Leading the Field: Shalaka Gole

A conversation with a Senior Product Manager at Code for America

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. For Women’s History Month, we’re lifting up the voices of women who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect.  This week, we spoke with Shalaka Gole (she/her), a Senior Product Manager at Code for America. At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the author.

Tell us a little bit about a specific challenge you’re looking at in your work right now. What makes it an animating problem to focus on?

I’ve been working on Medicaid renewal processes with the state of Minnesota. Medicaid renewal is a really big challenge on the horizon across the country right now because it’s the first time in three years anyone will have to renew their coverage. For the past three years, the Public Health Emergency for COVID-19 has changed how safety net benefits were delivered—SNAP interviews became remote, for example, and states were required to keep everyone that had Medicaid within the program. But in December, Congress acted to end this provision for Medicaid—no matter what happens with the COVID emergency, Medicaid renewals are restarting.

Starting this summer, states will have one year to renew their full caseload. Across the US, there’s a lot of worry that this will mean a lot of people will lose Medicaid who are still eligible, because of procedural reasons—e.g. their paperwork gets lost, or doesn’t get completed in time. And we know that applying for and renewing public programs is hard for many reasons. In Minnesota, for example, current renewal communication relies primarily on snail mail—people get a big packet in the mail with 10-20 pages they have to fill out and send back to the county. Then, once a caseworker has reviewed and manually input that information in the system, they might have to follow up for more verifications. All that back and forth primarily happens via snail mail. Our research has shown that a single request for additional information can add between 10 and 22 days to the process, within a 30-45 day window participants and caseworkers have for renewal—which could mean the difference between losing and keeping your coverage. We know this is burdensome and doesn’t fit the reality of people’s lives. Minnesota is working on a few ways to make this better.

The specific solution we’re focusing on with them is an ex parte renewal—where states evaluate if someone is still eligible for a benefit, using data already available to the government, before they send them any renewal paperwork. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services already requires states to do this for all cases. But even though there’s a mandate, many states don’t attempt ex parte renewals because their systems are old and don’t have this capability. We’re working with Minnesota to implement a brand new ex parte process that works within their existing legacy system, to help increase the number of people whose benefits are renewed automatically. This intervention is focused on particular Medicaid programs in a legacy system that serve people who are elderly, live with a disability and/or are blind. 

How does your work in government cultivate systemic transformation? 

We’ve really been able to see what’s possible because of this long-standing partnership with Minnesota. In the past two years, they’ve spun up a three-team product office that strives to work in an agile and human-centered way since our first collaboration on MNbenefits. They saw the impact of that approach through our shared collaboration and decided to replicate it.

Another way to make a transformation stick is to be thoughtful of real constraints and work within them. For our work on Medicaid renewals, we knew we weren’t going to be able to replace their whole legacy system—there’s a reason it has stuck around for more than two decades. So instead, we’re taking an existing system and improving processes within it, working directly with the people who know best: caseworkers. 

An early test-run of our new process told us that an ex parte renewal attempt could take as little as 10 minutes per case, even with some manual intervention by a worker. This is good for both sides: caseworkers get an easier process for some subset of cases, and some participants get renewed without any paperwork or snail mail.

We’ve really been able to see what’s possible because of this long-standing partnership with Minnesota...They saw the impact of that approach through our shared collaboration and decided to replicate it.

So much of your work involves centering the experiences of those most affected by changes to government programs. What helps you bring voices like that to the table?

In addition to working directly and regularly with caseworkers, we try to learn as much as we can from lived experts (a term I learned from Equitable Spaces, who team presented at Summit last year).

Last year when we started researching benefits renewal, we found ourselves in a dilemma. It had been over two years since anyone had to renew Medicaid, and we wanted to ask what it was like, but it’s hard to remember something that far back—so we started by working with healthcare navigators instead. Navigators are trained experts at local, trusted community organizations that work directly with people to help them apply for or renew benefits, and therefore are experts of the challenges of renewing. They also are often part of the communities they are supporting, and advocate for solutions to challenges that disproportionately affect historically excluded communities, like English-only notices.

In our decision making process, we also strove to be as participatory as possible—the ultimate priorities were decided by a cross-cutting group of navigators, county workers, state policy and operations leadership, community health partners, and our team through a series of workshops. Our design team also worked with members of Minnesota’s Medicaid Participant Expert Panel for direct collaboration and co-design on a notice last year. I think we have room to grow in this practice as well, both on our team, and at the organization, to have this be an even more embedded part of our processes.

What values are most important to you when you show up to work? 

Curiosity feels important—and being very open to all answers, even difficult answers. 

On the ex parte renewals project, our team members are not the experts on the nuances of Medicaid policy or Minnesota’s systems. Our real contribution is to provide a fresh set of eyes, and additional hands: we can ask what is possible, and propose ideas that we can help bring to life, especially ones that they didn’t have time or ability to do on their own.

I always describe the job of the product manager as the facilitator of all, and the expert of nothing. We sit in the middle of a circle of experts and we try to ask the right questions, and help teams make sense of the answers. This is ever more important for people like me that don’t have a background prior in civic work prior to Code for America: I came into this work with a lot of naivete and distrust of government processes, and have learned how many government workers really want to make processes better, but are met with constraints that other industries just don’t deal with. So I see our job as trying to amplify and add capacity.

You probably have something to bring to the table even if you don't think you do: maybe you’re not the expert, but you can ask really good questions. 

Do you have any advice for other women interested in entering the civic and government tech space? 

I want to start by saying that I don’t think there’s any one person’s story that is representative of how to do a thing. It’s a mix of luck, chance, and privilege. The reason I got this job is because five years ago I reached out to our then Design Director, Jazmyn Latimer, and asked for an informational interview. I was just starting out in qualitative research and I wanted to hear about her process. A couple years later, I had become a product manager, and she posted on Twitter that Code for America was hiring, so I applied.

I think the moral of that story is: don’t hesitate to reach out to people who are doing really awesome work. As a woman, and as a woman of color, it can be intimidating to do that—but often people will give you 30 minutes if you ask them for it. You never know what it might lead to. You probably have something to bring to the table even if you don’t think you do: maybe you’re not the expert, but you can ask really good questions. 

You’re speaking at Summit this year. Who do you think would enjoy your breakout session?

We’re calling our session “Disappear administrative burdens for healthcare renewals with this one weird trick” and digging into the details of our ex parte work.  I’m really excited that one of our panelists is a county manager—she was essential to developing this process, and is going to talk about what it’s like to take staff through process change. I’d love to see agencies in the audience who are interested in doing similar things. Together we can talk about what it takes to make change like this happen in the real world.

Want to hear more about Shalaka’s work? She’s presenting a breakout session at Code for America Summit, happening May 16–17 in Washington, D.C. Find out more about Summit and get your tickets today.

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