Summit speaker preview: Jennifer Wagner, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Code for America Summit is right around the corner (May 30-June 1 at the Oakland Marriott), and we’re highlighting some of the speakers who will be taking the stage and leading breakout sessions to discuss the most prominent issues facing the civic tech community today.

Jennifer Wagner is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and previously served as an Associate Director with the Illinois Department of Human Services. On Thursday, May 31, she and Sonal Ambegaokar of Social Interest Solutions will review key highlights from a newly released guide for health and human services agencies in their breakout session “Practical Do’s and Don’ts When Implementing Consumer-Facing Technology Solutions in the Health & Human Services Sector.”

What is your background, and how did you get involved with Code for America’s Integrated Benefits Initiative?

I started my career as a food stamp caseworker and really appreciated the impact programs like SNAP could have on struggling families, but also saw how the complicated and disjointed administration made it harder than it had to be. After law school, I worked for an advocacy organization in Illinois representing clients who encountered difficulties accessing public benefits and using their experiences to push for improvements in the state’s policies and administration. I then spent five years as an Associate Director with the Illinois Department of Human Services, overseeing policies and operations. I learned a great deal about the challenges and opportunities of being inside government, and got to participate in really exciting projects, like the state’s new eligibility system and Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. I now work for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) on efforts to improve access to and alignment between programs like SNAP and Medicaid.

When CfA reached out to us about partnering on the Integrated Benefits Initiative, it was clearly an incredible opportunity to look at the role of technology in public benefits and bring a new perspective to it, and I was so excited I would get to be a part of it and work with CfA! Technology is such an integral part of public benefits now, and presents major challenges but also so many opportunities. CBPP has been able to bring a bit of the policy and operational perspective to the table, and has learned so much about technology and different approaches to implementing changes. There needs to be more collaboration between the advocate and the tech worlds, and the Integrated Benefits Initiative is a great start to that!

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve seen in the health and human services space as part of this initiative or otherwise in your career?

There are many challenges, but I think one of the biggest is that most leaders in government don’t have enough time and space to be forward-thinking and innovative. There are so many great leaders working every day to get critical benefits to people in their communities, but they are jumping from crisis to crisis and don’t have the resources to tackle the major problems driving some of the crises, like inadequate technology. Efforts like the Integrated Benefits Initiative are so exciting because they bring additional resources and support, and fresh thinking, to help leaders do what they have always wanted to but couldn’t.

What brings you to Code for America Summit? What are you most looking forward to?

I’m coming to the Code for America Summit to present on how state health and human service agencies are using technology in innovative ways to improve customer service. Through things like mobile apps, text messaging, and telephonic signatures, clients have new avenues to communicate with state agencies and submit applications, renewals, changes, and verification documents. This lessens the burden on clients who are trying to maintain benefits while also dealing with many other stressors in their lives, and also helps state agencies quickly and accurately process cases. We’ll be presenting with local agency officials who have found the time and space to be innovative, and will hear about the approach they took and lessons learned from their experience.

In addition to the breakout session, I am looking forward to hearing from leaders who are overcoming barriers to get things done. Government can be a series of bureaucratic obstacles that you have to get through to succeed — for both clients and government employees. We hear a lot about those obstacles tripping people up, but the Summit will remind us that people are navigating through—and removing — those obstacles every day to do great things.

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