO Amanda Renteria
Civic tech is evolving, and with that change, so is Code for America.
For the last decade, the non-profit has been a prover and promoter of civic tech, the idea government can be as agile and effective as any Silicon Valley startup.
Jennifer Pahlka founded Code for America in 2009, and since then, the San Francisco headquartered organization has developed a diverse swath of digital solutions for dozens of cities, counties, and states across the U.S. More importantly, the group has shown that these civic tech solutions can solve real problems.
Its GetCalFresh enrollment application has helped more than five million low-income Californians receive food stamps. The group’s GetYourRefund.org website has aided more than 500,000 taxpayers with filings in 2020 and distributed over $62 million to families. Whether the issue is health, criminal justice, housing, or even street maintenance, in one form or another Code for America has shown technology and delivery-driven policy can make an impact.
Yet now, the nonprofit is entering the next chapter of civic tech, a phase that demands more of it than ever before. Both Code for America and local governments have realized that modern technology and innovative ideas—though key ingredients—are not enough for lasting change.
It could be said that this applies to many of civic tech’s early rallying cries, this includes the call for open data, the practice of publishing data that’s accessible and free for public use; as well as open-source code, software code that accessible and free for public use. These were thought to be policies that would catalyze digital innovation in an exponential way, and while they still carry this potential, real results often require real investments of time and resources.
In an interview with GovReport, Code for America CEO Amanda Renteria said that today, civic tech requires follow-through: digital solutions that are supported, updated, refreshed, and fed with new content and features—things which don’t happen by default. In addition to this, she said policies often need to work in tandem with digital innovation to clear obstacles.
The idea of follow-through has been a tenet in Code for America’s operational model for the last few years. It has developed a number of fully-supported, in-house solutions for its government partners that include many California jurisdictions. This includes a suite of digital apps and tools within its “Safety Net” solutions. The move offers significant contrast to Code for America’s early days when the organization would send in technologists for year-long government engagements to engineer apps and modernize services.
Renteria, who answered the call to lead Code for America in the middle of the pandemic, said her hope is to build on the group’s 11 years of experience to develop real change and enhance service and citizen outcomes.
In an interview held shortly after the Code for America’s annual Summit, where the group highlights recent work and plans for the future, Renteria outlined her thoughts on what’s next for the civic tech group and potentially civic tech itself.
Q1. How did the Code for America Summit set the stage for its current work and next projects?
As we step back and think about the planning of the convening and the conversations throughout, there was a renewed hope for change, for creating a different kind of government together. Technologists, public servants, administrators, and academics were talking about how we can design a new way of structuring systems, measuring government outcomes, and tech partnering more closely at all levels of government. We talked about the how-tos, and asked what things we need to watch out for in the future as we think about this work.
You could also feel the energy! The [civic technology] ecosystem is rising to meet the moment we’re in. We heard a number of tangible examples where govtech projects have made a difference in serving people with dignity and respect, as well as new ideas and concepts on how to have an equitable lens as we move forward.
Now, post Summit, it’s about asking ourselves how we take everything we’ve talked about at the Summit and embed that ingenuity within government systems—at all levels of government. For me, that aspect of recognizing and naming that we have to design an equitable government together sets the stage for all of our work as we move forward through and post-pandemic.
Q2. Early in the Trump Administration, there was a moment of indecision when civic technologists working in federal digital service groups like 18F and the U.S. Digital Service wondered whether they would stay on under conservative leadership—politics that embraced a different interpretation of social equity compared to the Obama administration. Some civic technologists left, while others stayed on to preserve the digital tools and transformation initiatives set in motion. What does this return to Obama-era policies under the Biden Administration mean for Code for America in its efforts to increase social assistance and support equity?
I think, or I hope, we’ve all learned that making government work should be a bipartisan endeavor. During this pandemic, we heard a lot of people saying, “We just need our government to work.” I am thankful for anyone who kept systems together so that communities could get the resources they needed. This pandemic was hard on every state and every community and there was a clear consistent desire – everyone just wanted to make sure people were able to access food and basic needs.
I am also very hopeful for what is possible in this Administration. More than any other [Administration] in our history, this one has begun its’ term with a clear understanding of our work – both the importance and need for digital delivery and equitable outcomes of government programs. For the first time in my life, we have real efforts to invest in outcomes for all communities and call out tech [modernization] as a way to do that. The ARP provides both the resources and the direction for real change.
Second, we say this a lot at Code for America, we are what we measure. The President declaring a 50% reduction in child poverty sets a clear directive for all of us. Tech can help governments identify and fix barriers that have hindered program outcomes since their inception. It is now imperative for the civic tech sector to do our part to help governments redesign, recreate, or rebuild systems to drive outcomes that lift kids out of poverty. If we do this right, we have a shot at significantly reducing and even ending child poverty.
One last point because it is the new “roads and bridges” for access to opportunity. We must ensure broadband access to all people in the country. As we move to a fully digital age in government, we cannot leave anyone behind and that means everyone has to be able to connect in.
Q3. You stepped into your role as CEO when everything was remote and the pandemic was fully underway. How did you help Code for America’s Brigades and its Community Fellowship program maintain its participation and volunteer support?
First, I think it’s fair to say that Code for America has been preparing for this moment since it began, preparing for people to recognize the need for digital delivery in a human-centered way. This past year we had the chance to put it all together – partnering with many governments and organizations across the country. We all looked in the mirror and said, “What more can we do?” We were eager and ready to help in any way we could.
What I love about this organization is that it has a ton of heart. It just does. And my role is to simply foster it in a way that gives people the ability to do what was/is needed, especially during a crisis. And so, I didn’t do anything new or different. I just tried to bring out what already existed – whether you’re talking about our volunteer brigade networks jumping in to help or programs reaching more people who needed them. Essentially, asking how I could help [the team and networks] do what they do best – while making sure we were taking care of each other in these unusual times.
This inaugural year also had a lot of dimensions for me. Clearly, I recognize that there aren’t a lot of women and women of color in leadership positions in tech. And, there were a number of moments throughout the last year that were extremely heavy for us as a team, and me personally as a person of color. Throughout it all, I tried my best to role model what it means to bring your full self to the work, and I am grateful for the kind of empathy and grace our community has for one another. I know those things are hard to see from the outside, but there’s something special about this place. We do weekly celebrations for all the wins, big and small, while also sitting quietly (even on zoom) just to be together, see each other, in those tougher moments too.
Q6. How do you see Code for America’s new solutions growing and contributing to Code for America’s longevity and success?
When Jen first envisioned Code for America, she was trying to get tech talent into government – a handful of fellows at a time. Now, we can do more, have higher expectations for change.
In the beginning, the government viewed tech as “making sure the computers worked”. But now, IT is embedded in every piece and aspect of government from policy and program design to delivering direct services to creating equitable metrics. There’s a huge opportunity for tech to improve and change government systems to work for real people and particularly, in low-income, marginalized communities. We are just barely scratching the surface when you think about 13 million people living in poverty who are not receiving their benefits right now, or that our systems leave out entire communities because they require a desktop computer or going into a physical office. Our government is capable of doing so much more, and there are millions of public servants leaning into this moment of change.
While government is evolving, so has the civic tech industry. In the early years, civic tech folks thought that a couple of years of helping to design, develop and deploy a handful of solutions would be enough to make significant, lasting impacts in government. It certainly has helped, but we now know that we have to invest for the long haul to achieve a digital transformation that can be sustained. If we hope to change government systems for a generation, you can’t do that in just two years or simply change landing pages. We need to be at the table throughout the entire process for goal setting, policy design, process changes, and measuring outcomes. To achieve a human-centered government requires being there, partnering every step of the way. And, to do that fully, we need a matured and growing ecosystem. This is the exciting evolution in civic tech and at Code for America. There is a collective power in the broader civic tech ecosystem to make systems change together. That collective power with a longer term mindset wasn’t ready 10 years ago. But, it is today.
Q7. At the summit, measurement, and especially performance measurement, was a big focus. Looking at Code for America, at the end of the day, what metrics does Code for America look at to tell whether or not it’s successful?
Success is less a number, though we did help more than 6 million people last year! It really is a mindset shift. The goal is for folks to understand—at the highest levels—what human-centered design is, what it means to center our systems on people, not just in words, but in the way our systems actually work. Code for America realizes this vision by creating tangible experiences in human-centered design that have real impact on people’s lives.
We’ve shown what is possible in cities and in a number of states as well. But now we are taking that to scale. We’re asking ourselves, how are we truly transforming the safety net? How are we truly transforming the tax-benefit system? How are we improving our criminal legal system? That type of systems change is the calling of our time. I think about this more and more, especially when I see our next generation expect more from technology and the services they use. If we can create this new mindset shift, that will be transformative in shaping how the world is growing up today and ensuring it truly serves all communities.
Q8: Looking to the horizon, where do you hope Code for America is in the next year or two?
I hope we are viewed as a force for good and for change.
Our country is, really has been, at a major tipping point. We are finally recognizing communities that have been left out, and what I hope, is that when we look back, we can say that this was the year, this was the time, when we set systems in place in a new direction that helped people out of poverty and advanced equity at the same time. Both are possible!
I believe we can create a government that feels and looks different. A year or two from now, I want people to be proud of the government created out of the pandemic’s challenges. I hope Code for America is seen as a part of that upgrade. I know it can seem idealistic, right now. But, for us, it’s all about creating a government that “can work for the people, by the people, in the digital age” – that is our true calling, and there’s no more important time to answer that call.