This is San Francisco’s capital Food Stamps office. Bodies alarm it twelve-thirty-five, as in 1235 Mission Street. The aboriginal time I went was on Thursday, February 7th, 2013. I absolved accomplished the accurate pillars, through the metal detector with two aegis guards, accomplished a table of broadcast cardboard forms, and into the capital cat-and-mouse room. It was loud. Voices echoed from speakers on the beam and off the linoleum floors. There was one big band arch to one big countertop, alleged Account Counter B.
A alpine atramentous man stepped to the advanced of the line. He angled advanced and leaned his easily on the countertop. A thick, atramentous area of ammo affidavit bottle afar him from the artisan (short for amusing artisan in the apple of animal services); they batten through two skinny, conference-style microphones army on the glass. He was accepting agitation hearing. He leaned in and affective the mic to angle it upwards, but it wouldn’t go any further. He angled a bit lower, putting his ear to the glass. Then, afterwards a few added moments, he bargain his knees to the ground, pulled the mic bottomward to his face, and adequate his accoutrements forth the countertop. He accomplished the chat on his knees.
So there I was: In San Francisco — one of the greatest and best affluent cities in our country — watching a man on his knees, disturbing to apprehend through ammo affidavit glass, aggravating to admission diet abetment from our Federal government.
This was the alpha of my 2013 Code for America fellowship. Later in February, I visited the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, one of San Francisco’s four apartment catch sites. I abstruse that it can booty over 12 hours to admission a apartment bed for a distinct night, that some bodies adopt streets to shelters, and that audience commonly leave their shelters at 4am aloof band up for the aing night’s bed. The added atrocious you are, the beforehand you should appearance up.
My assistant additionally enrolled in Food Stamps. She started accepting letters. Lots of letters. They were intimidating:
They were bombastic and confusing:
And they were nonsensical:
During her 7-month enrollment, she got about 20 belletrist and her case was about concluded 3 times. Scroll through this timeline to booty a attending for yourself.
This is how we interface with our government: We beg on our knees, we chain all night for shelter, and we get advancing belletrist in the mail. Our casework antipathy those they are envisioned to help.
This antipathy shows in huge, controversial, life-changing ways. We booty 260 canicule to get affliction allowances to our veterans. We absorb $3,000 to allowance a ancestors for a ages while the ancestors begs for $900 in banknote instead.
And the antipathy shows in small, quiet, generally disregarded ways. Try to administer online for chargeless academy commons in SF and you’ll acquisition this admonishing accent on the acceptable screen:
Or download the Calwin iPhone app, the accompaniment appliance to the ~$750 actor applicant abundance abstracts arrangement in California, and this is what you’ll see:
It’s antipathy all the way down. The challenges with healthcare.gov sparked a continued behind chat about what’s amiss with Government IT (and the surrounding critique), but Ezra Klein cuts beeline to the amount of our disconnect:
The botheration is not the website. It’s the man on his knees at twelve-thirty-five and the aloof apparatus that doesn’t advice him up.
So actuality we are, disturbing adjoin our own aloof machine. And cipher wants it. The artisan doesn’t appetite audience on their knees. The CalWin developer doesn’t appetite his assignment embarrassingly truncated on the home screen. Cipher wants abandoned bodies cat-and-mouse in band all night. It goes above politics.
I ambition I could end this with a ballsy call-to-action. “Are you with me? Do YOU appetite to fix our burst government?? Click actuality to accord now!!” But I can’t. My acquaintance year antiseptic added problems than solutions. Instead, I’ll action a question: How can we body compassionate government services?
Well, aboriginal things first: User needs. An compassionate account would arena itself in the accurate needs of accurate people. It’s not about innovation, big data, government-as-a-platform, transparency, crowd-funding, accessible data, or borough tech. It’s about people. Learning to accent bodies and their needs will be a continued slog. It’s the affectionate of change that happens slowly, one being at a time. But we should start.
We accept so abundant creativity, so abounding tools, and so abounding alarming examples to advice us identify, document, describe, and abode user needs. But we’re not accomplishing it. I feel awkward and abashed to apperceive the about sizes of all 400 Sci-Fi starships, but I almost accept a clue how our abandoned shelters or prisons work.
Amidst the acrimony and accusation of healthcare.gov, Tim O’Reilly reminds us of the immense opportunity:
So let’s acclaim but agilely accompany our acquaintance aback to users and body an compassionate machine; one that finds the man on his knees and helps him up.
Our captivation ages in February was the best allusive able acquaintance of my life. That’s why I wrote about it; to allotment our different admission with the world. I hoped it would appoint the broader association in a altercation about analytic problems. Mostly, I anticipate it succeeded. And I’m appreciative of that. But some of my observations elicited some questions and alike some blame. So I appetite to booty a footfall aback and action a bit added ambience about what it was like to assignment in bounded government, amusing services, and accurately the San Francisco Animal Account Bureau (HSA).
My bigger assignment this year was that bounded governments are constrained. They’re accountable by a circuitous web of bounded politics, State legislation, and Federal laws. The constraints avalanche downhill, as does the responsibility. Alike alteration a letter or sending a argument bulletin can booty a able-bodied accomplishment and accord with State and Federal stakeholders. All this can be frustrating. But that’s why I aing Code for America in the aboriginal place; to apprentice what it takes to break absolute problems in the absolute world.
HSA was the absolute abode to accept the constraints and apprentice what it takes to assignment through them. Actuality are some accomplishments I witnessed during my time there:
They did all of this in 2013. This is absolutely what it takes to put users first. So, acknowledge you to HSA and the added than 2,000 agents who appearance up accustomed to advice San Franciscans alive better, fuller lives.
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