Leading the Field: Maria Benjamin

A conversation with the Deputy Director of the San Francisco Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development
Maria Benjamin stands on stage at the Code for America summit in 2018 wearing a red blazer

For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. In the month leading up to our 2021 Code for America Summit, we’re lifting up the voices of past and current Summit speakers who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we spoke with Maria Benjamin, the Deputy Director of the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, who spoke at the 2018 Code for America Summit.

At the 2018 Summit, you talked about how a new digital service for affordable housing changed your team’s approach to policy design. How have those learnings shown up in the work you’ve done since then?

It seems almost funny to say, but a lot has happened since the 2018 Summit. We could never have imagined how our adjustments to policy design would prepare us for the challenges of 2020. Back in 2018, we moved away from an affordable housing application that required loads of paperwork (and paper raffle tickets!) to one that was built on a user-friendly, streamlined digital system. Our team’s experience participating in agile software development for that project reminded us that all of our policies should be created that way.

Since then, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD) has taken our community engagement practices to a new level. Now, instead of creating a program and presenting it to our communities all wrapped up with a pretty bow, we are conducting engagement activities that provide us with feedback as we go, continuously improving our programs and services. In 2020, MOHCD was easily able to pivot our business practices in response to the coronavirus State of Emergency, adjusting, testing, and shifting to meet our community’s ever-changing needs. All while working from home! Because our work in 2018 made us more flexible and open to change, we were able to meet the challenges of the pandemic with ease and continue putting people in stable housing without skipping a beat. Lotteries, leases, and sales of San Francisco’s affordable housing continued, unaffected by the pandemic. We safely provided families in need with a roof over their head at a time they needed it most.

A big part of your work is ensuring that every policy and program is working for people, every step of the way. What steps do you take to make sure the people you serve are represented in your process?

Under the leadership of Mayor London Breed, and in partnership with city and community leaders, MOHCD is actively seeking to advance opportunities and improve programmatic outcomes for Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian people with low incomes. We are assessing programs, contracts, and procurements to ensure they advance the city’s racial equity goals. We work closely with our partner organizations to monitor the impact of our investments. We provide capacity building, clear information to partnering organizations, and create channels to give and receive feedback to ensure that all parties are aligned in the expectation to create an inclusive and equitable city where all residents have the opportunity to thrive. Some of our specific strategies include virtual partner drop-in hours, virtual office hours for public input, and regularly scheduled feedback sessions. MOHCD’s City Digital Services partners conduct periodic user testing of DAHLIA, San Francisco’s affordable housing portal, to ensure that our gateway to affordable housing continues to meet the needs of our target audiences. And when it doesn’t, we work to change it.

Do you have a favorite piece of advice to offer those just starting out in the field of government innovation?

Patience. Government agencies, by our very nature, are the stewards of taxpayer funds. We tend to move very slowly when it comes to spending tax dollars on innovation. It’s like, “Why should we buy a new toaster? This one still works!”—even if it periodically burns our bread or takes forever to heat the frozen waffle. Understanding of the government budget process and utilizing patience as you make decisions will help you persevere.

What does it mean to bring your full self to work in this field?

I believe it takes a healthy mix of compassion and adherence to compliance. Mostly compassion.

What does “designing equitable government” mean to you?

Equitable governments listen to their people. In designing an equitable government, we have to take what we hear, acknowledge mistakes and systemic failures of the past, and address them by creating corrective policy changes in response to our people’s needs.

Want to hear from more speakers like Maria Benjamin? Tickets for the 2021 Code for America Summit are on sale through May 13. The theme of this year’s summit is “designing equitable government.” Register for Summit and workshops today.

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