Bottom Up and Outside In

Illustration of a heart above a hill with text that reads
Hugh MacLeod

My friend Lenny Mendonca wrote eloquently yesterday about the renewed focus on bottom up innovation post-election. He spoke about the writers who have been telling the stories of the pockets of America that are innovating from the ground up, and the response he and others were getting from the establishment. He writes:

As Dr. Tyson and I shared our thinking, we got a common response. Polite interest, combined with dismissal. That’s nice of you to tell isolated stories about what works across the country; after Clinton wins the election we may use some of that after we implement a series of new top-down policies from Washington, D.C. Well guess what: our approach is now Plan A since no one had a Plan B. It’s time to stop navel-gazing and start acting.

Lenny and I share a common view of this. The Code for America approach has been bottom up since day one, and it is most certainly time to start acting, or rather act a lot faster and more boldly than we have been. I’d add that in addition to the stories of what is working, the disjuncture between the lived experiences of average Americans who are struggling and the “be patient” message from the top contributed to the outcome of the election. There was a theme among voters in this cycle that particularly rejected that message of patience:

“We need to blow it all up.”

The teams at Code for America who work with food assistance, unnecessary incarceration, and job training see what people who need help in our country go through. Try applying for food stamps or job retraining through the government. You will also want to blow it up. Technically, yes, it’s possible to receive a variety of benefits, for example, like food benefits or veterans benefits. In practice, however, it’s incredibly difficult to do so and the process of trying can be insulting, alienating, maddening. In that context, the policy language of entitlements and block grants and the campaign language of “preserving, protecting, and strengthening these lifelines” of government programs landed on the electorate in this cycle like a dead cat. Yes, there are people who weave a narrative that leaves no room for the many positive examples of government functioning as it should. But they can do that because too often the product is simply a bad product.

Build a better product

So we’ve been asking the public to believe in the promise of a system that could work better in spite of their own lived experience. It’s time to actually offer a better product, instead of continually trying to tune the message or find a different person to deliver it.

The better product is not just better government services. Bringing dignity and respect to the delivery of government services alone will not prevent more swings to the extreme. It will be insufficient, but it is necessary.

We need a coalition that builds a better product, from policy to service delivery. Here’s how Dan Hon put it:

Advertising, focus groups and quantitative polling don’t work anymore.

1) Understand your users’ needs

2) Show — don’t tell — that you understand those needs

3) Meet your users’ needs

Government is all about understanding user needs and delivering on them.

Show — don’t tell — that you understand those needs. Meet those needs. We need to show every American competent government services they can actually use, services that treat them with dignity, and actual economic opportunity. But how would we even do that?

Bottom up and outside in

As Lenny and others know, the way to build a better product is from the bottom up — and, in our case, from the outside in. In the context of Code for America, I mean this very concretely. We’ve spent the past six years experimenting with different strategies to improve government services, so that the “product” doesn’t just check a box, but meets real needs, and creates an experience the public feels good about . It needs to create an experience you don’t want to blow up.

What do we mean by bottom up and the outside in? Basically, we acquire users by making dramatically better online applications to government programs. Then we follow our users via text message and access to government systems, and document the administrative barriers they face in applying for and using these programs. We work closely with and are trusted by our government partners, who use our data and support to fix their operations to get better outcomes for users and lower the costs of administration. So our process starts from the outside (our better online application initially sits outside the administration of the government program), but the insights we gather into barriers users face directly affect the operations government programs on the inside. Starting on the outside gives us the ability to build just for user needs. Moving inside means that we don’t just remove barriers for users we acquire, but eventually for everyone who tries to access this program. We piloted the strategy on SNAP (food assistance) and are now taking this approach to scale there, while starting to apply it to other government services.

This isn’t blowing the system up. It’s a fundamentally progressive approach. It’s going to take years, even decades. But we can and must move faster than we have been and serve more people and the governments who serve them. And it will stick. Consider a couple of advantages of this approach:

  • The bottom up strategy doesn’t require permission from Washington. Leadership in states and cities have a fair amount of room to do what they choose now, and could have even more room if Republicans in Washington advance a doctrine of states’ right.
  • A bottom up strategy isn’t just about working at the local level. It’s also about working at the operational level up and the user level up. GetCalFresh is now headed towards state-wide adoption in California, but it started by getting users with tear-off flyers on Mission Street in San Francisco (right outside our office) and with eligibility workers and food bank enrollment assisters.
  • Building government that works has always enjoyed bi-partisan support, and stakes a claim on trans-partisanship. Throughout Code for America’s history, we’ve been visited and lauded by as many Republicans as Democrats. Services that treat Americans with respect and dignity, and cost less? What’s not to love here?

Those who will need the help most

In early 2016, we decided to focus our work at Code for America improving government programs that provide food assistance and job training and streamlining criminal justice services to reduce unnecessary incarceration. The goal is to show government working concretely, measurably better for the people who are most vulnerable to falling into persistent poverty and incarceration. We communicate with thousands of food-insecure people today via text message; we envision “cross-enrolling,” being able to enroll one of our clients on probation in food assistance or one of our food assistance clients in job training with a simple text requesting permission, leapfrogging the many “one stop” models that aggregate paperwork across programs and reducing the costs of administration of these programs at the same time.

Today we communicate with thousands of vulnerable people via text message; soon we should be texting with millions in red, blue and purple states. That brings me back to Lenny’s writers who have been telling the stories of the pockets of America that are innovating from the ground up. We need to be understanding the lived experience of more Americans at scale. We need to change our institutions to meet the needs of those people, not the other way around. And as Lenny said, this is now Plan A. And we need a coalition of the bottom up outside in to build the country we need.

Join us.